Many of us find today’s COVID-19 face masks a little uncomfortable and annoying, but not Bay Science Teacher Laura Diaz. She welcomes the protection. In fact, she wishes she’d been offered this kind of protection from an equally hazardous community health threat when she was a child. Growing up in Pittsburg, CA, Laura recalls what it was like living in the shadow of a Dow Chemical plant. “My siblings and I spent most of our childhood playing outside. I had no idea that we had been exposed to toxic air until after unfolding the environmental justice story that plagued – and continues to plague – the neighborhood where I grew up.”
It wasn’t until a college professor introduced Laura to data mapping that she began to piece together a dark puzzle. Environmental data mapping layers pollution indicators and demographics over geographical maps to reveal correlations between public health issues and the environment. When Laura studied a data map of her hometown, she was shocked and angry to find that Pittsburg had a grim pollution profile and was in the 99th percentile for asthma. Turns out that Dow had a documented history of releasing toxins into the environment including sulfur dioxide, a noxious gas with serious implications for the human respiratory system.
“I was angry when I saw what I was exposed to and realized why I have asthma and chronic health conditions. I wondered how our legislators could allow this to happen, but it also motivated me. It gave me a sense of purpose to become a teacher and show people how to use information to heal our communities and to empower people who are disenfranchised.”
After a career as a public health microbiologist, Laura came to Bay in 2019, where she’s been lighting up passion in students ever since. During distance learning, she has transformed her Zoom classroom into an engaging forum for expert guest speakers, hands-on learning, and exploration. Students have learned about COVID-19 testing by touring a test lab with public health microbiologist Carlos Gonzalez. They developed CRISPR cas-9 models to explore how gene editing allows scientists to change an organism’s DNA. They conducted a live heart dissection alongside Dr. Nicholas Giest of Sonoma State University.
In the classroom, Laura’s passion for environmental justice shines through real-world, action-based projects. In the greater community, she is an activist. She recently launched the Educator Collective for Environmental Justice, a non-profit dedicated to empowering and supporting educators to drive social change towards environmental justice. The collective connects teachers with one another to share resources, events, and inspiration. The goal is to move beyond outdated education structures and into relevant and meaningful modes of teaching that inspire a commitment to environmental action.
“I now have the privilege of living in a community that is much healthier than the neighborhood where I grew up,” she said. “As a microbiologist, I feel it is incumbent upon me and my son to be more aware, to heal our communities, and to help people advocate for themselves,” she adds. “When you have the tools of knowledge, it is your duty to share that in a way that makes your community a better place.”