Wellness: From the Water’s Edge

Dr. Robert L. “Bob” Bartlett The Black Lens Contributor

You might be wondering why I have been wasting your precious time writing about everything but Wellness—choosing instead to call out environmental racism and writing about the black “parents” of the environmental justice movement. Well, environmental issues connect deeply with race, class and gender wellness.

I am a sociologist by training, and we begin with the big picture. My goal was to introduce you to the metaphorical chicken, in this instance, our natural world, before the metaphorical egg, that’s us. I prefer to take a holistic approach when trying to understand a human condition or when problem solving is called for. Assessing individual and community Wellness begins with understanding a people’s natural environment. Specifically, what is the health or history of the land they occupy? What do we know about the water they drink, and the air they breathe? Are certain illnesses more common than others where they live? Understanding human wellness begins with understanding the environments we occupy—the two are inseparable. Simply, if the spaces we occupy, if the air we breathe, and the water we drink, are unhealthy, we are very likely, not well.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness is associated with an active process of being aware and making choices that lead toward an outcome of optimal holistic health and wellbeing. According to them, wellness includes at least six variables: Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual, Social, and Environmental. A solid wellness foundation includes the condition of the natural environmental spaces we occupy.

Studies repeatedly show the health benefits of living in or near safe green spaces with access to nature areas. Those who do, live healthier, happier and longer lives. Young people who do, perform better in school and experience overall better health and well-being. Communing with nature is really good for us.

I’m fortunate to know the history of the ground I occupy and the neighborhood I live in. It was once an apple orchard that predated

organic farming. The land was sold, the trees were cut down, their stumps dug up and the top two-three feet of top soil hauled off. Any

toxic agricultural waste was likely hauled away with everything else. My neighbors typically own their homes and take pride in their appearance. The water is tested regularly and the air is, although sometimes smelly, breathable.

Too few black folks have the luxury to choose where they live based on the best wellness decisions. Besides crime statistics, we don’t typically know the environmental history of our neighborhoods. We live where we can afford to live. And, it isn’t always easy to learn of environmental threats we should be aware of. Being curious can bring much needed attention to hazardous environmental concerns. Mrs. Hazel M. Johnson, the “mother” of our environmental justice movement started the People for Community Recovery (PCR). What inspired her was the high number of premature deaths, birth defects and illnesses experienced by her and her black neighbors. Is it time to create our own PCR efforts?

There are environmental reasons why we, black folks, die young. We know the things that kill us. Here’s a short list: exposure to toxic urban waste, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart related ailments. Movements begin when a few individuals take ownership of a cause. There are things we can single-handedly do in order to live healthier lives. We can educate ourselves on the environs we occupy. We can find people in political office who can push for positive changes in our neighborhoods. We can lobby for well-lit streets and sidewalks, more shade trees and more safe green spaces in our neighborhoods.

We can push for vacant lots to be turned into urban gardens where we can grow our own food. We can seek others who can introduce us to publicly accessible nature areas like nearby lakes and rivers. We can learn new hobbies that will increase our ability to enjoy those areas. Wellness and our exposure to our natural environments are inseparable. No chicken or egg dilemma here. Toxic environments predate us.

Dr. Bartlett is a retired educator. He retired from Gonzaga University in 2007 and Eastern Washington University in 2020.