Climate protestersJill Harrison’s research helps identify the cultural relations and political economic processes that disproportionately situate members of racially marginalized, Indigenous, and working-class communities in dangerous spaces and precarious conditions that contribute to inequalities in life opportunity, illness, and death. She also identifies ways the state, social movements, and other institutions can more effectively redress those inequalities. She has done so through various cases of environmental and workplace inequality in the contemporary United States, including political conflict over agricultural pesticide drift in California, immigration policing and workplace inequalities in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, university engineering-for-development programs, and government agencies’ environmental justice reform efforts. She is especially interested in the prospects for fostering environmental justice through working with and within state institutions. 

Reparations protestersIn her recent major research project, she examines the disappointing pace of environmental regulatory agencies’ “environmental justice” (EJ) programs and policies as a case through which to understand why, despite reducing environmental hazards for the nation overall, agencies have not improved conditions in places enduring the greatest environmental burdens. Other scholars have shown that material factors outside the control of agency staff – budget cuts, limits to regulatory authority, industry pressure, and underdeveloped analytical tools – constrain the possibilities for EJ reforms to regulatory practice. Her research builds upon that work, focusing instead on demonstrating how agencies’ EJ reform efforts are also undermined by elements of regulatory workplace culture that transcend changes in administration. In particular, she shows how colorblind racism compels staff to reject EJ reforms as violating popular notions of what good regulatory practice entails. At the same time, her publications and outreach offer practical suggestions for how agencies can more effectively reduce environmental inequalities that deeply affect the lives of so many Americans, and they show how agencies’ EJ staff – those tasked with developing EJ reforms – endeavor to change both regulatory practice and regulatory culture from the inside out. She published these findings in a series of peer-reviewed journal articles and a book, From the Inside Out: The Fight for Environmental Justice within Government Agencies (MIT Press).

Industrial plantSharing these findings with target audiences has been one of Dr. Harrison’s key commitments in recent years. She has been invited to present her research on the challenges facing government agencies’ EJ reform efforts to the executive leadership, upper management, and other staff at numerous environmental regulatory agencies, including at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters and various regional offices, California EPA, the California Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board, the California Fish and Game Commission, the California Natural Resources Agency, and Washington State Department of Ecology. She also advises U.S. government agencies their environmental justice reform efforts through serving on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, she has given invited presentations to environmental nonprofit organizations and university departments. You can read about her research in articles in SalonThe Coloradan, and Public Books.

She is building upon this research in several ways that contribute to theoretical debates on the prospects for fostering environmental justice through engaging with the state. First, she is reviewing the extent to which and how scholars have recognized the contributions of bureaucratic creativity to environmental change, documenting techniques through which bureaucrats effect change in support of environmental justice within bureaucracies, and exploring unique creative practices used by EJ movement activists who get hired into staff positions within environmental regulatory agencies. 

Slaughterhouse workerSecond, she is starting a new project on environmental regulatory agencies’ use of cumulative impact assessment to support environmental justice. Scholars from science and technology studies and geography have shown that regulatory agencies have used environmental science in ways that contribute to environmental inequality. Notably, the core scientific practice within regulatory decision-making – risk assessment – perpetuates environmental inequality by ignoring the multiple hazards facing communities. Many scholars have argued that an alternative approach, cumulative impact assessment, could rectify the limitations of traditional risk assessment by accounting for the multiple harms facing overburdened communities. Recently, some environmental regulatory agencies have initiated the integration of cumulative impact assessment into regulatory decision-making to support environmental justice – what Harrison calls cumulative impact assessment for environmental justice (CIAEJ). However, little is known about how government agencies operationalize CIAEJ within regulatory decision-making contexts; how well these efforts rectify the limitations of risk assessment; what other social outcomes they contribute to; or why agencies’ efforts to integrate CIAEJ into core regulatory work have evolved as they have. This research will advance knowledge of the social organization of regulatory decision-making practice and its associate consequences by identifying the material, social, and cultural contexts shaping agencies’ use of CIAEJ science and how these CIAEJ initiatives impact quality of life in underserved communities.