Award of Herbert Hoover Humanitarian Medal Deepens Divide Between the Engineering Establishment & Environmental Justice Communities
Freshwater for Life Action Coalition (FLAC) Board of Directors
October 12, 2019
Marc Edwards
Today, the big five national engineering associations - the American Society of Civil Engineers; American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers; American Society of Mechanical Engineers; American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - are awarding the Hoover Humanitarian Medal to Virginia Tech's Marc Edwards at the American Society of Civil Engineers'  annual meeting in Miami, FLA.
On this occasion it is germane to consider the relationship between the engineering establishment and environmental justice communities. Why is it that these associations feel qualified to crown one of their members a model "Humanitarian" for his work in our cities without consulting with the people on the ground in Milwaukee, Flint, DC and other places, who have been leading the fight for safe, affordable and accessible water in their communities and have struggled with his terms of engagement?  What kind of arrogance, ignorance, or both is it that compels the engineering establishment to shut out the people's voices, while celebrating someone who has used lawsuits against community advocates, in what appears to us, as an effort to destroy any who critique his work,  and who has lost in US Federal Court?
Communities facing environmental and public health crises certainly need engineering, but they also need to have engineers listen to our voices, as well as to urge other elites in the policy-making world, the media, foundations, and non-governmental organizations to do the same. Engineers must learn to learn from our knowledge about what is going on in our bodies and in our communities, and take our concerns, needs, and proposed solutions into account as they practice their craft on us and in our homes and neighborhoods. They must also denounce any members of their profession who, under the conceit that we are "against science," turn their might against us to silence us.
If this is not done, engineers, then your work in our communities will likely be ineffective. While it might be your intention to serve us or even "save" us, the way we experience this type of "help" from you feels exploitative, paternalistic, and self-serving. Often, we are told that the crises we face make necessary a top-down approach, which routinely uses our local networks, our political capital, and even the scientific knowledge we have acquired, without proper attribution and to ends that we have not always been consulted about and even at times disagree with. To add insult to injury, at times, we feel that you pass off our work and knowledge as your own - raising money based on our struggles and burnishing your "hero/savior" image on our backs. But if we raise questions about how you conduct your work, we risk you turning against us, undermining our leaders, belittling us, icing us out from important decision-making tables, and substituting your story for ours - putting your agendas, not justice, at the center of the narrative. How is this "Humanitarianism"?
Ours is a call for you engineers, to pay attention to community perspectives. We, the public, are far removed from the pantheon you inhabit, but our lived experiences, our knowledge and our wisdom, are critical to coming up with solutions that work for us and our families and our neighbors. We demand that justice and human rights be at the core of how you engage with us. We demand to be heard and not ignored, to be at the center of solution making, not just subjects, or even worse, treated as part of the problem. We respect you and the knowledge you bring engineers, but we also have an expectation that your profession will respect us: our communities, our needs, our cultures, our history, and the fact that at the end of the day, we are the ones who have to live with the decisions you and other elites make on our behalf.
Sadly, today we, the engineering establishment and environmental justice communities, seem to be at a "malfunction junction." But we want solutions. We are standing up to demand that we be heard. We ask, where is a safe place in the engineering community to report how "Humanitarian" engineers treat us? We want more, not less, engineering so that we can make informed decisions about matters that affect our day-to-day lives. We want to have a dialogue with you but with the agreement that you will listen and not retaliate against us if you disagree or do not understand what we are saying.
Now is the time for dialogue. Your medal, your silence in response to our cries, your complicity in our silencing, are all deafening!
In Their Own Words  
"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." African proverb