Blue Water Baltimore’s Jenn Aiosa reflects on career

By LAUREN PADILLA | January 31, 2019

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Famartin / CC BY-SA 4.0 

Blue Water Baltimore focuses on cleaning up the Harbor and streams.

According to predictions from the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, Baltimore will encounter severe public health, infrastructural and economic issues as a result of global warming, from expanding rates of respiratory problems to extreme flooding. 

Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Baltimore is sea-level rise, which accompanies increasing global temperatures. Baltimore has devoted billions of dollars to restoring the Inner Harbor. Nevertheless, sea-level rise stemming from climate change has the potential to devastate the area. In 2018, Baltimore lodged a suit against several fossil fuel companies, emphasizing that the businesses have knowingly exacerbated climate change, thereby violating state legislation. 

Established in 2010, Blue Water Baltimore is a local organization that has contributed to a number of crucial restoration projects aimed at improving waterways in Baltimore, including monitoring water pollution in the city and advocating for more efficient environmental regulations. In an email interview with The News-Letter, Jenn Aiosa, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, offered her perspective on climate change, intersectional environmental advocacy and biases in environmental science. 

1. What have been your favorite Blue Water Baltimore projects and accomplishments so far?

It is a very exciting time to be at Blue Water Baltimore, as we become better known for the advocacy and restoration work we do, so planning for its future makes me very proud. One of my favorite parts of this job is helping to build a sustainable organization and helping to develop younger professionals who will ultimately take on leadership roles in the environmental community in the future.

2. How did your interest in environmental science begin? Would you talk a bit about your educational background and your early experiences as a woman environmental science student? 

I grew up on the coast of South Carolina, and I watched as poor land use and coastal development, coupled with hurricanes and coastal storms, repeatedly damaged our fragile shoreline. I’ve always loved the beach, the salt marsh, and I thought there had to be a better way to inform decision-making. So, I pursued a Marine Science degree at the University of South Carolina. 

I cannot remember a single female professor in college. I’m sure I had one, but there just weren’t that many. When I went onto graduate school, my advisor was a woman, one of few in the Environmental Sciences Department at University of Virginia. I realized early in graduate school that I did not want to pursue a PhD or a research career, but there were zero options that otherwise seemed available. 

Luckily, I received a fellowship and moved to Washington, D.C. to get a first-hand view of how policy was made in Congress. Again, this was a place dominated by men; I kept my head down and worked hard. I had one female colleague I really admired, and I befriended her. She spoke her mind but was always careful to have every fact, every detail, every answer at the ready. I learned from her that, at that point in time (1996) women seemed to have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in this field.

After that experience, I joined the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as a staff scientist. I enjoyed the work and realized I had found my place at the cross-section between science and policy as an environmental advocate. 

3. How would you describe the status of women and marginalized communities in environmental science today? In your opinion, what are the best ways to encourage increased intersectional participation in environmental initiatives?

While there are many more women in the field today than there were 20 years ago, there are not as many people of color or people from marginalized communities. In Baltimore, while many of our elected leaders are African American, the environmental community still looks awfully white; this is something that my own organization, Blue Water Baltimore, has really begun to consider — how to change this. 

Unfortunately in Baltimore, as in many other urban areas, a history of purposeful disenfranchisement of black communities and structural racism has limited educational and advancement opportunities for many African Americans. We have communities that don’t feel a connection to nearby streams, green spaces or environmental causes. But these same neighborhoods may feel very strongly about improving their community and certainly protecting public health. I believe this is a real opportunity to make connections between environmental and human health — we all need clean water and clean air. 

We also need to be mindful about the language we use when advocating for environmental improvements. Protecting “habitat” for birds and wildlife may mean little to a city resident who wants to keep her children safe. Many folks may not worry about the health of a stream, but they certainly want to know the water from their tap is free from contamination. White environmental leaders need to listen as often, or more often, than we speak, so we can learn from others what is most important and the language and messages that resonate.

4. As the leader of a major Baltimore-centered environmental organization, how do you view your own role, as well as Blue Water Baltimore’s role, within the climate movement? 

I work every day to model the kinds of behaviors that I see as critical: I have been a vegetarian for more than 19 years; I pay more per kilowatt hour of energy for my home in order to support renewable energy... I am nowhere near perfect, but I work harder every day to be better. 

As the leader of an environmental organization that is focused on water, I have to ensure that we meaningfully integrate climate change into our messaging, without allowing our work to creep beyond our stated mission and goals. This can sometimes be tough to accomplish, but we work to make connections between green stormwater practices and managing localized flooding, between changes in precipitation and the delivery of pollutants to our streams and rivers.

5. What is it like to be an environmental scientist at a time when many environmental programs and policies are being questioned or dismissed? 

I worry most about how this disdain for science is being integrated into politics and how misguided opinion is being casually substituted for well-researched facts. The only folks who truly question that the climate is changing are those who stand to profit from making such a case. 

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