Raoul Liévanos walking on tree-lined campus, smiling amid a sunny day

At Bat for Racial and Class Equity

A baseball injury redirected Raoul Liévanos into an academic career studying equity and the environment

By Matt Cooper  Photo by Dustin Whitaker  July 7, 2021

3 min read

If you go to a doctor for chest pain, you don’t want a prescription for a sore throat. That’s how Raoul Liévanos looks at government policies for disadvantaged groups: will the remedy solve the real problem? Or could it be misguided due to an incomplete diagnosis?

As an environmental sociologist, Liévanos studies spatial and institutional factors—segregation and governmental policies, for example—that create inequality in how people experience their environments. It’s the difference between the experiences of privileged and disadvantaged neighborhoods regarding, say, toxic exposures, flood protection, or access to healthy, affordable food.

Liévanos and fellow University of Oregon sociologists Clare Evans and Ryan Light recently analyzed the 2014 water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. They discovered that the city’s switch to drinking water from the Flint River disproportionately threatened areas with high percentages of single-father Black and single-mother Latina families.

Research and public debate have historically focused on the role that racial and class discrimination played in the concentration of lead exposure in specific parts of the city. But the findings by Liévanos and his colleagues highlight the importance of race, gender, and family structure as factors at the finer scale of the neighborhood block level. 

It’s an important distinction, Liévanos says, in part because the government’s failure to recognize these factors meant that the vulnerabilities of Black fathers, Latina mothers, and their respective families have been overlooked. In addition, local officials initially distributed only English-language lead advisories, instead of Spanish-language advisories for Spanish-speaking people.

“If we develop policies geared toward one particular understanding of a problem but the policies are very broad,” Liévanos says, “they may not address other aspects of the problem that need attention.”

All in the family

When Liévanos was growing up, family conversations revolved around politics and justice.

His father, Jorge, grew up in a working-class Mexican American family, was active in the Chicano movement in college, then became a community-oriented police officer and baseball coach for Liévanos and other diverse youth in Santa Maria, California. His mother, Christina, of English and French background, was a jeweler and supporter of women’s rights.

“My family taught me not to take my privileges for granted,” Liévanos says. “They taught me service, empathy, sympathy, and advocating for civil rights.”

Bad break

Liévanos was a catcher for California State University, Fresno. But dreams of the majors ended in 2003, when a fielder’s throw inadvertently shattered the bones in the thumb of his throwing hand.

“My thumb was mush—it had to be reconstructed,” Liévanos says. “I sat out the season but played in 2004 and 2005. I hit well, but I wasn’t the same and I knew my career would end in college. I started thinking about graduate school.”

Inspiring through education

He savors his diamond days, but Liévanos wouldn’t trade his impact as an educator for more of them.

“I can contribute to these broad, important conversations about our unequal experiences of the environment,” he says. “Talking with my undergrads—seeing all the different ways in which they can go on to apply these ideas in work, business, life—that’s exciting.”

Matt Cooper is managing editor for Oregon Quarterly.

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