Jovial is a word one could use to describe UW Tacoma Associate Professor Robin Evans-Agnew. Conversation with the British native is easy. Perhaps it’s his soothing accent or the fact that he’s always on the verge of a smile, but Evans-Agnew has a way of putting people at ease.
This image of a good-natured scholar contrasts or maybe complements Evans-Agnew’s environmental justice work. “With my research I’m trying to figure out ways to give the community a voice about environmental justice issues without necessarily getting it filtered through people in power,” he said.
People have long been part of Evans-Agnew’s career trajectory. “My background is in school nursing,” he said. “I worked in schools because I wanted to work with young people and families on all these interlocking spheres of influence on health.”
It was in this role that Evans-Agnew got an education. “I saw a lot of asthma in my school nursing office,” he said. “I remember this one parent came in and gave me a lecture on how to manage the disease. I hadn’t had a lecture like this in nursing school or in anything else I did.” Something about that particular conversation stayed with Evans-Agnew. “I didn’t truly understand the complexity of the disease,” he said.
Evans-Agnew wanted to expand his knowledge, not just about asthma, but about nursing in general. He applied to and was accepted to the University of Washington School of Nursing where he would go on to earn both a master’s degree (1999) and Ph.D. (2011) in nursing.
In the intervening years between his master’s and Ph.D. Evans-Agnew cultivated an interest in community-based research. He worked for the Washington state chapter of the American Lung Association. “We were really focused on getting a bill passed in the legislature that would address asthma,” said Evans-Agnew. The organization was successful and in 2005 then-Governor Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law. “It was just so cool to see because we made it a requirement that every year teachers have to learn about asthma, have to be taught about asthma,” said Evans-Agnew.
Evans-Agnew’s involvement with the asthma legislation brought him into contact with researchers who were looking at the disease from an environmental justice perspective. “Some populations have worse asthma than other populations,” he said. “What you find are higher rates among communities of color and people who are low-income.”
For his dissertation, Evans-Agnew recruited a group of high school students in Seattle. “I had these two great sets of boys and girls, all with asthma, all claiming African American as their identity,” he said. Evans-Agnew employed Photovoice for the project. The technique combines documentary photography with personal reflection. Evans-Agnew gave the group prompts including, “What is it like to manage your asthma” and “What might make it harder for you to manage your asthma compared to other people?’”
The material students brought back to Evans-Agnew was troubling. “Kids would talk about healthcare bias,” he said. “If you’re black, people don’t recognize that you have pain or think you should just stick it out.” Participants also discussed how inadequate housing contributed to their asthma and even the seemingly innocuous – stairs in a public school – made life with the disease more difficult.
Evans-Agnew came to UW Tacoma in 2012. One of his first projects on campus involved looking at wood smoke pollution in Tacoma. “Tacoma’s such a great place, but it’s a trap for temperature inversions and wood smoke pollution,” he said. Evans-Agnew enlisted a group of Pierce County middle and high school students in the Wood Smoke Photovoice Environmental Justice Project. The group also collected air samples. “We found wood smoke pollution everywhere including inside peoples’ homes,” said Evans-Agnew.
Evans-Agnew’s research into wood smoke pollution is part of his larger investigation into particulate matter and other environmental triggers of asthma. Evans-Agnew may be spearheading the research but he’s not alone. A few years ago he helped establish a community-based participatory research group with Mujeres Latinas Apoyando la Communidad (Latina Women Supporting the Community). The group is made up of Latina mothers from Tacoma whose children have asthma.
Mujeres Latinas and Evans-Agnew have worked together on a couple of projects. The first involved analyzing local daycares for asthma triggers. The women walked through the facilities looking for things like proper ventilation and whether or not harsh chemicals were used for cleaning. Afterwards, the group took their findings and created a community education plan geared toward immigrant families. “They really launched this on their own,” said Evans-Agnew. “One of them created a lesson plan, one organized the space and did the logistics and one of them got extra training so they could deliver the material.”
Evans-Agnew also enlisted the group to help write a paper based on their findings. “That paper is currently under revision for re-submission to a leading journal in the field,” said Evans-Agnew. Meanwhile, Mujeres Latinas and Evans-Agnew have partnered with the Asia Pacific Cultural Center in Tacoma on a new study. “We have kids collecting samples and using Photovoice to document the indoor air quality at their homes,” said Evans-Agnew. “They’re specifically looking for volatile organic chemicals like acetone and formaldehyde.”
Access and equity are at the heart of the work being done by Evans-Agnew and Mujeres Latinas. “Addressing environmental triggers is easier if you’re middle class,” said Evans-Agnew. “For instance, you can afford to remove the carpet in your home and replace it with hardwood floors but this may not be an option if you’re low-income.”
Robin Evans-Agnew has smile lines at the corner of his eyes. He’s a kind man but he’s also a fierce advocate. In this case, the two are not mutually exclusive. Evans-Agnew’s friendly demeanor and compassion guide his research and inform his purpose. “I want people to use this information to find their landlord or go down to City Hall and get air pollution fixed,” he said. “Obviously, if you’re low-income and a person of color without a lot of power in the community, that’s going to be a difficult order but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable challenge.”
Evans-Agnew and Mujeras Latinas worked with Paul Lovelady and Mark DePaul from UW Tacoma's Media Services to make a series of instructional YouTube videos (seen below) in Spanish based on their findings. Click here to watch the complete series of videos: https://bit.ly/2IGWMkL
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com