UC Berkeley School of Public Health student Laura Diaz named a ‘Student of the Year’ by Esri Innovation Program

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UC Berkeley School of Public Health student Laura Diaz has been named a “Student of the Year” by the Esri Innovation Program.

Diaz is one of 28 students from 22 institutions to receive this award, which recognizes students for their use of geographic information systems and geospatial technology, according to a campus press release and Canserina Kurnia, an Esri Innovation Program senior solution engineer for education. Diaz’s advisor, Charlotte Smith, a continuing lecturer at the School of Public Health, nominated Diaz for her project on environmental justice in the Bay Area.

“Laura is an exceptional student who confronts challenges head on with courage and grace,” Smith said in an email. “Her Student of the Year award was well deserved.”

Not only is Diaz a student, but she is also the founder and director of the Educator Collective for Environmental Justice, Smith added.

Diaz described the final product of her project as the coalescence of storytelling and maps. According to Diaz, the idea for her research stemmed from her personal experience growing up in Pittsburg, California and enduring the negative effects on health in a polluted neighborhood.

“It was just natural,” Diaz said. “I saw the CalEnviroScreen and then I saw how polluted Pittsburg was, and I was like ‘Are you kidding me? How are people allowing this to happen?’ ”

These questions instigated her journey of uncovering the origin of the city’s pollution, which is rooted in Pittsburg’s history of coal mining, she explained. Despite the industry leaving, a legacy of impaired water and hazardous waste remains.

As a resident of Pittsburg, Diaz always wondered why Walnut Creek was not polluted when her city was. She now attributes it to environmental racism, which she explained is connected to power and encompasses many “layers of racism — structural, institutional and internally mediated.”

“There’s this path of least resistance. So it’s like, where could Dow Chemical go?” Diaz said. “There’s no way it would have ever been permitted and sited in Walnut Creek, but because there was already a foundation of the polluting industry being in Pittsburg, it’s, unfortunately, kind of the case study of how things go.”

Diaz added that while she is grateful for the recognition of her work, she does not feel great about the subject, characterizing Pittsburg’s pollution history as a community trauma.

She explained that her entire focus and passion in terms of her research is concentrated on environmental justice in the Bay Area and addressing the “skeletons of environmental racism” in collaboration with her community.

“There’s a pretty vulnerable population in Pittsburg — it’s mostly Brown and Black. Poverty is high, and education levels are low,” Diaz said. “Unfortunately, academia calls this a zone of abandonment, and it should be relabeled as a zone of investment.”

Contact Kira Rao-Poolla at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kiraraopoolla.