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Practice Makes Perfect

Practice Makes PerfectPenn Loh, the School of Arts and Sciences' first professor of the practice, comes with almost two decades of real-world experience in the environmental justice movement.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.20.09] When environmental justice emerged as a field in the early 1990s, it highlighted the interconnection between class, race and the spaces we inhabit. For Penn Loh, who entered graduate school at Berkeley around that time, the movement was a revelation.

Coming from a background of interest in social justice and work with an energy conservation organization, the notion of environmental justice would shape Loh's career of community involvement and activism. Now, as the first professor of the practice in the School of Arts and Sciences, Loh is teaching students who might be wondering how to channel their own interests and passions.

Professors of the practice, a fixture at the School of Engineering in recent years, are non-academic practitioners brought in to teach in the classroom. They blend theory with practice to help students learn how to address real-world problems. Loh, working in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP), has a solid sense of what will help grad students find their professional direction.

"They should feel encouraged to critique and figure out which pathways they are going to blaze," says Loh. "I think that was the spirit that I very much found in my program, that I think is also very present here."

Before coming to Tufts, Loh was executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE). Based in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, the nonprofit aims to "eradicate environmental racism and classism and achieve environmental justice" through initiatives such as lobbying against the construction of pollutant-generating plants in lower-income neighborhoods around Boston, pushing for air monitoring in the Dudley Square area of Roxbury and advocating for public transit vehicles that burn clean fuel.

In his new role at Tufts, Loh hopes to bring his students out into the communities he knows so well from his time at ACE. "I'm a strong believer that the best work is where theory and practice come together, which I think is very consistent with what this program is all about," says Loh.

A Path to Justice

Loh, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in the early 1960s, majored in electrical engineering as an undergraduate at MIT, but quickly grew disillusioned with the field. A class with Noam Chomsky and Louis Kampf made him begin thinking about social responsibility, and he became involved with social justice causes on campus.

After he graduated, Loh worked with an organization that lobbied utility companies to pursue energy conservation programs and as a research analyst at the Tellus Institute for Resource and Environmental Strategies in Boston, but he still hadn't made the connection between social justice and the environment.

It wasn't until Loh went to Berkeley in the early 1990s to study environmental policy that he became aware of environmental justice, then a burgeoning movement. He began to make connections between environmental issues, low-income communities and race.

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Loh and his environmental justice class visit the ACE offices in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood.

"When I first saw that there was a different way of framing environmental issues that really brought out the concerns of where people live, work and play, and that there was a direct connection between environmental and economic and social justice, I felt like, 'Wow, this actually could be a very strong purpose to the training I'm getting and the work that I could be engaged in,' " explains Loh.

After working as a research associate at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, Loh started at ACE in 1996 as a part-time fundraiser. He says he "never anticipated staying for 13 years," becoming executive director in 1999.

Loh left ACE in 2009, and as he charted the next stage of his career, he turned toward Tufts. Because of ACE's longtime association with UEP-two of ACE's core staff members were UEP graduates-Loh was familiar with the department at Tufts. He also knew Julian Agyeman, associate professor and department chair, in part through Agyeman's case study of ACE in his book "Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice."

When the opportunity arose to bring a professor of the practice to the School of Arts and Sciences arose, Agyeman thought of Loh, who had already taught a class on environmental justice at UEP.

Bringing Loh on board helps UEP further develop its niche in social and environmental justice. "The students who come to us are choosing us for that, and Penn really adds to [our work] in that area," says Agyeman. "What better than to have a person who's been out there in the real world doing this? What better way to bring that into our classrooms and bring it to life?"

Best of Both Worlds

This semester, Loh is co-teaching a core course on the foundations of policy and planning with Ann Rappaport, in addition to teaching his own course on environmental justice.

In his course, he requires his students to work on a community project. While he acknowledges it can be challenging to fit a project into the framework of an academic semester, he says the experience is quite worthwhile.

 

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Loh and his environmental justice class tour Roxbury's Dudley Square neighborhood

 

"That's really one of the goals of the class-to ground students in what it really means to do this work on the community level and have a higher level of understanding and appreciation for the various constraints and complexities and challenges," says Loh. He adds that working on actual projects in actual communities could "inspire them to see that these are potentially very exciting places to be spending their time and dedicating their energy."

UEP students, he explains, "remain really idealistic, but at the same they're trying to figure out how do we really make movement on different issues."

Loh, whose position is partially supported by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, is also exploring ideas about community-driven curricula and developing long-term plans for community engagement. Agyeman shares his goals: "instead of just bringing in people from community groups to talk to our classes, how do we build capacity in communities so they benefit from us as a group of practical visionaries, while we're getting the benefit of community input to our classes?" he asks.

It's an ambitious agenda, but Loh is glad to be in a climate "where people are really driven by a need to be a part of making the world a better place." He relishes the interdisciplinary perspective at UEP and Tufts as well. "It's not like we have one cookbook formula for how to change the world," says Loh. "If anyone says that they do, we tend to be skeptical."

Story by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography

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