No Time to Waste

By Linzy Rosen ’22Photography by Ackerman + Gruber, Aram Boghosian, and Alex Garcia
February 22, 2021

For Catherine Fraser ’19, Lilli Y. Garza ’20, and Joanna Keel ’19, the stakes have never been higher.

That’s because Black and Brown communities are at risk around the globe. The problems? Energy poverty, big polluters, inequity, to name a few. But these environmental-justice crusaders aren’t intimidated. In their work for some of the country’s most highly respected environmental organizations, they’re unearthing solutions, earning media attention, and crafting influential reports.

All before their 25th birthdays.

These three environmental policy graduates are just a few in a long line of Colby alumni working on behalf of the environment. They share a solidarity born from studying and training at one of the nation’s leading and oldest environmental studies programs.

Even though they’re no longer together on Mayflower Hill, said Garza, they continue to fight the same climate battle they started at Colby.

Taking on Goliath

Every single day in 2019, an industrial facility somewhere in Texas illegally polluted the air. So says Catherine Fraser ’19, a clean air associate at Environment Texas,

She’s making the industries’ damage impossible to ignore.

In Austin, Fraser is part of the Texas Clean Air Project, where she holds industrial polluters like refineries and chemical plants accountable in the Lone Star state. These facilities often abut Black and Latino neighborhoods, so-called fenceline communities, and the cancer-causing agents spewn have disproportionate impacts on their health.

“It certainly is an issue of justice here in Texas,” the Minnesota native said. And she’s speaking out about it.

Fraser frequently meets with activists to strategize advocacy plans, and her blog posts arm everyday citizens with tools to convince lawmakers to pass environmental legislation.

Catherine Fraser ’19

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to take legislative action to protect our air and our health this session.”

Catherine Fraser ’19, Environment Texas 

Fraser has also represented Environment Texas in dozens of local and national news outlets to make visible the effects of invisible pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, benzene, and butadiene. She’s been sought after to comment on articles in the Washington Post, the Texas TribuneGrist, and Popular Science, among others.

Last October Fraser authored Environment Texas’ Illegal Air Pollution in Texas 2020 report. In the 35-page, comprehensive paper, she reports that Texas companies illegally released more than 170 million pounds of air pollutants in 2019. In fact, the amount of unauthorized emissions has more than doubled since 2015.

“We think that’s unacceptable,” Fraser told Houston Public Media. To address the resulting health and equity issues, her report included recommendations for state and federal agencies.

And they’re listening. Since Fraser published her report, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has proposed a 20-percent higher penalty for illegal air pollution in counties with more than 85,000 people, she said. Riding on this momentum, Fraser is now pushing for a bill in 2021 that would close a pollution loophole and strengthen penalties.

“I’m optimistic,” she said, “that we’ll be able to take legislative action to protect our air and our health this session.”

Energizing and strengthening communities

Wisconsin native Lilli Y. Garza ’20 wants to solve some of the biggest challenges facing low-income families in the Midwest. For many, that involves understanding energy efficiency and its role in reducing energy poverty.

Energy efficiency aims to eliminate waste and minimize the energy needed for specific services, like heating and cooling, said Garza, a RAY Clean Energy Diversity Fellow at Chicago’s Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA).

“We’re trying to make sure that people understand energy efficiency and how it leads to a clean energy transition,” Garza said. It also plays a role in the fight against climate change.

Unfortunately, energy efficiency isn’t cheap. It involves weatherization such as adding costly insulation, air sealing, and higher-energy efficiency appliances to homes. In a first step toward finding a solution, Garza coauthored an energy affordability report that found that access to weatherization assistance programs isn’t universal.

Lilli Y. Garza ’20

“We’re trying to make sure that people understand energy efficiency and how it leads to a clean energy transition.”

Lilli Y. Garza ’20, Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

For the report, Garza interviewed program implementers in low-income communities to document challenges families faced in accessing these programs. For example, to qualify for weatherization, homes can’t have common, yet costly, structural issues like flood damage or holes. This forces many families to walk away from a program that could potentially lower their utility bills, improve access to affordable, reliable energy, and alleviate their poverty for the long term.

Weatherization is also critical for the environment by reducing wasted energy and emissions, said Garza, whose data will help to improve the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program.

It’s crucial to address climate change with a lens of justice and equity, said Garza, whose fellowship honors the first Black female zoologist. While Garza continues researching other programs to make weatherization accessible to all, she keeps low-income families front and center.

“There [are] these human aspects of climate change,” she said, “that are often left out of the story.”

Greening the global air

“We all breathe air,” said Joanna Keel ’19. “We’re all exposed to air pollution at some point or another to varying degrees.”

This statement isn’t just a fact for Keel. It’s why she shows up every day to turn the tide on air pollution on a global scale.

Keel, originally from Eswatini in southern Africa, is a research assistant at the nonpartisan Health Effects Institute (HEI) in Boston. Keel uses her global mindset and considerable research skills to support HEI’s experts in the fields of exposure science, epidemiology, and toxicology as they combat pollution exposure worldwide.

Keel specifically works with data from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, which estimates the rates of disease and disability from 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories.

Analyzing the GBD data, Keel contributed to HEI’s State of Global Air 2020 report as coauthor of the report’s ozone section. Her findings are striking. Globally, ground-level ozone accounted for one out of every nine deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2019.

Joanna Keel ’19

“It’s so clear in the numbers that we’re putting in. The work on these kinds of issues makes a difference.”

Joanna Keel ’19, Health Effects Institute

The highly regarded report was shared by major organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, and it was picked up by news sources around the world. But Keel wanted to extend the report’s reach.

Her goal? Making science accessible. She believes that it’s crucial to make science broadly understandable to everyday people because it deeply affects their lives and health.

To carry out this mission, she made significant contributions to the report’s interactive platform. Here, users can gain information on the effects of toxins and visualize pollution data based on geographical location.

Her research is informing policy—and saving lives. “It’s so clear in the numbers that we’re putting in,” said Keel. “The work on these kinds of issues makes a difference.”

Keel is now working on finding more evidence of the health effects of pollution in South Asia and southeastern Europe. She’s already starting to draft the State of Global Air 2021 report.

But Keel’s work doesn’t come without feeling the weight of the climate reality. It’s an emotion she shares with her former classmates.

“It’s the countdown,” Fraser said. “There’s a little under eight years left to take meaningful action on climate change before it’s too late.”