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Meet SemegaChange's CEO Niouma Semega

Earth Month Feature

By: Niouma Semega

My interest in the intersections of race and environmental issues sparked very early in my life,  particularly issues concerning the environment being the root of many public health crises in vulnerable communities.

Growing up in Mauritania, West Africa for five years of my childhood, I recall residing in a small village that sat at the entrance of Senegal called Kaedi. The community was very nurturing and rich in culture but lacked basic resources like clean water, which was extremely difficult to obtain. We would have to prepare barrels of water whenever clean water did come to perform basic routines from showering to taking wudu for prayer to even cooking my favorite dish, Attieke. Considering that Mauritania was geographically located on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, many environmental health risks there are linked to poor quality of water that breed many pressing health issues, like neonatal disorders, malaria, and tuberculosis. 

At the time, I hadn’t matured enough to know these statistics, but I was smart enough to know water had a lot to do with many of the issues I was seeing. This sparked my ambition to alleviate such burdens on my beautiful community. But I felt helpless as I had no means to do so. I would think to myself, what could a little girl like me do to solve these big problems? I could not understand, why is the most basic life essential, water, so difficult for us to obtain? 

The lack of educational advantages in Mauritania made me feel helpless. When I was nine years old, I had to decide whether I was going to leave behind all I knew for the majority of my young life and move back to America, hoping to obtain the resources needed to make a change.

By the time I was fifteen, I attended a predominantly Black and brown high school in the southside of Jamaica, Queens. Adjusting to a new school environment was difficult. Although I had my family's love and support, there were still many obstacles, exacerbated by a lack of resources and opportunities that discouraged ambitious students like me from overachieving.  

All of this changed one day when my physics teacher pulled me and a couple other students aside and encouraged us to compete at New York City's largest science fair. We were asked to work on a project highlighting an issue that we were passionate about, and the school would try their best to provide us with support. That same day, when I got home, I eagerly started doing research about water pollution and I stumbled upon a history of numerous water crises that occurred within many vulnerable communities. It felt as if I was reliving my confusion and anguish from back home in Mauritania. 

When I started digging into the facts and demographics, according to the EPA, the Black population is 75% more likely than others to live near stations that produce hazardous waste, although the Black population only makes up 12% of the American population. Coming across these statistics lead me to propose questions like: isn’t it possible to position these facilities someplace where we don’t have to sacrifice AND compromise the lives of unborn babies, small children, families and friends in these Black communities?

In my own neighborhood, there has been a repeated history of industrial chemicals contaminating water that have been linked to liver problems and cancer. When I hear these statistics, my mind goes to: this is going to affect the black population 75% more than everyone else. What's so frustrating about this reality is how common it is, affecting so many people and communities.

As an environmentalist, these issues sound like an old song that pops up every once in awhile; one that we already know the words to. I realized that we already know what the issue is, but  what are we going to do to solve it? These types of questions have enticed me to pursue research that explores the intersection of environmental health and public health risks, in order to proactively develop and execute my own resolutions as someone direct impacted by these disparities. 

For the past 7 years I have been developing a novel device called “A Solar Powered Immersive Heavy Metal and Nitrate Filter for Bodies of Water ''. That has been recognized so far in numerous competitive spaces, including: Sweden’s Stockholm Junior Water Prize as a Regional Winner in 2019, the most prestigious water prize in the world and then being awarded 1st Place at the 2023 35th Annual CSTEP Conference amongst other distinguished universities. With my PhD in Environmental Health and Biogeoscience, I aim to pursue leadership opportunities at organizations like the Center for Disease and Control and World Health Organization because I’m passionate about implementing policy change based on cutting edge research.

An advocacy campaign that focuses on the intersection of race and environmental issues found that people of color made up only 20% of employees in environmental governmental organizations tackling these disparity issues. As stated by numerous environmental health advocates and scientists, there is no one who can understand the needs of a community better than those who are from there and experience it themselves. 

Their stories, his story, her story, my story is what will be the true pivot of change, and if the world invested and provided resources to these communities, the profit and progression would be as endless as the water that runs through the sea. 

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