LISTEN: Jose Ramon Becerra Vera on democratizing science

Jose Ramon Becerra Vera joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss arming residents in his native Inland Empire region of California with air pollution data to advocate for their health and community.


Becerra Vera, a current Agents of Change fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University, also talks about the importance of qualitative data and how to center communities from the outset of your research.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Becerra Vera and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or Spotify.

Transcript 

Brian Bienkowski

Jose, how are you doing this morning?

Jose Ramón Becerra

I’m doing pretty good. How are you?

Brian Bienkowski

I’m doing great. And where are you this morning?

Jose Ramón Becerra

I am in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Brian Bienkowski

All right, West Lafayette, Indiana. Far away from California’s inland empire where you’re originally from. So I want to talk to you a little bit about the Inland Empire region. So can you tell us about this place, and perhaps how you see it may have shaped your interest in environmental justice and your research?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, sure. So I was born and raised in the Inland Empire. So the Inland Empire is a region in southern California. It’s around 50 miles 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Really, depending on who you ask, they might define the Inland Empire differently. So some folks will conceptualize it as the entirety of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. But for me, and a lot of people in my community, we think about it as the Valley portion that’s surrounded by this mountain and stone geography. Some things that I love about the places that like, depending on the city that you’re at, you’re probably like 10 to 15 minutes away from like a nice hike when you go up to the mountains. And you’re also –depending on the traffic– only, like 40 minutes to an hour and a half away from the nearest beach. It’s a primarily Latino community, who live and work there each day. So there’s a lot of great food all the time. I think it’s a vibrant community, I love it. And how it shapes my interest in environmental justice and research, while my whole dissertation project is kind of dedicated to looking at air pollution exposure in the in the Inland Empire region. So I would say that it shapes my projects completely. From my research questions to my field site, to the people who I work with. I don’t think this came around until I was in college, though. So because I guess growing up the signs of pollution that I see now, like the diesel trucks driving by or the wildfire smoke and stuff like that was just kind of part of the ordinary environment. So it wasn’t until I started going to college and learning that like, not everybody in your community should have or like, asthma rates shouldn’t be that high for everyone. So that’s not it wasn’t until I actually got into college I started learning about the issues that I’ll see on a day-to-day basis as environmental and justices.

Brian Bienkowski

Was it a culture shock moving to Indiana?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, it was 100% Was it was the first time I was out of the area. So I was like I said, born and raised there. The only other places I really frequency, the war Los Angeles area to visit family and friends or my parents hometown in Tepatitlán, Jalisco, in Mexico. So I was just back and forth in these places all the time. And outside of that, yeah, I just hadn’t been outside of like a few days. Maybe I hadn’t been outside of California too much. California or Mexico.

Brian Bienkowski

So before we get And into some of the research you’ve been doing about the Inland Empire and where you’re at now, what is the moment or event that helped shape your identity up to this point?

Jose Ramón Becerra

You know, funny enough, it was actually coming to Indiana for my PhD, or for my graduate studies for my Masters, and now my PhD. So like I said, I was in the Inland Empire for so long. The only other places I really frequented were Mexico. And so I was really just kind of in the middle of like my culture every day. So whether that’s like Mexican culture, or Chicano culture, or just Southern California, Inland Empire culture, I was just immersed in it 24/7. And it was kind of like what they say like, culture is kind of like water for a fish. So it wasn’t until I stepped out of there started living out here that I started missing so many things about like, what I see as my identity now, which is like the music, how people dress, how they talk, just the… you know, how people engage, the language and stuff like that. So yeah, oddly enough, it wasn’t until I came out here to Indiana that I started really reflecting on who I was and how I was connected to my communities and stuff like that. So yeah, I think that that moment, just living out here has really solidified who I am.

Brian Bienkowski

I think travel is good for that people always talk about travel in terms of introducing you to other cultures, which is obviously I think, a net good, it’s a good thing. But I can say when my wife and I we live in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, and we are very, we are very Northern Great Lakes people. And when we were in New York City for a week, which I love, you know, it’s just such a vibrant place, so fun to visit. And oh my gosh, did we feel like fish out of water, though! you know, we move very slow, we talk very slow, we’re in people’s way. So you know, I do think there is something to be exposed to other cultures, but also it kind of reaffirms who you are, and your own culture, as you mentioned. So I want to talk about your PhD work. But while you’ve been doing that, during the PhD work, you’ve also worked as a fellow in nonprofits, including Elevate in Chicago and for the EPA, the federal agency. So what did these experiences teach you about the value of kind of qualitative versus quantitative data? And do you have any examples?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so I’ve been lucky enough to work with, and not just with them, I’ve been lucky enough to work with government, with nonprofits, with environmental justice organizations, and activists, and also just community members in different research sites. And I think the first thing I want to highlight is that there are individuals from all these different places who are doing such meaningful work. They’re all dedicated to making environmental justice action happen, and essentially to alleviate disproportionate exposure to pollution. And so while this is happening, something that I kind of saw when I started reflecting on my ethnographic notes, so when I was collecting data for my own dissertation study, while talking to all these people and working with them through fellowships, was that just the underlying fact that quantitative data holds more value in policy arenas than qualitative data. And oftentimes, this is for good reason. So if an agency is going to ban a chemical, for example, they have to show that there’s a causal relationship between like that chemical exposure and the health detriment. But at the same time, like an example of this can be like a community that gets together to push against a factory that’s emitting whatever type of pollution. Their experiences and the qualitative data they come up with –and even if they organize–, is not going to make environmental change. Oftentimes, what happens is that this causes attention to whatever issues going on, it pulls in scientists and other people to do research and to do those quantitative studies to then make change. But unfortunately, what’s happening is that while this science is getting done, or this quantitative data collection is getting done, and analysis and reports are getting written, it’s a really slow movement, science is slow in many of those situations, and all the while people are being exposed to that same pollution. So there’s no protections that are being offered, even when they present that qualitative information to whoever triggers like these other responses.

Brian Bienkowski

And so I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but this qualitative data that mean these can be things like surveys, personal experiences, and in some cases, you know, in my profession, it’s not it’s not science, but in journalism, I mean, we look at storytelling and telling these people stories and narratives and communities as kind of a form of qualitative data. And and I think you can, you can tell that that can be really powerful, but as you said, the turns of the regulatory environment and science can move slowly sometimes. Jose, I should have set the stage before that question for you. listeners, what exactly you mentioned air pollution and kind of this data collection. Can you tell us what kind of science and research you’re doing?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so I do a lot of anthropology. So I’m in nog refer that means that I, like immerse myself in a community and collect a lot of qualitative data. So I do things like, participant observation. So I do observations and take notes on that. I do a lot of interviews with people. And at the same time, I’m doing community science, where I’m using portable pollution monitors to collect data with people who are from the Inland Empire. So I’m investigating through the frameworks of like political ecology, which is the idea that we’re looking at the social-political dimensions of environmental change throughout time. So is like capitalism driving this change? What are the policies driving this change in? How does an environment become toxic, and I’m also really interested in who’s exposed to pollution. So that’s the environmental justice dimension of it that I include into my research.

Brian Bienkowski

So I want to talk more about the environmental concerns in the Inland Empire region. I think most of us when we hear warehouses, we don’t associate them with pollution, we think of a big Amazon warehouse or something. But can you explain why this dense network of warehouses that exists there in the Inland Empire, what it looks like and what the environmental concerns and impacts are?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so it’s really interesting, you bring that up, because… so growing up, I’m from a city, Ontario, California, that’s within the Inland Empire. And we have some of the highest warehouse density there. But I never really connected how they were, like sources of pollution. In my head, I was like, “Well, are they producing something in there that’s, you know, driving up, like pollution in the region or whatnot?” But so if you look at the larger region, we have over 1 billion square feet of warehouses there. And like I said, we’re in close proximity to Los Angeles. So what happens is that each day, we get ships full of containers that have goods inside of them, those containers get hauled eastward into the Inland Empire, it’s estimated that 40% of all goods that come into the nation go through the Inland Empire, then the warehouses are locations where workers unload the containers, then later, repackage them and send them out to the rest of the nation, surrounding communities, via rail yard, diesel truck, and airplanes. And all of this transportation just increases massive amounts of pollution in the region that’s been trapped by that mountainous dome geography I talked about a little bit earlier.

Brian Bienkowski

Can you talk about that geography and why it’s problematic and how it traps pollutants?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so if you look at a map for San Bernardino and Riverside County, you’ll see that it’s like this, this mountain that’s connecting… this mountain range that connects the Los Angeles area to the Inland Empire. But then there’s like this other barrier, kind of east and south of it, so all that, like mountainous dome geography traps pollution there, that comes from Los Angeles, that comes from the warehouse industry. And at the same time, we have with climate change a lot of more wildfires that burn more intensely and more frequent in the region. So even the wildfire smoke accumulates in that same space.

Brian Bienkowski

So otherwise, the air pollutants would be able to kind of push on into the atmosphere, but here they’re getting trapped and kind of hovering above the community, right. So in this battle of residence against developers that I’ve talked to you about separately, and I know you’re thinking and writing about these things, in that region, you say developers are often using outdated evidence and stationary monitor data. So what is your research shown about the monitoring data used and why it can be misleading?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so the whole idea about outdated evidence came from when I was seeing participant observation. So I was following this, this applicant who was trying to build another warehouse in the Bloomington area, which is an unincorporated area in the Inland Empire. And when they were applying to do this, there was moments for the public to gather and kind of have their own comments about the warehouse, and if they wanted, they want to invite it in or not. And so the community was really great at organizing environmental justice organizations gathered the community, there’s a lot of folks who are concerned individually. So a lot of folks were going up and giving their testimonials and they were like really talking about how air pollution had been damaging their health or the health of their children, for example, or even talking about like the cancer rates in the area. And in one of those testimonials, one of the one of the people who were, one of the persons talking kind of hinted at the fact that the environmental impact report was misleading. So it was through this person’s own analysis and like reading the document that they were identifying that the data that they were using was outdated. And this got me really thinking about things like data sources, and scientific instrumentation, and even analysis. So depending on, like, how you’re making your analysis, where the data is coming from, there could be a lot of things that are misleading when we’re thinking about personal exposure. And so another thing that I’m really looking at is the differences between, or the limitations, at least, of stationary monitor data. So in places like the Inland Empire, especially where the environment is quickly changing, so we have warehouses that are built within months sometimes. And so the macro geography is constantly changing, people aren’t just fixed in one location at all times. So as you know, like throughout our day, depending on our job, depending on what our daily activities look like, we’re inside of houses, outdoors, in apartments, in your job side, on the street, driving through traffic, and all these different things are going to expose you to different levels of pollution. So just thinking about how there’s these spatial temporal elements of people’s activity is important how micro geography –so like the built environment, and how it’s changing– also impacts different levels of exposure in the same region.

Brian Bienkowski

So I live in Sault Sainte Marie Michigan, and across the river is Sault Sainte Marie, Canada, same same name, different city, and there’s a massive steel plant, and they all have their air monitoring at one time was placed, northwest of the building, and we live by Lake Superior. So the winds are always coming from the Northwest. And maybe I have this backwards. Basically, they had these monitors in a place where it was never capturing what was actually the air, you know, the wind was coming from the other direction. And so these stationary monitors were just completely they were really useless for a long time. And that’s what the federal government relied on, it was industry data. So in your case, how do you how do you account for these micro geographies? Are you working with citizens or residents to try to do some monitoring that you feel is better and more accurate of what’s actually happening?

Jose Ramón Becerra

So one of the projects that I’m doing, and I’m going to be doing from August to December this year, is working with community scientists to carry portable pollution monitors that are GPS-enabled. And this is a collaboration with Dr. Uman Park at University of Connecticut, that and so the project basically is going to be trying to account for how people navigate space. And while they carry these monitors, I’m gonna be able to tell how much pollution they’re exposed to, throughout their daily activities, I’m also going to be in the community working with them to train them how to take behavioral notes, and this is going to be done through Qualtrics. So it’s a widget that I’m gonna download into their phone, if they want to take notes on their cell phone, or if they want to use a voice recorder, they have that option. And then we’re also taking demographic surveys. So that way we can make an analysis when we have enough data to show how social demographics might influence things like access to different types of jobs, and those jobs put you at different levels of exposure compared to you know, whatever, like just depending on the job, you might be exposed to different levels of exposure. So we’re going to be really thinking critically about how access to job and just access to and wasted navigate space are kind of shaped by social demographics that are like embedded in deeper roots of like racial capitalism in the region.

Brian Bienkowski

How do you see these efforts as democratizing science in the region?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so, um, I think that I see this effort is democratizing science, and that the first thing is that it’s giving something that’s legible for these policy arenas. When people talk about their experiences, like we should value them, that qualitative information should be valued. But for now, I think that it’s important to still equip people with the scientific instrumentation in order to make their claims legible. So I think that I’m trying to join that qualitative aspect with the more quantitative and spatial data so that way, when it comes to people advocating for themselves, they have the data that’s seen in these policy arenas. And at the same time, something that I see happen when people are advocating for themselves through testimonials is that they’re up against people who are considered experts for the quantitative data. And by letting them collect data, it’s kind of making them the experts. So they’re learning why they’re collecting data, how the monitors work, what kind of data they’re collecting. So in their own way, they’re becoming experts, not just of their own experiences, but also of the data collection process. And so in these two ways, I think that it’s it’s an effort to democratize science in the community.

Brian Bienkowski

I really liked that idea that they’re already experts have their own experience. And this is making them experts in the data collection. That’s a really cool way of thinking about it. I like that. Are you getting pushback in the region at all? Or is there pushback with this kind of economic versus or environmental thing? I have to imagine a good number of the residents work in many of these warehouses and provide for their families. So what’s that kind of balancing act been like?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, I definitely see this, even in the Commission hearings I mentioned earlier, where there is a lot of people from the community who are trying to push against the warehouse, industry and just development in general. But then there’s other people who are like in construction, who might be employed to build these warehouses that are kind of advocating for those jobs, because they’re going to be local. They don’t have to drive up like to Northern California, for example, to you know, do their job, tey could be next to their family. So there is pushback in that sense. But I think, in general, what I’ve seen is that people are really concerned with the type of jobs that these warehouses even provide. So what happens in the region is that many of the jobs available there are through agencies. So if you want a job there, you could start by going to an agency, and then the agency, like, recommends you to a warehouse and you start working there, but you’re not actually hired through the company. So not being hired to the company has its own consequences, like there’s limited liability they’re accountable for, sometimes they don’t have to provide health insurance and things like that, and you get lower pay. So when it comes to actual warehouse workers, I think that they know that these warehouses aren’t necessarily like the like, what they want for their own future for their children’s future. So I think that there’s also a lot of people who are advocating for like, a different type of industry to, you know, come into the area.

Brian Bienkowski

I know personally, what I’ve written about the steel plant I mentioned earlier, you know, I have family who knows workers there and stuff around here. And the idea is not that we are, or I should I should speak for myself, you know, that we’re not blaming the workers here. You know, the workers deserve protection, they deserve knowledge, they deserve data. And a lot of times, it’s the people who have power and money and who are running these plants or warehouses or, you know, fleets of trucks that have the opportunity to reduce pollution, and they’re not doing it because of various reasons. So I always try to make that clear that this isn’t, we’re not attacking the workers, you know, that it’s definitely not their fault that, you know, this is this is goes higher than that to the regulatory, and kind of corporate level of a lot of these organizations. So what what tips would you have for other researchers that want to center communities like this in their own work?

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah, so I think that, um, it’s super important to be in communication with the community, and ask them like what they need, even if that comes at the expense of modifying your research project or question, I think that if you want to center the community, the kind of data collection you do the type of analysis and all that should have them involved in they should have a say in like the kind of research you do, especially if you’re going into this community fresh. And another thing, if you’re doing environmental-justice-based research is to reach out to the local organizations, they are likely already doing a lot of wonderful work. They’re connected to the community, they’re also connected to policymakers and lawyers, and all that kind of stuff. So starting with them and talking to them having conversations and trying to be as transparent as possible can, in my opinion, take you a very long way in centering communities in your research.

Brian Bienkowski

I assume you still have family in the region. What’s their reaction been to your to your research and your work? Have you have you taught them some things that they maybe didn’t know before about where where they’re from?

Jose Ramón Becerra

You know, they I think so. But I think they definitely teach me just as much and that’s something I keep learning that like, when I come back home with the instruments, my family, my friends are super excited about it. And they helped me like even theorize for example, sometimes I’m writing a paper and I call them about like an interview we did or or like what their opinion is about, like, the relationship between something really like abstract like capitalism and pollution exposure. And they’re super good at like teaching me what their perspective is. And a lot of the times it helps me even like formulate a paper on working on or, or write a piece of it and stuff like that. So I think that if anything there, they just keep teaching me and teaching me more and more stuff.

Brian Bienkowski

So you mentioned some of you know, some citizen science projects that you have upcoming here in a couple months. You know, maybe it’s that or beyond that, what would you like to see change about the air pollution research field kind of broadly? And how do you see yourself as part of that change?

Jose Ramón Becerra

I think that something I would love to see is more community-based work. I think that, um, like, if we go on Google Scholar, for example, and we search up air pollution, we’re gonna see 1000s of studies proving that air pollution is bad for health. And similarly, we’ll see 1000s of studies showing that pollution is like, disproportionately distributed across national and global scales. So we know that these things are bad. And I think something important to look at would be community engagement, and also finding ways to merge and bring value to qualitative data and quantitative data together. I think that’s what I would love to see. And I think that’s what I’m trying to do with the projects that I’m engaged with as someone who’s doing both very qualitative and quantitative data collection in my study. So I think that’s that’s my role in what I would love to see more more community based work.

Brian Bienkowski

What are you optimistic about?

Jose Ramón Becerra

I am very optimistic about a lot of the work that environmental justice organizations are already doing. Like in my hometown, or in the Inland Empire. There’s people’s collective for environmental justice, who are like excellent researchers, policy analyst and advocates for the community. And what I really love to see is that a lot of the folks who I’ve talked to, and the work that they’re doing comes from, like, they’re like they come from their hometown. So they’re really invested in the type of work that they do. So I’m, I’m really optimistic about that. And it’s inspiring to me. And I hope that future generations are able to see all this kind of work that’s happening locally, and like in other communities, too. And you know, just find that inspiration and keep pushing forward for whatever cause that they’re passionate about.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, Jose, this has been so so wonderful, I really love hearing about people’s hometown, especially when they’re very far from where I’m from. And when we were in person, I got to talk to you a little bit about where you’re from as well. And it’s just really great to hear about the research you’re doing. So now I have a few fun questions before we get you out of here. You can just answer these these next three with just one word or short phrase. My first concert was

Jose Ramón Becerra

Wu Tang Clan.

Brian Bienkowski

Oh my god!

Jose Ramón Becerra

yeah, I, I think I also I had gone to other ones for my parents, I think and then like backyard concerts and stuff like that. But the first one like I paid for, and I was really excited about was Wu Tang.

Brian Bienkowski

Oh, my, oh, my goodness. So another peek behind the curtain. Jose and I talked hip hop a little bit when we were meeting in person. So Wu Tang, being your first concert is is quite something that’s very cool. If I have a whole day off, I am likely

Jose Ramón Becerra

To invite everyone over for a carne asada.

Brian Bienkowski

You sound like an extrovert. I would be by myself reading a book. So one of my all time favorite movies is

Jose Ramón Becerra

Friday.

Brian Bienkowski

Oh, man, me too.

Jose Ramón Becerra

Oh, I really, really love that movie

Brian Bienkowski

very much. So when I was yes, that was a that was a must watch, I would say between the ages of like, oh god, 16 to 25. I’d watch it a few times a year every year. Chris Tucker’s is so fantastic in it. Well, thank you so much again, Jose, this has been a whole lot of fun. And before we get you out of here, what is the last book you read for fun? And you don’t have to confine yourself to one word or a phrase here.

Jose Ramón Becerra

Yeah. All right. So I have like the nerdy answer to that, because I’m truly passionate about my research in my hometown. So there’s a professor there named Dr. Juan de Lada, who wrote a book inland shift. And he’s also like a hometown scholar that writes about the Inland Empire. So I really love that book. But something that I’ve read, that’s just fun and not connected to my research, because I really don’t read that much outside of, like, for research purposes, would probably be back in the day elementary school like Captain Underpants I really loved like the flip action. So surely that was like the last fun fun book I read, like just for fun.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, Jose, thank you so much. You’re doing such incredible work. I’m so glad you’re part of this cohort and have a great rest of your day.

Jose Ramón Becerra

Thank you so much.

Brian Bienkowski

All right. That’s a wrap for this week, folks. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jose I think I need to dust off the old Friday DVD this weekend and give it a watch. If you enjoyed this podcast visit agentsofchangeinej.org And while you’re there, click the donate button to support us or sign up for our free monthly newsletter. Maria does such a great job putting that together. It’s a great way to stay on top of all the work that fellas are doing. You can also find us on X and Instagram and please follow us on Spotify or iTunes where you can subscribe, give us a rating and never miss an episode.