By Published: April 25, 2017

With environmental justice programs showing minimal success in bringing equality to low-income communities, Jill Harrison is actively exploring bureaucratic causes. This year, the associate professor in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder will have the time to comprehensively encapsulate her research concerning how regulatory culture may be facilitating this failure, thanks to a fellowship from American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), which funds advanced research in the humanities.

“I’m just exceptionally grateful for the opportunity that the university and the ACLS are giving me to develop this research,” said Harrison, who was recently awarded a one-year fellowship to pursue her studies.

The ACLS provides half the funding to grant Harrison a year’s salary to pursue the research without having to attend to her teaching duties as an associate professor in the CU Department of Sociology, and CU provides the other half of funding.


Jill Harrison

Harrison is hoping to publish a book on the research — titled “Regulatory Culture and the Failure of Government Programs for Environmental Justice” in the fellowship award — which she has been developing for years. MIT Press published her first book in 2011, “Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice,” an award-winning investigation of how rural communities are poisoned by chemical farming practices and fight for stronger pesticide regulations.

Harrison has also published recent academic articles pertaining directly to her current research, including: “Bureaucrats’ Tacit Understandings and Social Movement Policy Implementation,” published in 2016 in Social Problems; and “Coopted Environmental Justice? Activists roles in shaping EJ policy,” published in 2015 by Environmental Sociology.

In those articles, she explored how environmental justice practices had deviated from EJ movement priorities in select grant programs and organizations, but this year Harrison hopes to take a more comprehensive look at how environmental justice programs are marginalized by bureaucratic priorities.

“Other scholars have provided information about why EJ efforts have been so slow to succeed, and it’s important to note that I’m building on this information,” Harrison said. Much of the research has focused on factors such as limited funding and overworked staff, as well as analytical limitations such as the inability to assess the cumulative effects of multiple chemical exposures.

“What I’m adding to this discussion is what I’ve learned in my conversations with government employees,” said Harrison, whose primary research methodologies are in-depth confidential interviews and group observation of government agency staff. Often the employees assigned to track and promote environmental justice priorities feel their input is marginalized by other employees whose priorities are aligned more with long-standing agency concerns and practices, such as reducing aggregate levels of pollution and protecting wilderness areas and wildlife.

What I’m adding to this discussion is what I’ve learned in my conversations with government employees."

“They can also face resistance from their colleagues who may actually protest the priorities of EJ reform, and some feel bullied from making proposals,” Harrison said. “Many feel everyday resistance to focusing on their EJ programs.”

Overall EPA funding, of course, is threatened by the Trump Administration’s proposed budget, though Harrison indicated that much of her field research is already complete. Many EJ advocates believe that the EPA suggested cuts will be aimed directly at environmental justice measures, which have been weakly funded since President Clinton’s 1994 executive order on EJ.

Harrison said she already has a publisher interested in her work, which she hopes will become something of a “cross-over success” for both academic and general audiences, much as “Pesticide Drift” became. More so, she hopes the research will illuminate problems with enhancing environmental justice programs and help create a culture for success.

“I’ll be spending most the year reviewing my interviews to analyze the roots of this resistance and how that dovetails with broader ideologies of racial and economic injustice,” Harrison said.

“With all the environmental agencies in the United States, it feels very abstract, and I’m figuring out how to make my recommendations very concrete,” Harrison said.

But “what’s being addressed is how to reduce in the inequalities so that your race, or your income, doesn’t determine your life chances.”