Miami Law and Miller School of Medicine Engage in Environmental Health Debate

Judges Gavel and Doctors Stethoscope laying on a desk

Whether working in a hospital or a court room, students at the University of Miami School of Law and Miller School of Medicine are confronted with systematic policies and practices within institutions that disadvantage certain racial or ethnic groups. These policies and practices create disparities in housing, education, healthcare, employment, government, and other sectors.

For example, students exploring environmental health learn that Black adults are almost two-thirds less likely than white adults to have health insurance, and 79% of hazardous waste sites are in communities where most residents are people of color.

To address these disparities, scholars at Miami Law and the Miller School are engaged in advocating for systemic change to shift power back to communities.

“Historically marginalized communities do not need ordinary professionals, but rather extraordinary radical leaders from all disciplinaries that work together to empower the most vulnerable,” said Professor Abigail Fleming, the Fredman Foundation Environmental Justice Clinic Practitioner-in-Residence at Miami Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic.

Knowing that this work cannot be done in silos, Fleming and Alberto Caban-Martinez, Associate Professor of Public Health Sciences and core faculty in the M.D.-M.P.H. Program at the Miller School, collaborated to host the first annual 2020 Environmental Health Debate.

The goal of the debate was to allow students to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration while challenging these policies and exploring innovative approaches for systemic change. “As future attorneys or public health physicians, students must be interdisciplinary collaborators when challenging our current policies,” said Caban-Martinez.

As part of the debate, Caban-Martinez and Fleming asked students to engage in research and work as a team to craft their arguments, allowing for practical interdisciplinary skill building.

During the first debate, students focused on the foster care system; during the second debate, the prison system. Using examples, statistics, and quotes, students explored the political, economic, and social implications of abolishing or maintaining these systems.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with talent from other disciplines toward a common goal. It really helped me see the power of interdisciplinary efforts,” said Samuel Hinkes, a student in the M.D./M.P.H. program.

This innovative approach to systemic change is not a first for Caban-Martinez and Fleming. Both professors tackle issues in South Florida including climate change, contamination, environmental health, occupational health disparities and municipal equity. Caban-Martinez focuses on pioneering approaches to conducting health assessments and providing rigorous scientific evidence to promote safe work practices, healthy behaviors, and healthy work environments to redress disparities, while Fleming focuses on seeking systemic change for clients through legal advocacy, public policy resources, and rights education.

The debate was yet another innovative approach for both. “We want to create safe spaces for students to engage in interdisciplinary dialogues that challenge oppressive structures,” said Fleming.

“The debate allowed me to work with professionals to discuss solutions to systemic injustices,” said Daniel Geller, EJC intern.

Read more about Miami Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic