Misbath Daouda joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the importance of incorporating community input, knowledge, and advocacy at every step of clean energy research.
Daouda, a PhD candidate at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and current Agents of Change fellow, also talks about her multicultural upbringing, the dangers of indoor air pollution, and untangling social and gender dynamics when trying to foster clean energy adoption.
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.
Alright, I would like to welcome Misbath Daouda to the podcast. Misbath, how are you today?
Thanks for having me. I’m doing great. How are you?
I am doing wonderful. And where are you today? Where are you coming at us from?
From my favorite city in the world, New York City.
New York City. That is, that is awesome. Glad to hear it. So I had the pleasure of editing and reading your essay. So I know a little bit about you. And I’d like to start going way back in your essay, you talk about growing up with multicultural parents and moving around a bit, and kind of forcing you to consistently re-examine your identity. And I’m wondering if you could talk about this, and especially what this looked like, and felt like, moving here to the US.
Sure. So I was born in Senegal. My father is from Benin. And my mom is French, Togolese and Malian. And so initially, you know, my first memories were definitely in Benin, after we moved from Senegal.
And there, I think, you know, some of the things that stood out are the fact that I didn’t speak my father’s language, Yoruba. And I didn’t speak the language that’s most often spoken in Cotonou, which is Fon. So I definitely stood out among my cousins. My sister and my brothers and I did.
And then we moved to Senegal. And similarly, I, you know, didn’t speak Wolof very well. Or if I tried, I definitely had an accent. So there again, another experience of standing out. And then in France, it wasn’t so much the language or the accent, but more so, the color of my skin really that made me stick out like a sore thumb.
And I guess here, I just want emphasize that France just like U.S. really has a long way to go in addressing systemic racism as well.
And so these different experiences really made me think of my identity as a moving target, something that was fluid, and could change depending on where I was. And it really came into focus when I moved to the US, because then when people ask, “Where are you from?” I had to do an effort to understand what it is really that they were trying to ask me whether it was where I was born, where my parents were from. And I think in French, in the French language, that isn’t so much of a problem. Because the way the question is asked, you know exactly, which of those questions are being asked. And that was the first time that I really had to think about how to present myself, I guess. I think on college campuses, no one wants to hear about, you know, what I just shared like, that takes three or four minutes to explain. Most of the time, people just want to know, why do you have an accent or you know, things like that. So, yeah, I would say, I’ve grown to embrace that my identity is not something that’s fixed. It’s something that’s always evolving, and I see it as enriching. But sometimes it is just a little cumbersome, I would say.
When I was reading your essay, what struck me and it really made me think about language, and how whether we’re growing up, or even now—people view language…If someone doesn’t have a firm grasp of the language or something, it’s misconstrued often as unintelligence or not understanding. And it’s really a sign of, if you know multiple languages, grasping a new language it’s a sign of high intelligence. I mean, it’s the exact opposite, right?
But growing up, you know, trying to tell other kids that, or teach that, is something that I think is hard to grasp until we’re older.
Yeah, I think often what does stand out is how close you are to speaking a language perfectly without the background of “Oh, well, maybe she’s speaking done which perfectly but she’s speaking two or three others” so yeah.
Right. Right. And in America, we speak one, most of us. And then we go to Europe and instead of learning a language when we travel or wherever we just point at the menu and scream or whatever.
We have a very conceited, many of us have a very conceited outlook on language. But, so I’m skipping ahead a little bit, I’m kind of curious when you got into your undergraduate and master’s work, what, what, why did you get into environmental health? What shaped you and what made you want to have that as the field that you kind of built your life around?
Yeah. So to not be original and echo something that has been said on this podcast, very often, it’s that I wanted to be a doctor, initially. I wanted to be a pediatrician, I’ve always loved kids, and always wanted to really dedicate my life to making kids lives better.
And so I came to the U.S. and went to undergrad, thinking that I would apply to medical school. But at the same time my undergraduate degrees were in biochemistry and Hispanic studies, because I’ve always wanted, again, I always knew that I could be working internationally, I’ve always loved languages and, and so I pursued that until the end of undergrad.
And halfway through undergrad, I actually went to Ivory Coast to do an internship in a hospital and walked in the pediatric unit. And that probably has been the most defining experience, because it really taught me that I did not have the strength to do this. I would get very, very emotional and just very affected by the fact that I couldn’t help to the extent that I wish I could, and it only lasted a couple of weeks, but it definitely made me rethink my ability to be in the medical field.
And so when I graduated undergrad, I knew I still had some work to do to figure out how to get to that goal of still being involved in children’s health, but not being a physician. And it’s, I had to kind of just take some time and thinking back to what were my drivers. I think growing up in West Africa, something that I was acutely aware of is just all of the environmental triggers that we are exposed to, whether it’s air pollution from, you know, sitting in traffic and inhaling the fumes from the car in front of you. Or, you know, even just at home, I remember my mom was really, really cautious about us really, totally washing our hands. When we came back from wherever we were.
I knew she had a rule that veggies and fruits would not make it to the fridge until they were totally washed. And so, I don’t know, it just always felt like we had to be shielded from some kind of triggers in the environment around this. And so that wasn’t, you know, everybody was doing it. So that wasn’t really what stood out. But what stood out to me was, if we are able to do this it’s because our parents can afford to protect us like this. But what about kids whose parents can’t?
And so I had all these questions, but didn’t know about environmental health until a friend actually, you know, heard me discussing this and told me, “I think environmental health is what you’re thinking about.” And they were doing their MPH at the time. So they had exposure to the different fields that go under public health.
And then yeah, that was kind of like a mind-blowing realization that there’s actually a field that is dedicated to this. So that’s how I got into it. So it was it wasn’t until, you know, maybe two years after undergrad that I really found my path. And after that I got my MPH in environmental health.
I would push back on one thing you said, and that’s that you didn’t have the strength, when you went to the Ivory Coast. I don’t think that’s a strength thing. I mean, I think having an emotional response to stuff like that is, that’s just who you are. I wouldn’t consider that a lack of strength. And obviously you’ve channeled your energies into other really cool areas to promote health. So you mentioned that experience in shaping you but I’m wondering if that or if there’s a defining moment or event that shaped your identity up to this point.
Yeah, um, so I have a twin sister. And I think growing up we were, in schools especially, we were always compared. So like, you know, there was always a comparison thing happening. If not that, our names were interchanged.
And, you know, my parents didn’t help with that, because my name is Misbath, and hers is too so. I don’t know. It was easy to make that mistake. But I think something it taught me growing up and always having someone that I would be compared to is that there is always room for growth. There’s always room for improvement. And there’s always going to be someone who does some things better than you do, which you know, like she’s amazingly capable of doing things that I can’t.
And so it just made me a really, someone who really embraces change, I would say. And I see that as reflected in my career, how willing I am to take on different challenges, someone who always wants to reflect, and is always really questioning, is there room to do better?
So I want to talk about your work now, as you’re pursuing your PhD, but I have a quick question, and what is it about New York that you love so much. New York City.
Um, so I guess, after graduating undergrad, I spend a lot of time in Boston. And then my sister was doing a year abroad in New York. And so I was going back and forth between Boston and New York, and just was having so much more fun in New York than in Boston.
But overall I think Boston is a great place for, you know, people who are interested in academia, mostly. I think it’s a great place for researchers and scientists, because it’s just this really, you know, like this huge brain that is always on. I used to joke that, you know, you walk into a coffee shop in Boston, and you hear about, you know, CRISPR, and all these things. These are the casual conversations that people are having.
And so I think if that’s your interest, it’s amazing to be in Boston, but it’s also, it’s a bit restricting, I think, it just doesn’t give you as much exposure to other paths in life. It’s also a very segregated city.
And that, I think, kind of took a toll on me later on, just wanting to find my people seemed to be difficult there.
Yeah, I asked that. And I asked that loving New York. I mean, I lived in Chicago for a time. Never, never lived for any stretch of time in New York. But there is just such an energy there. I mean, it’s a cliché. But I live in a very rural area. And a lot of people that live in cities go out to the country for vacation, and I usually do the opposite. I go into a place like Manhattan, and I just feel recharged. The food and diversity. It’s, it’s a magical place. It is.
So now you’re in New York, pursuing your PhD in Environmental Health Sciences. And you specifically examine energy transitions. And one of the projects you’re working on, combating household air pollution with clean energy, is looking to promote these clean cooking technologies in Ghana. And I’m wondering if you could walk us through some of this research, including traditional cooking technology used and why they’re harmful?
Sure, um, so yes, energy transitions is what I focus on.
Right now, I think, part of the reason why I’m passionate about energy is because we all use it, we all need it. But some of us have choices as to where the energy we use comes from, and others don’t. And that has clear implications for the environment, but also for our health and the health of the people we love, the people we live with. So that’s really the big driver behind why I chose to focus on energy transitions.
And in Ghana, as in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and in low and middle income countries, the way people meet their cooking and energy needs usually is through the use of solid fuels. So in Ghana, that often is charcoal, or wood.
And basically, the burning of these fossil fuels, of the solid fuels for cooking leads to carbon emissions that are bad for the environment, but also really high levels of air pollution in homes. And traditionally, in these settings, women are more likely to be doing the cooking or to be doing the collection of fuels. So they are the ones who end up being more exposed just because they spend more time around the cookstoves and around these polluting fuels. And so our children, as well. And so this new, this project, actually it came about as an initiative from the president of Columbia University called the Columbia World Project, which basically aims to ensure that all the knowledge we generate here at Columbia, makes it to the places where it’s most needed, that it’s implemented, and that it’s used to create change. And so as part of this, this initiative, my advisor along with other colleagues, put in a grant to do this work. And basically, what I want to highlight is that there has been a lot of work already and a lot of investment in these in these transitions away from solid fuels in India, in other parts of the world, in sub-Saharan Africa as well.
And the way we try to build on those, but also try to take a different approach can really be broken down in about three, three features. The first one is that, in the past those transitions were done at the household level. So we would go find your household and explain why it would be beneficial to transition, provide them with subsidized stoves, and see if they would, you know, take them and use them. But in this case, what we are doing is we are focusing on entire communities. Because what some of the previous results have shown is that, even though household may transition to a cleaner fuel, if the neighbors are still using polluting fuel, then you’ll still have air pollution in a closed environment. So that’s one feature.
And then the other one is also that we’ve come to appreciate something that’s called stacking. Basically, what happens is that a household might accept a new, cleaner stove, but then still end up using polluting fuels, for certain activities. And so, even though they’ve taken up this new stove, or new fuel, there’s still some exposure to air pollution from the use of the old stove. And to address that what we are thinking of offering households in Ghana is basically a set of options, trying to move away from this idea that there is a silver bullet technology, and understand that depending on different activities, whether it’s cooking, boiling water, or you know, other activities that require energy, households might need just different technologies.
And then the last one, is thinking about behavior change approaches that take into account, how do people make decisions within households regarding their expenses? Related to energy? What are the choices that they have and how do they make those decisions. And that’s a part that I’m really interested in trying to understand intra-household dynamics. Often, what we have come to understand is that often women might prefer a cleaner fuel, but don’t have the bargaining power, they are not the ones who usually make decisions about expenses. And so there is a clash there as to which member of the household prioritizes what.
And that’s the part that I’m really, really interested in, because I think it could tell us a lot about how do we move the needle in this in this work?
This is why your research fascinates me because my brain is this very kind of linear, where it’s like, okay, there needs to be new energy. Let’s go build it. And then let’s do the next one. Let’s just do it. And that’s how my brain works. My little pea brain. But there’s so much that goes into this, and what so when you buck up against something like this social, gender dynamics and household, let’s just take that as an example. So now you maybe understand that, that maybe women don’t have the bargaining power, but you still want to get a cleaner fuel in front of people. What do you do with that information? What’s the next step? To try to change a social norm like that?
Yeah. And before I answer, I just want to go back to what you just said, I do think that technology are important. Tou know, I think we have, I do appreciate all the work that has gone into making cleaner energy more accessible, and especially more affordable. I don’t want to minimize that there are constraints that aren’t just, you know, social dynamics. But I think the choices that are made between marginally different options, is where I’m trying to focus a bit more on relationships between households, as opposed to you know, like, a polluting stove versus a clean stove that is more a bit more binary.
So yeah, I mean, that is a challenge. I think understanding that women might not have as much of a bargaining power definitely helps. But again, this is, there has been really limited work in that space. So for me, one first step is trying to understand why that’s the case where we are working right now, so in Ghana. The example I was mentioning, I think, came out from a study in India. But so trying to understand what if that is the case, and that is the driver behind how decisions are made is the first step. And then the second is really trying to understand is that if the only barrier, if women had the means would they really try to move toward a different stove and which of the activities they are doing would they actually do with a different one.
So I think engaging with these woman in a way that I don’t impose on them my vision of what the only limitation is, but instead really listen to what they will be doing differently had the context been different is where I’m hoping to generate some knowledge.
So does this type of research involve spending lots of time down there and spending time with women and households and families to just sit and understand?
Yeah, and so had it not been for COVID, I think one of the things I really wanted to do last summer was to collaborate with someone who is an ethnographer, so who does ethnographic studies, and just spend a lot of time studying people in their environment, observing people, just watching their day by day activities, without any hypothesis-driven kind of work or intention behind that time spent. And I think, of course, it this is difficult to ask, you know, any energy transition organization or initiative to commit to, but as a PhD student, I think that that’s what makes this time special, right? I feel like I’m thinking for five years, out of maybe other activities I could be doing. But the reason why I do it is because I want to dedicate time to understanding something that really matters to me. And the only way I can fully understand it and feel like I’ve made the most use of my time, is really delving deep into this topic. Spending three months with the community doesn’t really feel like too much of an ask when you know, I have all this time to figure it out. So yes, I mean, I think their attentions in terms of trying to promote a bit more ethnographic way of doing things in this industry, of course, there’s a pressure of time and the fact that we want to move fairly quickly on this. But if there is even the slightest inclination that this could actually help us move towards adoption, as opposed to just take up, then it would be huge.
I’m always reminded of how journalism, at least in my own mind, is like a smaller version of science. When you’re talking about being there, and maybe just kind of being embedded, and kind of soaking in what you’re seeing, because I always tell young reporters, when they’re in the field meeting with families or communities, sometimes just put your notebook away, put your camera away, because number one, it makes people a little shyer and they feel maybe being exploited to some extent. But it also, there’s something about just letting your brain engage with people, and observe, that I think is really important, whether you’re telling their story or trying to understand their story. So there’s this other main component of your research that I at least wanted to touch on a little bit is examining the impact of coal plant pollution, on racial disparities and birth outcomes. So what have you worked on there? And what have you found?
Yeah, um, I think about this work similarly that I do with the work in Ghana. I think the question behind all of this for me is, if we managed to figure out how we can move towards cleaner energy and renewable energy, who’s going to benefit from it, and at what cost? So in Ghana, it might be that some people in the household benefit more than others, and then here in the U.S. is more so that some groups might benefit more than others, depending on whether they’ve been exposed to power plant emissions, for example, to a greater degree than others. So I think, in a way, you know, different scale, different settings, different contexts. But for me, the question behind it is very similar, if not the same.
So this work basically, is also, has been, I guess, motivating for me, because it focuses on a policy that was already implemented. And that’s what triggered all power plants in the U.S., especially coal power plants to retire. So coal has been used historically to generate most of the energy in the US. And then over the past decades, we’ve really seen a decrease in the number of coal-fired power plants that that were basically working. And so the question that I was asking that triggered this work was really, when that happened, when those power plants shut down, and we saw a reduction in air pollution levels, who benefited? Are there groups that benefited more than others? And the question that I asked specifically was looking at preterm births. In the U.S. we know that the rate of preterm birth is much higher among Black women than it is among White women. So the hypothesis since that I had was that, well, if we take away the scope pollution or just reduce it significantly, then maybe that disparity in preterm birth between those two groups is going to decrease.
And then, so I looked at data from 2010 to 2020, about 10 years worth of data. And
what we found was actually no, it looked like the rate of preterm birth decreased more among, sorry, it looked like the association between coal pollution was stronger among white women, so that they might have benefited more from this transition. And I think there are a few ways that you can think about explaining these results. The first one is that we were restricted to counties that were mostly urban counties. And so in urban areas, I think it’s fair to assume that Black woman might live in city centers where you don’t see as much, you know, power plants, and then White women might be living in the suburbs. So that might be one way. The other way we were thinking about, what goes into increasing the risk of preterm birth? It’s not just air pollution. And though I thought that air pollution was a strong contributor to that risk, I think it’s also important to recognize that some of the reasons why Black women have higher preterm birth rates is his health care, or it’s exposure to other triggers that might have a higher contribution.
But all in all, reflecting on this work, and how, you know, I went in with a very strong hypothesis and was basically proven wrong. I think it really made me think about the fact that we need to measure equity outcomes, that we can’t just assume a policy or a branch is going to deliver both on environmental and equity outcomes, and then leave it at that.
And so that’s the new, you know, a new area of research that I’m hoping to get into. And I’m hoping to really push for this monitoring and evaluation of equity outcomes, so that we’re not just overstating the benefits that some programs and policies can have in terms of equity.
So that leads me very nicely into my next question, and maybe it’s the answer to it. And that’s as you work towards your PhD, where do you see opportunities for the field you’re going into. to do and be better for the communities that they research and serve?
Yeah. So building on this idea of measuring equity, I think that’s, that’s a strong one. It’s really trying to be transparent about what equity really is, and making sure that we don’t overstate what a policy can accomplish. Because when we do, then we divert our attention and resources from a real issue. So that’s one.
But I guess zooming out is really making sure that when we talk about just transitions, when we talk about fair transitions, we really put communities at the center, and we understand what does fair even mean to them. What might be fair for a community in New York City might not be fair for a community in a rural area in terms of how they transition. What do they consider just, and what are their, not just needs but also preferences, right?
I think the way I think about energy or the way I’ve seen it, displayed, there is almost always
a desire to show love or care for the people around us. As we use energy, whatever it is, making sure that you know, the home is warm, making sure that, you know, our loved ones are fed. All these activities drive the way we think the way we use energy. And I think that shouldn’t be forgotten from, shouldn’t be the absent of the frameworks we use when we motivate communities to transition.
I love that answer. Because there’s, in your what you wrote for the Agency of Change essay was really a call for acknowledging nuance and detail. And I know from my own personal reporting, I’ve reported on environmental justice for more than a decade. And when I’m in Detroit, and its lead poisoning, or I’m in the crow reservation in Montana, and it’s water contamination, its environmental injustice on both of those and they look wildly different in an inner city, and then a 2 million acre reservation. I mean, they are, it is worlds apart. Yes under the same umbrella of racial injustice. So I think that that nuance on the research side and on the journalism side are so important.
And I want to talk about that, kind of the act of writing this essay and having your ideas kind of thrust into the public sphere, I don’t know your experience to this point with kind of writing for a lay audience and having it be published in a place like EHN. But what was that experience like? What did you learn? And any tips for people who want to engage in more science communication for the broader public?
Sure. Um, yeah, so it was definitely my first time having, you know, an essay on a platform that is so well read. And I was nervous, I think, you can tell that I’m nervous right now. So you can imagine when that was coming out.
I’m not sure what were the anxiety or the worry was coming from, but I’ve always made sure my writing was only read by a few people and never really shared that. And so it was a new experience. I’ve really enjoyed it. I think it was really interesting to see how it resonated with people to varying degrees.
Something that a lot of people have talked about is James. So in the essay, I talked about James, who is my favorite plant in my apartment, and in the essay, I refer to my concern about leaving him in an apartment, that would be too cold when I went on vacation.
And I think people realized that, you know, these decision happens all the time, to that example. And so I felt like I had hit the mark there. And then, in general, I think, you know, I’ve, I’ve received all sorts of feedback. One that has led to a potential opportunity is this colleague who’s working, now colleague, but she’s working in Maryland, in the Department of Energy, and has been thinking about how do we encourage more qualitative work, more listening of communities, in the energy transition space. And so she was really happy to read my essay. And then she reached out, and we started thinking about ways that we can encourage this kind of work, but also address the main concern that really is usually resources and, and budget limitations.
So it was just great to be able to brainstorm with someone who is doing very similar work, she’s in Maryland, so she actually knows the undergrad where I went to and so it was, you know, it was funny to see that we had different areas where we connected.
Yeah. And then, in terms of tips, I don’t know that I’m, you know, it was my first time doing this, I don’t know that I have the best tips. But I think something that I think about a lot when I do, when I take part in work that might be a little stressful for me, I guess, is it’s just stressful, because at some point, the ball is no longer in your court. You know, at some point, the essay is out, and then people are going to interpret it the way they want and things like that. So I guess that’s, that’s probably the reason why it was stressful. But something I think about when I do anything that’s quote unquote, “stressful,” is that whenever you do something, I think you have to give the best scenario, a chance to happen. So you have to do really put your best effort out there, and really hope and believe that it’s going to be well received. And I think that’s part also of science communication, or communication in general. It’s, yeah, not to worry too much about negative outcomes or anything like that, because they are, they are rare, as I’ve learned.
Yeah, but the anxiety is real. And I totally understand. I mean, what where we’re at now, the way we publish online is, as soon as I hit publish, it is your ideas or whomever is writing, is thrust into this marketplace where people can just comment without reading, can comment with reading it. And on one hand, you can have these beautiful outcomes where you’re connecting with people, like you did, or people are, it’s resonating with them on some level, or you can have negative interactions which I’ve had for a decade.
So the anxiety is totally real, but I’m glad that you did have a positive experience because it was a really powerful piece and I learned a lot through working with you on editing it. And, so do you see this science communication, and I don’t know how much you use social media to engage with this piece or otherwise, but do you see that kind of fitting into your broader work moving forward?
Yes, definitely. So I didn’t have a Twitter account before starting this fellowship. I think that’s also something that has been said on the podcast. And it’s great to find a community of scientists who think alike who literally use this platform to brainstorm which I think is amazing. Share ideas, share opportunities, especially right now that we all feel a bit disconnected from each other and from colleagues. I think it’s an amazing place to communicate.
And then, you know, some things that I’ve enjoyed, have always been these, like, Twitter threads, and I’m hoping to do more of those when I publish papers that really break down what the main findings of the papers are, the limitations even, and then the path forward. And so, you know, it doesn’t, it doesn’t replace reading the entire paper, I think everybody should. But I think it’s a really great way to, well first as an exercise for each scientist to learn how to communicate in a way that the broader audience can understand. But also make sure that, you know, like, we’re all under time constraints, and so that everybody who can dedicate a few minutes to read that thread, at least understands what has been accomplished there. So that’s definitely something that I’m hoping to do more of. Yeah.
That’s great to hear. And if you think about it, if you publish a new paper, and it goes into a journal, and you don’t do any kind of outreach,and you let it sit there, who knows who sees that. Hopefully, people in your field and stuff, but if you spend the half hour to put this Twitter thread together, and it catches fire, like things do online. All of a sudden, you’ve expanded your reach, maybe by the 1000s. I mean, it’s a really, it can be a really powerful tool.
So I’m glad to hear that. So Misbath, we have come to my final question. And if you’ve listened to the podcast, you know what it is, you’re probably prepared. But what is the last book you read for fun?
Yes, I am prepared. It is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
And basically, this book focuses on twins. Unsurprisingly, but these two characters for me have been really unforgettable. It’s basically twins that separate at some point in their lives. One of them manages, they’re Black, but one of them manages to pass as a White woman. And that changes the trajectory of her life and then of people who come after her. And so it’s a very poetic, but at times also very sad commentary on race, gender, and class. And it’s done in a very intricate and beautiful way. My sister and I read it at the same time, so I think that also added to, to what we took away from it. But yeah, I think passing is just something that has not really been written about very much. And so for me it was a really enjoyable, I mean, enjoyable in some ways, but interesting read.
Thinking about two twins reading a book about twins at the same time just made my head do a complete spin-around.
And I was reading in English, she was reading in French, so. Add that to it too.
Perfect, and we’ve come full circle. That was perfect. Misbath, I hope you are able to go out and enjoy a beautiful spring day in New York City. And thank you so much for taking time with me today.
Thank you so much for having me. I had fun.