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Two Majors, Clear Focus: Senior Shapes Own Research Path

What to do when you have a cause you care about, but it doesn’t clearly fit in one major? Ask Oluchi Okafor, a University of Pittsburgh senior of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Okafor is all about advancing environmental justice, and has found a unique way to study and conduct research in areas where they want to make a difference. But it wasn’t a straight path. Before declaring majors in political science an Africana Studies, Okafor started out as a pre-med student at Pitt.

“Looking back, pre-med wasn’t right for me. But my interests in science and the way Black people have been affected by science was always there,” said Okafor, a native of Cary, North Carolina.

This summer, as a recipient of a Summer Undergraduate Research Award (SURA), funded by the Office of Undergraduate Research, Okafor was able to conduct self-led research on environmental justice and gained a valuable mentor along the way.

Pittwire spoke with Okafor to talk about their research and what it was like shaping Pitt’s new course on anti-Black racism.

First, let’s talk about your role in developing Pitt’s new anti-racism course for first-year students. How did you get involved?

I serve as the vice president of the Association of Black Political Science Students and I am a member of the Black Action Society, so I was invited to be a part of Provost Cudd’s committee to develop the course. Over the summer, we met each week for a month to talk about what we wanted to see be a part of the course and what the freshman class should be engaging with, especially in the climate we’re in now.

As the only student on the committee, what did you bring to the table?

I was there as a reminder of the students. For me, I was honored to be part of the committee, of course, but understood the seriousness of it to make sure it was presented as well as possible.

All the of professors on the committee are very well-versed in their disciplines, but having the student perspective helped them. For me, I was thinking about how students would respond to different types of learning, especially with everything going virtual.

Our biggest obstacle was thinking about how to approach the class with it being virtual. The biggest thing for me was that students shouldn’t be bombarded with information, especially because the topic of race and anti-racism needs to be approached intentionally. I essentially reminded the committee to be mindful of the audience.

To you, why is having this course so important?

When we think about racism in general, not a lot of students are exposed to a course like this. I think for someone who is maybe a STEM major, or a heavy math or science major who may not be taking humanities courses, they need to be engaged in conversations like this, or read material related the course. This is the world we’re living in and this is the history of this country.

You had the opportunity to interview two prominent activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement, Bree Newsome Bass and Darnell L. Moore, as a part of the course this semester. What did you learn from that conversation?

One of the biggest takeaways for me is that there is power behind the people we read about. Before Bree climbed the flagpole at South Carolina’s capitol building and Darnell did work on diversity committees, they were in the streets. They were organizing in the streets, in their communities. They didn’t wake up one day and decide to do this. They had communities they were working alongside.

The biggest thing for me was thinking about the work I’m doing and what I want to do isn’t just for communities, but alongside community members. Not “for” them. The community is here to teach me something.  It was an eye-opening and humbling experience. 

Speaking of your work, let’s talk about your research. What sparked your interest in environmentalism?

As a student who isn’t originally from Pittsburgh, I thought looking at region around me was important, because I didn’t know a lot about it. I knew a lot of Black people live in communities around the city. From there, I started to look at the history of Pittsburgh and looked at history of pollution, and past research on where pollution had most effect. This was predominantly in Black communities in Pittsburgh, especially in Braddock (a borough near Pittsburgh). There are so many Black people negatively affected by pollution, and you don’t see it so much in more affluent neighborhoods around Pittsburgh.

So, environmentalism and environmental justice really does merge your two interests of political science and Africana Studies, it sounds like?

It does. Before freshman year, when I thought about environmentalism, I thought about fast fashion, recycling and sustainability. But environmentalism goes deeper into the racist aspect of the environment that affects people’s health.

There are so many marginalized Black people living in communities in close proximity that’s exposing them to pollution, lack of green space, environmental degradation and more. There’s so many things that go into it—so many small things that affect these neighborhoods, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint where the issues are coming from. It takes a lot of research and time to see the broader scope of the situation. I want to be able to help people contextualize all of it.

A big part of your work is to help people who live in these communities understand what they’re being exposed to, correct?

Correct. For me, coming into this research, I found that a lot of the information wasn’t digestible. I would’ve gotten interested in research earlier in my academic career if it was presented in a way that was easier to understand. Most of the time people are aware of problems going on in their communities, but people don’t know how to contextualize it or have the language to speak on it, especially on topics that are specific, like pollution.

What kind of research are you doing right now on this topic?

Before COVID, I spent spring break in the Bronx (borough in New York City) conducting research, and collected survey responses from residents. I developed a survey to gauge their knowledge of environmental justice, and to see if there was a connection to the air quality and their respiratory health. A big part of this research is also looking at the open-ended portion of the survey, where people were allowed to leave comments and thoughts. Asking for feedback is a big deal because it shows that the residents’ opinions matter, and this project is meant to help amplify their voices.

Did COVID-19 put everything on pause?

I’m still working on this, virtually. This summer, I applied to be a part of the SURA research cohort in the Office of Undergraduate Research. Tessa Provins, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, became my faculty mentor. We met every two weeks and worked together virtually. She was always so approachable, and she didn’t make research intimidating. She made the experience casual and more fun.

Is research in the cards for you after you graduate?

Right now, I’m trying to get my footing in Pittsburgh. I think the connections I’ve made by working with different nonprofits and other organizations will allow me to stay this region. I’m considering grad school. But yes, I do love research—especially doing the field work and talking to people, and making connections between what’s on paper and in real life.