Celia Harris

Celia Harris
Project Director

Celia Harris joined Human Impact Partners in 2008 after receiving a Master’s degree with a concentration in environmental health sciences from University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. Since then, she has participated in several HIAs as well as trained and mentored others on how to conduct HIAs. Possessing a strong commitment to public health and social justice, over the past several years Celia has worked with Bay Area environmental health and justice organizations, as a fitness and nutrition mentor for at-risk youth, and as a contributor to KQED Radio health reporting and programming. She worked for six years as a scientist for environmental consulting firms, where she conducted environmental investigations and monitoring. Celia received her bachelor’s degree in geology from Macalester College.

Is Discrimination Going Unexamined at the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency has an Office of Civil Rights, designed to ensure that agencies receiving EPA funding not discriminate against certain groups of people.

When I recently heard this, I was glad to think that the EPA was carefully protecting communities from discrimination. But then I learned this office has done a really bad job carrying out its mission.

The Center for Public Integrity recently released a series of stories describing EPA’s failure to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is “a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in all programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.” Their findings are unsettling. Among the 253 civil rights complaints filed since 1996 that The Center for Public Integrity was able to obtain:

  • 162 cases were rejected by the EPA without investigation;
  • 52 were dismissed upon investigation;
  • 14 were referred to other agencies including the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Transportation;
  • 12 were resolved with voluntary or informal agreements; and
  • 13 were accepted for investigations that remain open today (and the oldest begun in 1996!)

In its 22-year history of receiving environmental discrimination complaints (which is the reason the office is in place), the office has never once made even one formal finding of a Title VI violation. Nine out of every 10 times communities have turned to EPA’s Office of Civil Rights for help under Title VI, the office has either rejected or dismissed their complaints. For that other 10% that were investigated, the office dismissed cases more often than it proposed mitigation measures.

Of the 31 complaints filed in California since 1996, only 11 were accepted for investigation, and three of these investigations are still ongoing. Two of these still-pending cases are right here in the Bay Area. In Pittsburg, CA, an April 2000 complaint claimed that local regulatory agencies discriminated against residents by locating two power plants in already environmentally burdened areas where residents have high rates of asthma and cancer.

In West Oakland in 1997, a community organization filed a complaint against the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for approving an inadequate cleanup plan for soil and groundwater contamination discovered during the siting and construction of the new I-880 Freeway route through West Oakland, and for not enforcing the plan. This segment of freeway, a replacement of the former freeway destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, was completed later in 1997. Community representatives claimed that due to a long history of government agencies ignoring them, they had already faced extensive contamination and toxic exposures due to a high density of industry in their community.

The Center for Public Integrity’s full series investigating this issue is located at https://www.publicintegrity.org/environment/environmental-justice-denied. On that website there’s a tool where you can look up complaints filed in each state and their outcomes. You can also view the actual complaint submission documents and other correspondence between the complainant and the EPA Office of Civil Rights.

These complaints are cries for help from communities of color that are concerned about an overburden of environmental health hazards. It’s great that a structure is set up at the federal level to protect these communities; however, the fact that this EPA office is not resolving the issues or even appearing to try, is not so great. I’m not saying that each and every complaint is justified – I’m not familiar with all of them. But I do know that environmental injustices are common in disadvantaged communities and pose a threat to public health. These communities deserve to count on having a team of government experts on their side when corporate interests and the status quo are not.

Perhaps spurred by the Center for Public Integrity investigation, on September 10 the EPA Office of Civil Rights released a Draft External Compliance and Complaints Program Strategic Plan for public comment, claiming its purpose is to strengthen their civil rights compliance program.

HIP Interns: Where Are They Now?

As we launched our search for a summer 2015 intern, we did a little reflecting on the wonderful interns we have had over the last seven years, and the important contributions they have made to our organization. We wondered: Where are they now? How have they applied what they learned at HIP in their careers?

We caught up with a few former interns, and discovered some highlights of their professional paths — and a few fun facts too!

HIP interns are currently still employed in public health and urban planning careers.

Lisa Chen (2009): Urban Planner, San Francisco Planning Department (develops and implements policies focused on transportation, infrastructure finance, parks and open space, streetscape design, affordable housing, and food systems)

Allie Hu (2012): Health Program Planner, San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) (works on changing policies to prevent chronic diseases in San Francisco communities that have historically experienced health inequities)

Trent Johnson (2011): Project Manager, Stanford Prevention Research Center (studies the tobacco retailer environment and how it affects tobacco use behavior, and informs policies that will reduce youth tobacco use)

Terry Minjares (2008): Planner, La Clinica de la Raza (conducts grants and contracts management)

Kimmy Puccetti (2012): Recent MPH/MCP graduate

Sara Satinsky (2009): Research Associate, Human Impact Partners (conducts HIAs, healthy public policy projects, and capacity-building in these skills)

Brooke Staton (2013-14): Student, UC Berkeley (working toward Masters in Urban Planning and Masters in Public Health degrees)

Tina Yuen (2009): Recently left her position as Senior Program Analyst at National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), and is now an independent consultant in California working on environmental health and community health-related topics

HIP interns value equity in their work.

Lisa: In order to convey the need to routinely consider health equity as a part of all decision-making processes in a city planning department, she has discovered that it helps to find opportunities where health equity overlaps with co-benefits that others prioritize, such as sustainability and economic development.

Allie: Since she works in the Community Health and Equity Promotion Branch of the Community Transportation Initiative, the entire scope of her work at SFDPH addresses racial/ethnic, gender, and age-based health inequities in the city of San Francisco. In addition to stratifying all data by these characteristics, her research also engages community members from neighborhoods experiencing health disparities.

Trent: His research looks at racial, ethnic, and income disparities in tobacco marketing, pricing, and distribution.

Terry: He supports managers in managing grants and contracts whose programs address health and equity.

Kimmy: In her future career she hopes to contribute an equity lens by partnering with both providers and social agencies in data coordination efforts.

Sara: As a HIP staffer, she continues to prioritize equity throughout her work. In addition, shortly after her internship she brought a health and equity lens to her work at University of North Carolina by researching how pedestrian and bicycle master planning relates to health.

Brooke: As a master’s student at UC Berkeley, she actively chooses classes that focus on equity and social justice.

Tina: At USEPA, she worked on improving USEPA’s effort to incorporate community engagement in research efforts, and to include equity and environmental justice in regulatory development. In addition, she has participated in the Society of Practitioners of HIA’s (SOPHIA’s) Equity in HIA working group.

HIP interns have fun!

Since their internships, they have…

Lisa: traveled to Xian, China and conducted a rapid HIA of a bus rapid transit (BRT) project

Allie: climbed up Half Dome and caught the sun rising above Yosemite Valley

Trent: completed the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in 2013

Kimmy: learned to ride a motorbike in Thailand

Sara: discovered the joys of baking pies and bread

Brooke: learned how to call howler monkeys in Costa Rica, an awesome skill which unfortunately led to one peeing on her head!

Tina: drove across the country from SF to NYC with a good friend

We are currently searching for more smart, exciting, fun, and equity-focused interns! Applications for summer internships are being accepted through February 16.

Analysis: ‘Willful Defiance’ School Suspensions Have Health Impacts

We are re-posting an April 29, 2014 Reportingonhealth.org blog by Celia Harris.

In the 2012-13 school year, almost 260,000 student suspensions in California public schools — more than 40 percent of the total — were for “willful defiance” of authority. Willful defiance was the single most common reason for suspension and more students were suspended for willful defiance than for drugs, weapons and violence combined. Read more…


HIA for Organizers!

We’re excited to release the paper Health Impact Assessment: An Effective Strategy to Use in Organizing Campaigns and to Build Community Power.The paper highlights for community organizers how a health perspective broadly, and Health Impact Assessment specifically, can be an effective strategy to use in organizing campaigns, build community power, and bring about policy wins. We provide background on HIA, brief examples of how it has been used in organizing, a more detailed case study of an incarceration-related HIA conducted in Wisconsin, examples of HIA and organizing wins, and several challenges to doing this work. We also provide some simple steps organizers can take to take to build their capacity around HIA. Thanks much to David Liners at WISDOM and Becky Dennison at Los Angeles Community Action Network for their review of the paper. 

Reflections on the National HIA Meeting

Two weeks ago I took a trip to a fun city, reconnected with old friends and made some new ones, and came back rejuvenated, inspired, and ready to get back to work. But I wasn’t on vacation. I was at a conference, and definitely not the boring, stuffy event you might think of. This year’s National HIA Meeting, Sept. 26-28 in Washington, D.C., was the second time practitioners from all over the country have gathered to discuss our work. It was my first, and to me it felt like a lovefest. Here are three reasons why:

Keynote Address by Councilman Joe Cimperman of Cleveland. Cimperman’s moving and inspiring address made me want to jump out of my seat and move to Cleveland right then and there. He discussed the importance of health and equity in his city, and the success of HIA in bringing health into decision-making and generating recommendations for improving health. He also talked about HIA as a tool for creating grassroots support and building relationships. Here is a great interview with Cimperman.

As a participant, my favorite breakout session was “Achieving Health and Equity in Education HIAs.” To my knowledge, the HIAs discussed in this panel are the only education HIAs ever completed in the US. Panelists included Phyllis Hill from ISAIAH in Minnesota, Susana Morales-Konishi and youth researcher Asha Simpson from Youth UpRising in Oakland, and Maisie Chin from CADRE in Los Angeles. These inspiring women represent community-based organizations that prioritize health and equity in their work. Community organizations are a growing group of HIA practitioners, but were under-represented at the conference, so these women brought fresh voices. Asha Simpson and her young colleagues, who were also in the room during the session, are the first youth team to conduct an HIA.

In the final minute of this session, an audience member asked a provocative question: “What about the fact that qualitative, community-generated data is not legitimate?” We didn’t have time to tackle it from the podium, but later talked privately and decided the real question should be: “Has the community legitimized your data?” Many HIAs are conducted without taking into account community knowledge and lived experience, and panelists agreed that practicing HIAs like this raises the red flag of illegitimacy more than the opposite approach. This episode and subsequent discussion really illuminated for me the value that community organizations bring, not just to an HIA but also to conferences like this one. This conversation should definitely be continued at the next national meeting.

My very favorite highlight was the people who came together from around the country and the world to make the conference happen. I never stopped running into old friends I’ve gotten to know over the last five years of doing HIAs. Just as often, I met new people and heard new stories about fascinating HIA projects and other health and equity work. (I guess you call this networking, but that word is too boring for describing the passion people brought to these conversations.)

Now I’m back home and ready to apply my renewed enthusiasm to a couple of new projects. But also excited for the next opportunity to meet with the 450-strong (and counting) national HIA community. The 3rd National HIA meeting is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2015 in Washington, DC.

HIA: An Important New Tool in the Struggle Against Educational Disparities

It’s graduation season. Nationwide, high school graduation rates are at their highest level in 40 years, but big disparities remain in states, and of greater concern, between racial groups. In Minnesota, which has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, there is a 45% gap in graduation rates between white and black students. In one Oakland, Calif. high school with an enrollment of nearly all students of color, the dropout rate is 40%.

Beyond test scores, good grades and graduation, many other factors play a huge role in the outcomes of traditional markers of educational success. In considering disparities in graduation rates, here are some questions we should be asking, and examples of how Health Impact Assessments are helping answer them.

Who attends the school? A student body’s race, class and corresponding levels of privilege impact each student’s experience and success. Racial integration in schools has been an issue since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and the debate continues today in states like Minnesota, whose legislature is about to decide whether to pass a state bill outlining ways that existing integration funds could be used.

Earlier this year HIP and our Minnesota-based community partner ISAIAH examined the relationship between school integration and health in the state. The HIA evaluated the health effects of a bill to reauthorize integration funding and guide how schools use it. We found strong support for racial integration and state decision-makers are on the brink of reauthorizing the legislation.

How and for what are students disciplined? Discipline rules can determine whether students get suspended or expelled and for what reasons. Unfair suspensions and expulsions mean missed educational opportunities and often disproportionately target boys of color. Many schools are questioning traditional discipline policies and considering alternatives to keep non-violent students in school.

In 2012, HIP completed an HIA of school discipline policies in three California districts, comparing the health effects of zero tolerance, restorative justice and positive behavioral interventions and supports. We overwhelmingly found that a zero tolerance approach is harmful to health, and that restorative justice and behavioral intervention are promising alternatives. The HIA is currently being used to advocate for implementation of alternative discipline policies in Los Angeles.

What resources are available for students who don’t take a traditional path? The Oakland Unified School District is considering adding a specialized learning academy to a school that has historically had high drop-out rates.

Youth UpRising, a community transformation organization in East Oakland, is embarking on the first ever youth-led HIA exploring health impacts of a proposed learning academy. The goals of the academy, such as reducing dropout and providing job skills, are commendable, but decision-makers have not considered the value of engaging youth in helping make the decision. Youth UpRising will conduct qualitative and quantitative research and present their findings to the Oakland Unified School Board this fall.

This graduation season, while we celebrate graduations and milestones of success, let’s remember that we still have a long way to go before education is equitable for all. HIA is one of many tools that are being used to achieve healthier and more equitable schools, as well as higher graduation rates.

Rapid HIA on School Integration in Minnesota Released! 4/15/13

Human Impact Partners and ISAIAH are excited to release a rapid HIA examining the projected health effects of Minnesota House/Senate Bill HF0247/SF0711, which proposes to reauthorize integration funding and guide how schools use it, thus addressing racial integration in Minnesota schools by supporting opportunities for all students to succeed. The study found that the bill’s passage is crucial to maintaining and improving the programs, plans, and policies currently in place that support school integration and, through its benefits to school achievement and cross-race understanding, promote better health for all Minnesotans. The study also found that the bill could be improved and a broader range of programs and strategies could be included to ensure that school districts can achieve true integration. A comprehensive approach to school integration would result in longer lifespans, improved health behaviors, decreased stress and improved mental health, as well as better physical and social health. Read the  HIA School Integration Strategies in Minnesota or visit our Projects page.

The Meaning of Health

It’s a recurring challenge in assessing health impacts: What do we mean by health?

For HIA practitioners, the term encompasses the total spectrum. We look at cumulative health effects on all communities that might be affected by a policy or project now or in the future, and challenge assumptions that may not reflect the true impact of the proposal. But we’re dealing with public agencies whose well-meaning bureaucrats often speak a different language.

Case in point: the response by the Los Angeles Harbor Department to comments by HIP and our allies, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, to a proposal to build the Southern California International Gateway near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Gateway would be a new rail yard to move international goods from the Ports to warehouses inland.

On the outside, this new facility appears to be great for health. By providing more capacity for incoming international goods to be loaded onto trains rather than trucks, the project is promoted as an opportunity for cleaner air, more jobs, and a better economy.

However, the Harbor Department’s Draft Environmental Impact Report failed to conduct an adequate analysis of health impacts to the communities nearest to the ports. The supposed benefits are true only if they’re based on some pretty big assumptions that leave many people entirely out of the equation.

If we assume that the endless expansion of goods shipment to meet consumer demands is a given, then building a facility for more rail transport rather than truck transport is a healthy choice. Likewise, if we assume that some people will be harmed by air emissions no matter what, then limiting the harm to a smaller community along the route between the Ports and the Gateway is better than harming a much larger community to accommodate more trucks on freeways and other arteries.

HIP and EYCEJ asked the Harbor Department to consider the potential increase in the number of truck trips, air emissions, and noise in communities already affected. We don’t necessarily want to prevent the project from going forward but it’s not fair to ignore any communities in a comprehensive health analysis.

In its response, the Harbor Department completely missed our point. They asserted that their health risk assessment satisfied state laws by examining the cancer and other health risks from air quality impacts on local communities, and showed that projected emissions would not exceed regulatory standards. But what about the many cumulative impacts of air and noise pollution, poverty, and other social injustices in communities that already face these communities? Wouldn’t additional air pollution on top of these other unhealthy conditions count for more?

In addition, the Harbor Department disregarded our suggestion that they look at an alternative analysis that made a different assumption about increased truck traffic. This analysis showed that truck volume on nearby freeways and local roads would actually increase as a result of the new rail facility. If they had used this alternative assumption about truck volume, health and environmental impacts may not look as rosy.

We are speaking a different language here. To a public agency whose responsibility is promoting the economy, health may mean satisfaction of numeric regulatory standards. The definition of health employed by HIP and our allies is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. Another disconnect here has to do with project assumptions: baseline assumptions can determine projected outcomes, and thus they should be scrutinized for their influence on conclusions about health and the environment. Sometimes conducting an HIA is not enough to bridge these inherent differences.

For more information, check out the Southern California International Gateway project page and the comment letter submitted by HIP and EYCEJ.

East Bay Bus Rapid Transit HIA Report Released! 07/13/2012

Human Impact Partners has just released the final HIA on the East Bay Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Project. The East Bay BRT Project will connect downtown Oakland with East Oakland and San Leandro, and has the potential to improve health in those communities through impacts to mobility, access to goods and services, traffic safety, safety from crime, and air quality. HIP collaborated with TransForm, Oakland Community Organizations, and Allen Temple Arms on this HIA of the International Blvd segment of the BRT alignment. The Oakland City Council will vote on the proposed East Bay BRT Project on July 17. For the full report, visit our Projects page.