Kenya Goodson is a native of Tuscaloosa’s West End in Alabama. With an affinity for math and science, she received her bachelor’s in chemistry from historically Black Stillman College, her master’s in environmental management from Samford University, and a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Alabama. Goodson is vice-president of the board of the Black Warrior River Keeper, adjunct professor of environmental science at the University of Montevallo, and science instructor for first generation college-bound high schoolers through Stillman College's Upward Bound program. ESAL interviewed Goodson about her path to applying her science background to improve environmental education and management in her community.
DR: You are in the very community you were raised in, working toward positive change for people and their environment. Could you tell me about your recent elected appointment as vice president of the board for the Black Warrior Riverkeeper?
Goodson: Black Warrior Riverkeeper is part of a global Waterkeeper Alliance network that aims to ensure safe and livable watersheds for people. Here, our watershed extends from the central-northern area of Alabama, through Tuscaloosa where I live, and then southward. The River Keeper nonprofit works to patrol the watershed for individual or corporate polluters. Our mission is to encourage individual stewardship, call out instances of illegal dumping that violate the Clean Water Act, and otherwise ensure that the river is kept clean.
DR: What inspired you to get involved with the Black Warrior Riverkeeper?
Goodson: I grew up just five minutes from this river, yet wasn’t aware that it existed. That’s how disconnected my grade school education was from the natural environment around us. After graduate school, I joined the Technical Advisory Group of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper. Their executive director, Charlie Scribner, was very welcoming and has become a trusted colleague and friend.
DR: What do you hope to achieve in your new role on the board?
Goodson: The Black Warrior River passes through many low-resourced communities, which are especially vulnerable to problems with pollution. I’d like to focus on educational outreach, especially on exposing more people of color from under-resourced communities to the environmental science field. There are environmental justice issues that need to be addressed.
DR: Do you feel that you are well-positioned to make change as a native to this area?
Goodson: Yes, for any demographic, our viewpoints are limited to what we get exposed to. The predominantly African American community I was raised in just didn’t have much access to environmental science or other science careers. As a woman of color on the board, I show that someone like me can be an environmental engineer and educator. It shows that “I can do it too.” Just seeing role models from their own background is important for teens.
DR: Do you directly mentor people from your community in discovering science careers?
Goodson: Yes, I teach physics, chemistry, and physical science in a college preparatory program called Upward Bound at my alma mater, Stillman College. We expose high school students to the college experience and assist them with their coursework as well as provide summer opportunities. I hope to show students that they can have science-related careers if they are interested. I’ve brought Charlie and people from other organizations to these students to expose them to a range of possibilities.
DR: How did you realize that you wanted a civically relevant environmental career?
Goodson: I had always been politically active, but after college I was not sure what to do with my chemistry degree. My mom, who I lived with, had not attended college, so was not really in a position to advise me. I got a job as a government regulator doing onsite wastewater inspections in Tuscaloosa County. I discovered that regulations do not take care of everyone, such as people of the lowest socioeconomic status who live in high-pollution areas. Improving the safety of our environment is not only science and engineering, but also policy and education. I had an epiphany that I wanted to merge science with community work. That’s how I discovered environmental science and went back to grad school.
DR: How did graduate school shape your path afterwards?
Goodson: It was a bit of a bumpy road, honestly; there was some turbulence. With my doctorate, I got a job with a small environmental consulting firm in Washington, D.C., to work on best management practices for stormwater flowing into area watersheds. But I was unable to find a longer-term position and ended up moving back to Alabama. That was a crossroads for me, figuring out what to do from there.
DR: Clearly, you forged a new path here in your community of origin. What insights propelled you forward?
Goodson: Well, things did not go quite as I wanted, but it’s turning out to be really rewarding to give back to students and my community. The Black Warrior Riverkeeper work helped get me on my feet with using my degree to work in the community. The mission of that organization aligns well with my ideals about shaping environmental policy regulations to secure a safe natural environment. I realized that I am an engineer by training, but I’m also a researcher, educator, and community leader. That’s how I view my potential to give back.
DR: How do you think the example you have set influences the students, both high school and college, that you teach?
Goodson: I show my students that environmental science is very interdisciplinary – that I started in engineering, but then moved into environmental management with an interest in environmental justice. My students come to understand that for environmental issues, we need to look at politics and the environment together. Who is running for office to become our public officials, and what their views are, and weigh into our ability to make change.
DR: What advice would you give to young people about finding career paths in environmental sciences?
Goodson: I would tell them that they deserve to be in that space, no matter their background, that they should have a voice. I’d advise them to just see if environmental science work is something they’d like to do. Volunteer with an environmental organization, apply for an internship, and talk to people like you that are interested in this field. I would have liked to have a role model – someone like me – to just ask the question “You like chemistry, have you thought about environmental science?”
DR: What are your aspirations going forward?
Goodson: I love students and I love learning. I want to do more community-based participatory research, looking at environmental health impacts and in relation to local, or state, or federal policies. I really want to stimulate more conversation about climate change, to make it less abstract and the solutions more practical to people in my community. Through the Citizen's Climate Lobby and written pieces, I’d like to help people understand the connection between their daily lives and climate change. Overall, I am looking toward some themes around environmental justice that I want to include in my educational and policy outreach.
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