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An Environmental Talk with the Parents

November 21, 2011 By Glasha Marcon, Macalester College

Today we present another installment in Minnesota 2020’s series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

I confidently walked into my second day of “Health and Environment Week” at my Russian School summer camp, sporting my stylish ‘Reduce, Recycle, Reuse’ t-shirt. I was 7 years old.

As I entered the classroom, I remembered my parents’ amused faces the night before, when I explained to them how to be “responsible recyclers” just like me. It was a concept they had not heard of, having emigrated from Russia to Northern California eight years earlier.



“Healthy Home” was written on the classroom board, and beneath it “Lead paint and mold.” As my counselor described the indicators and health risks of mold in the home, I immediately worried about my family’s low-income apartment.

My parents were not so amused later that night, as I explained to them the hazardous conditions in which we lived.

My point? Children are often the bridge between their immigrant families and America’s environmental values. Many foreign-born Minnesotans, as well as other low-income populations, live in substandard housing in areas containing mold, water and air pollution, and other environmental contaminants.

According to the Minnesota Medical Association, immigrants are especially susceptible to such conditions “either because they are unaware of their rights or because they fear reprisals for reporting substandard conditions or exploitation.”

As the immigrant and refugee population in Minnesota grows, the state needs to be more innovative in educating its foreign-born population on environmental issues.

According to the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau, about 7 percent of Minnesota residents are foreign-born, with 80 percent of the immigrant and refugee population living in the Twin Cities metro area.

While St. Paul, Minneapolis and the state Department of Health offer content in several languages, most public information websites in Minnesota don’t have multi-lingual messaging or links on their homepages.

Some may argue that it is not the responsibility of native-born citizens to pay for translating materials for immigrants, especially in the midst of a financial crisis. However, educating immigrants is in the best interest of natives; as more informed Minnesotans, immigrants will serve as another eye in spotting harmful contaminants, which will help protect native and foreign-born citizens.

Minnesota has great organizations that focus on teaching English as a second language to immigrants, but learning a new language, especially for elderly immigrants, can be a long and often difficult process, and their environmental safety should be ensured during this transition period.

In the past, Minnesota state agencies and local environmental and health organizations have partnered in very successful efforts to create educational materials for immigrants and refugees.

A good example was engaging the Hmong immigrant population in regards to hazardous fish consumption in local lakes and rivers. According to a Toxicology and Industrial Health study, Southeast Asian fishermen were catching and consuming an unhealthy amount of contaminated fish from some of the most polluted lakes and rivers in Minnesota.

The study revealed that written materials distributed at various Twin Cities locations, such as city parks and bait shops, were the main method of outreach. While these efforts were a step in the right direction—and probably the most that the Minnesota Departments of Health and Natural Resources could financially afford—the study indicated that oral communication was the most effective in reaching the immigrant population.

Minnesota government agencies, along with local nonprofit and educational organizations, must prioritize personal outreach to immigrant populations on environmental issues through fellow community members, or their children.

Children of immigrants are among the most environmentally at-risk population in Minnesota due to substandard housing and neighborhoods.

Minnesota state agencies and local governmental units should explore immigrant youth outreach both in schools and community centers. This way immigrant children can educate their families about the pressing environmental and health issues.

As more informed Minnesotans, immigrants and refugees will be able to report environmental or health code violations, such as mold or contaminated water, and remove the hazards from their families' living spaces.

Thanks to youth community outreach programs, I saved my immigrant family from living in hazardous environmental conditions. Let’s ensure the same for the thousands of diverse new Minnesota families. Let’s do it now, to improve the environment shared by native and foreign-born citizens alike.

Glasha Marcon is a Macalester College junior majoring in international studies.

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