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Making Her Mark: Advancing Environmental Justice and Racial Equity in Education

by Tom Hanlon / Apr 10, 2023

Nicole M. DelMastro-Jeffery

Doctoral student Nicole DelMastro-Jeffery is putting her education policy expertise to use as an intern for the White House Council on Environmental Quality in our nation’s capital.

Nicole M. DelMastro-Jeffery is taking advantage of her previous public health and education experiences in her work as an intern on the Council of Environmental Quality, which coordinates the federal government’s efforts to improve, preserve, and protect America’s public health and environment.

“As a whole, I've been able to use my public health knowledge, paired with my education policy expertise, to help our team advance best research-based practices to embed environmental justice in all the work we do across the federal government,” says DelMastro-Jeffery, who is working on her Ed.D. in the Education Policy, Organization and Leadership (EPOL) Department in the College of Education. “This includes advancing methodological approaches and locating datasets to assist with ensuring benefits get down to the communities who need them the most, via Justice40 programs.”

The Justice40 Initiative was created to address decades of underinvestment in disadvantaged communities under the Biden-Harris administrative executive order 14008.

Working on Environmental and Racial Equity Issues

While in Washington, DelMastro-Jeffery is conducting policy research related to environmental toxicities, exploring datasets and methods to support geospatial mapping to inform agency initiatives, and providing analysis to develop cross-cutting metrics to support federal agencies’ work and tracking systems.

“My work aims to ensure we continue conversations around racial equity in education in relationship to the 21st century issues of our time,” she says. “With ongoing climate emergencies and increasing public health concerns, we can no longer afford to look at the pipeline of students into, through, and out of education. We must also look at physical infrastructures, including lead water pipes themselves.”

She points to the issue of lead exposure.

“Public health experts and environmental advocates have known no amount of lead exposure is safe,” DelMastro-Jeffery notes. “Yet, in 2023, rural communities and communities of color are disproportionately plagued by these issues and subsequent health disparities. Exposure to toxicity, like lead, increases the chances of developmental delay. This is of particular concern for our youth. In my framing, this work is an education imperative, and I intend to keep these conversations at the forefront of my work.”

Passionate About Equal Access to Education

DelMastro-Jeffery, who has two degrees already from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and a master’s in Higher Education Administration from EPOL), is focusing her doctoral work on “mapping at the margins of environmental justice and racial equity in education.” Samantha Lindgren, an assistant professor in EPOL, is her adviser.

“I’m extremely passionate about it,” DelMastro-Jeffery says, referring to her doctoral work, which explores who has, and does not have, access to quality basic needs, and how varying levels of access impact students’ well-being and educational trajectories. She is also teaching a course related to global sustainability in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Illinois.

“In the United States, climate change and environmental issues disproportionately impact communities of color,” says Lindgren. “Institutions of higher education can play an important role in advancing environmental justice—from increasing sustainability education to promote environmental literacy across the lifespan, to better understanding where our students are coming from when they arrive on campus. Nicole’s work shines a light on this by asserting that your environment doesn’t just shape your identity; rather your environment is part of your identity.”

Lindgren notes that no one who knows DelMastro-Jeffery was surprised when the White House offered to extend her internship. “Her work is timely and important and has enormous potential to influence policy,” Lindgren says. “Nicole is already making our country more just and resilient. She’s a standout student of whom we should all be so proud.”

Excited to Serve

“This internship has opened doors via networking and building positive working relationships with others who have a genuine concern for community health and wellbeing,” she says. “It has been an honor to serve in this capacity every single day. On many occasions I've had to force myself to go home and rest, because I love this work so much.”

That exhilaration comes from knowing she can, and is, making an impact.

“I’m dedicated to sharing my research to better our nation,” DelMastro-Jeffery says. “I went out on a limb applying for this opportunity, knowing I had something to share with the world to make our cities, states, and nation a better and healthier place to grow and learn.”