Laurel Berman

Laurel Berman
Location: Chicago, Illinois Cohort Start Year: 2016 Project Topic: Environmental Justice
Environmental Health Scientist
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

Laurel is part of an initiative to create Healthfields in Navajo Nation as a model for other regions. Healthfields is the safe reuse of environmentally impacted lands to improve health outcomes. Environmentally impacted lands may be contaminated, but could be cleaned and reused. These sites are called “brownfields” or land reuse sites. They often drag down communities, presenting dangerous chemical contaminants and exposures, lowering property values, and contributing to overall blight and disinvestment. Navajo Nation is representative of communities with multiple land reuse sites, and are often communities with a history of discrimination and injustice. Through community empowerment and diverse partnerships, we can all create Healthfields through community expertise, small wins, and a shared vision for equity.

STRATEGIC INITIATIVE: Navajo Cultivate Healthfields from Brownfields Project
Through a community focus, we are creating a culture of healthfields. Healthfields is the safe reuse of environmentally impacted land—blighted and potentially contaminated properties called “brownfields”—to improve community health. This strategic initiative is focused on four Navajo chapters in Chinle, Tsaile, Red Lake, and Shiprock. These communities are burdened by numerous land reuse sites that are blighted/contaminated commercial, industrial, and residential properties, including old gas stations and petroleum tanks, decaying homes, hazardous waste, and uranium mining sites. Poverty is abundant, as are poor health outcomes, including heart disease and diabetes. Access to medical care is limited, and wholesome food is scarce. Many Navajo live without electricity (32%), plumbing (31%), water services (38%), natural gas (86%), and telephone services (60%). Navajo citizens share pasts built on discrimination and displacement. In the 1860s, 10,000 Navajo and Apache suffered the “Long Walk” and were forced to walk 450 miles to a remote reservation in New Mexico, where nearly one-third of the population died. Until the mid-1900s, Navajo were forced into boarding schools and punished for practicing their own language and customs.

As an environmental professional, Laurel witnessed the devastation that environmental contamination and impacted sites created in communities. She saw boarded buildings, open dumping, and few amenities in these communities. This drove her to pursue graduate degrees in public health, and for 12 years she has been living the dream: working directly with communities to create visions for physical, environmental, and economic health. The Culture of Health program has helped Laurel leverage partnerships and change personally as a leader to become a team member in a variety of communities. She has also documented success, such as removal of contamination, jobs created through redevelopment, and money leveraged to create a healthy economy and provide community benefits. The Culture of Health Program is helping Laurel “brand” Healthfields as an organization that can fund small projects to spread the word about health-focused land reuse and redevelopment.

Click here to watch Laurel’s Legacy Project video.