by Jill Johnston, PhD
Steve and I were driving down a long stretch of two lane highway in eastern North Carolina. The six-hour round-trip journey happened frequently so Steve could visit residents most impacted by the industrial hog industry. Today, we were visiting a family concerned about their water quality and recent results they received from water testing – they had called Steve for interpretation. Then to a local church to hear from community leaders about the preparation of a Civil Rights lawsuit. Looking back, these thousands of miles I had the good fortune to spend on the road with Steve probed into the meaning, theory and challenges of social justice research and the role of academics. During this trip, Steve questioned whether modern agriculture was at the root cause of the health disparities and inequalities we witnessed in the communities we visited.
I first met Steve in Texas. I was a community organizer, and he came to an environmental justice summit to discuss the role of science. I was skeptical. I had seen science and research as tools to discredit the lived reality of communities and to disempower the overburdened and under-resourced. Instead Steve offered a different perspective – one in which science and research is leveraged as part of a broader social movement. He spoke to local struggles, capitalism and slavery and within this interwove hogs, health and community resilience.
Later I reconnected with Steve as a student. Along an otherwise non-descript office hall, I found Steve’s door with a vibrant poster admonishing the corporatization of universities. Inside a cluttered office hung pictures of local protests and a large map showing a compelling relationship between cancer and proximity to the 3-Mile Island nuclear disaster. Steve was a listener. His door was open to students, staff and many families concerned about environmental and industrial pollution.
Hogs to sewage sludge to radiation … these were the issues raised by communities to which he devoted his career. He never strayed from challenging topics. Steve spoke up for public institutions and academics free from corporate influence and based on public interests. In his dry wit, this is a favorite in his scathing take on action of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, statements with much relevance in the face of today’s politics. He never shied from speaking truth (or shaming the corrupt):
“Thank goodness we finally have a University of North Carolina Board of Governors [BOG] with the courage to do the right thing. Their inquisition of UNC-system centers focuses on a problem that has plagued the UNC system for years — support for outdated ideas like civil “rights” and education about the cultures of women, workers and people of color. With leadership from the BOG the university system can rid itself of these disruptive influences that undermine the rightful place of rich, white men as the true leaders of society.”
His voice, courage and integrity touched the lives of many. His impact on my journey has been profound. I have yet to meet anyone so intertwined with both science and social movements. His legacy will continue through the ongoing struggles for justice and social change.
Jill Johnston did postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina with Steve Wing. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, where she directs a community outreach and engagement program in environmental health.