Visualizing Social Justice in South Seattle: Data Analysis, Race, and The Duwamish River Basin

Eunice Blavascunas, University of Washington

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


What are the connections between environmental limits and human values? This group mapping activity teaches students how to connect environmental degradation with social inequality by looking at data that has already been collected and learning methods for collecting data. We examine the factors of race and environmental contamination, starting from the premise (and data proving) that race is not a biological, scientifically valid category, but a social, historical construction with real world consequences for equal access to health, resources, and power. Rooting this concept in the history of anthropological thought and connecting it to the concept of environmental limits the students' look at data that correlates concentrations of racialized peoples with a polluted waterway. Students learn how to articulate and visualize the contamination and alteration of the Duwamish River Basin (a superfund site) with the growth of wealth in Seattle, whereby those who live in the most contaminated parts of Seattle do not benefit from the wealth their neighborhood has produced.

Learning Goals

Students map social relationships and environmental degradation using a community mapping style. By doing so, students obtain a placed-based, regional understanding of how zones of environmental sacrifice (industrialized areas) reflect concentrations of wealth, privilege and power. This activity teaches students how to use data from multiple sources to map biophysical and social interactions.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for a large lecture class (80 + students) on social science methods in environmental analysis.

Students are introduced to this activity late in the quarter after having already discussed several social science methods (interviews, demographics, participant observation, etc). The activity will require five classroom hours (50 minutes) each.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This activity would work for a large class group social science course in environmental methods and data analysis.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Learning Activities

Activities include readings, lectures, and a mapping exercise.

Lecture 1: Overview Lecture about the Duwamish River Basin

Students learn the environmental history of the Duwamish River basin, including how 19th century land in Seattle was radically altered and racially altered (waterways restructured, people excluded from settlements and tribal status). The lecture's historical focus covers the present where students learn about why the Duwamish River basin has been listed as a Super Fund site.

  • Matthew Klinge. 2005. "Fluid Dynamics: Water, Power, and the Reengineering of Seattle's Duwamish River". JOW 44:3, pp.22-29.

Series of three Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports from November 2007:

  • "Many question if Seattle's Duwamish waterway can ever be restored"
  • "Will it be safe to eat fish from the Duwamish?"
  • "Dangerous chemicals found in or around the Duwamish River"
Lecture 2: Race and the Misuses of Data

Class begins with an anonymous quiz on race that the teaching assistant tabulates during the lecture (see Attachments).

Students are exposed to the concept of race as a historical social construction. Using the writings of early twentieth century anthropologist, Franz Boas, the information presented works through the challenges Boas presented to the concept of race when he measured immigrant skulls, a practice widely reviled by Boas and others fighting proponents of white racial superiority in the early twentieth century. The lecture helps students see the power of data to prove or disprove societal views (uses and abuses of data). Provide information that connects Boas' story to the lived experiences of neighbors of the Duwamish River Basin today (largely people of color) who suffer disproportionate health effects because of the contamination of the river. Look at a the EPA's statement on Environmental Justice (1998) and ask what the consequences are of eliminating the category of race in data collection when it is not a scientifically valid biological category.
  1. Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulation, and policies.
  2. Explains what is meant by 'fair treatment': it means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations.
  • Boas, Franz (1912). "Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants." American Anthropologist, Vol. 14, No. 3, July-Sept, 1912.
  • Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "The Measure Of America." The New Yorker. 08-MAR-04.
  • AAPA statement on Biological Aspects of Race
Assignment: Students must submit online blog about the pros and cons of using race as a category in environmental data. Students will receive a participation grade for reading at least two other people's entries and writing a one paragraph response.

Lecture 3: Economics and Environmental Externalities.

Lecture introduces students to the method of cost benefit analysis. What is the public's willingness to pay for the costs of industrial growth? The lecture will work our way through a hypothetical example of early city engineers and planners. How did the physical geography of the Duwamish River Basin and the demographics of early 20th century Seattle enable Seattle's industry to grow and flourish at the cost of people inhabiting the basin? Provide information to work through the time value of money in a scenario that shows how wealth has grown over a one hundred year period. Ask questions: What are the vested interests of those who often propose cost benefit analysis? And who and what are external to the valuing of a cost/benefit analysis.

Lecture 4: Citizen Science and Community-Based Monitoring.

Students learn how members of a community affected by contamination monitor and watch their health and the health of biological systems. They'll consider the benefits and pitfalls of data collected by people most affected by environmental injustice. And they'll also consider long standing monitoring projects of biological systems by more affluent community members who belong to groups like Audubon or join Earth Watch expeditions and compare the way various demographic groups and the data they collect are used and respected.

  • "Local Knowledge in Environmental Health Policy" Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. Corburn 2005.
  • Robert Brulle and David Pellow. "Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Inequalities" in Annual Review of Public Health. 2006 27:103-24.
Lecture 5: Community Mapping

Students will learn how community mapping differs from other types of mapping used to plan, develop and control people and land. The class will look at the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition's 'Vision Map' produced by collecting various types of data (interviews, surveys, focus groups).

Assignment: Students will work in groups of five to create rudimentary hand drawn maps. Each student group will be provided with two types of data used to tell a story about environmental limits and human values in the Duwamish River. The students need to visualize this data on a map that would be a map of the Duwamish River Basin (provided to them as a downloadable image) and two sheets of Mylar on which they can draw relationships. The data will include (health statistics, demographics, cancer clusters, source and non-source pollutants, interviews, and surveys). Students should spend 7-10 hours on this assignment with most of the time spent looking at the data, discussing it, and collectively coming up with a novel and interesting way to visualize this data using the limited format of Mylar layers (not expanding out into fancier computer technologies). Each student will have to turn in a one page write-up of the kinds of data they have and what piece of the puzzle this is. How can they tell a story about race and social justice using their piece of data. Are their limitations to the data? Which methods were used in collecting the data? What do they know about this data?

Quiz on Race ( 105kB Oct21 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips


Students will be assessed on their ability to determine what is 'legible' when it comes to data. The point of this assignment is that some people's experiences and stories get left out of data (are 'illegible')or are skewed and manipulated to tell stories that are not accurate (such as the use of data to 'prove' racial superiority in eugenics).

In their one page write-up students need to discuss the human values that sacrifice people and place as cities create wealth. Students must address how race figures in to the picture of historically displacing people and locating polluting industries in neighborhoods where race and class are linked.

Informal assessments include in class overview of 'race quiz' and online blog check.

References and Resources

Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

Coll Thrush. Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place. University of Washington Press. 2008.

Evergreen State College