50th Anniversary of Earth Day and the UW-Madison Nelson Institute
|Daritza de los Santos learned about environmental justice
growing up in the Bronx, New York and Heina, Santo
The South Bronx wasn’t much better. There was pollution and the crime rate didn’t allow one to appreciate the outdoors most of the time.
“We have Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx,” de los Santos said. “I think it’s the biggest park in New York City. But there are natural areas in the northern Bronx. But I
grew up in the South Bronx. We had a park right in front of our building. I grew up in the projects. There are three parks. There are a lot of buildings and in front of
almost every building, there was a park. But the problem was because of the high crime rate and there were always shoot-outs and drug deals going on, it wasn’t
always safe to go to these parks. When my family would take me to the park, it would be in another neighborhood in another part of the Bronx where it wasn’t as
dangerous. In the summer, there was always a commotion, something going on. Sometimes, even though there is a park, because of the crime rates and other
factors, it influences whether or not you hang out there.”
De los Santos got her undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester in public health. She had to decide whether she wanted to focus on individual well-
being by going to medical school and seeing individual patients or focus on community well-being, the environment and health. She chose the latter and enrolled in
the UW-Madison Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies.
“When I was doing a research project in the Dominican Republic, I realized that the same issues that I experienced from growing up there and going there every
summer were worse,” de los Santos said. “I realized that I wanted to find a way to study environmental aspects of health. That led me to apply to environmental
programs because I wanted to get the environmental background that I didn’t have. I wanted to focus on environmental health. That’s what drew me to apply to the
UW Nelson Institute. Right now, I am doing a master’s program in environmental conservation. I’m supposed to graduate in three weeks. The program is finished,
so now I’m going to do my Ph.D. and I want to focus on climate change and health. I’m going to stay at UW-Madison and do it.”
De los Santos has really grown and blossomed at the Nelson Institute.
“The professors and faculty have been amazing,” de los Santos said. “You speak to people in the hallways and talk to them about what you want to do. When I
came here, I still hadn’t figured it out. Now I am going to do my Ph.D. here. I haven’t done my research. I haven’t started on my own research. But I would say here
at the Nelson Institute, I’ve had tremendous support. I’ve spoken to people about all of my interests and what route I wanted to take. At one point last year, I even
thought about law school and thought I wanted to go into environmental law and tackle things from that perspective. Speaking to people at the Nelson Institute, they
would say, ‘Oh, I know this person. I’ll give them your contact information. Or send me an email and I’ll connect you guys.’ It’s just the kind of place where faculty
and professors are always willing to help you. I’ve been able to talk to a lot of people about what I want to do in the future and ideas that I have. I honestly feel it’s
an amazing place. Everyone is so nice.”
But de los Santos time at the Nelson Institute has been a challenge as well.
“When I got here, I thought I knew what I wanted to do,” de los Santos said. “My focus has always been the same, that I want to work in the Dominican Republic
and the Bronx. But what route? Should I do law school? Should I do this? Should I go the education route after I get my master’s? Should I just do a master’s and
that’s it and work in environmental conservation? But then I have this public health background. I want to use that too. It was always about what I should do after I
got here because I was exposed to so many amazing topics. I have the public health background, but I wanted to get more of the environmental aspects because I
feel they are both important. Being here at the Nelson Institute has made me realize how inter-disciplinary climate change and everything is. There are so many
different ways we can tackle this. You can go political. You can go education. There’s the health side. And I was just caught up in what I should do.”
De los Santos wants to have an impact on the communities where she grew up. She doesn’t want to “helicopter in,” get her data and leave. She wants to help the
“I want to do research that helps combat climate change,” de loss Santos said. “I want to do research that helps influence communities that there needs to be
change, that brings communities together to try to address some of the issues, for example, air pollution in the communities in the Dominican Republic. The town
that I was talking about in the Dominican Republic hasn’t had much research done on it about how living in proximity to these facilities — even though we know
that the garbage that is burning creates smoke and there is a lot of pollution — is unhealthy. I want to be able to work with communities and also find resources to
help them combat climate change. With a lot of research nowadays, communities aren’t even aware that research is done in their own communities. Oftentimes
research is published and the community might not even be aware of the research. I want research that is easy to communicate the findings to people and the
community and make sure that they are involved and make sure that they are aware of what is going on in the community so that they are empowered to make a
change and maybe work with those facilities to find a way, work with the policy makers, work with agencies, work with different stakeholders to find a common
ground so that human health is not affected or other species or the environment isn’t affected by pollution or these other things that are affecting them.”
And de los Santos is aware that the impact of the pollution is inequitable.
“The island is beautiful, everywhere,” de los Santos said about the Dominican Republic. “But this town is very polluted. It’s like New York City. It has Manhattan
and then there is this other areas that are affected. It’s people of color who are impacted by these conditions. Often times, it is low-income people of color who are
impacted in the U.S. They are the most vulnerable groups who are affected. That is unfortunate. In the Bronx, we have places that are mainly low-income and
minority groups who are exposed to all of this pollution.”
De los Santos is focused on the communities she loves. But she has one major problem. She must either focus on the Bronx or Haina, Dominican Republic. It is a
Solomon’s choice. We shall see what she chooses.
By Jonathan Gramling
When we meet in person from a socially-accepted distance and later on the phone, Daritza de los
Santos comes across as a warm, friendly person who is filled with hope for the future. Her optimism
is incredibly refreshing and remarkable given the environment she grew up in, although it is no
wonder that she is focused on the environment and health as a life’s crusade.
De los Santos was born in the South Bronx, New York and split time between the Bronx and Haina,
Dominican Republic where her family is from. In almost every community, there are places where “the
environmental mess” goes and the Bronx and Haina — near the capital of Santo Domingo — were two
of those places.
“As I grew up, I started realizing that my brother had really bad asthma,” de los Santos said. “Growing
up in the Dominican Republic, the conditions living in Haina, an industrial town, made the asthma
worse. There are a lot of facilities and pollution. There’s a lot of pollution and the factories create
smoke. There are just a lot of illnesses that you would hear people talking about in Dominican
Republic related to the living situation because the town has so many factories. Haina overlooks the
Caribbean Sea. It’s not even safe to bathe in the water because of all of the pollution. And the river is