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Joan Parker – A Passion for Making a Difference

Many of us try to make the world a better place for others, often it is our family and friends, sometimes co-workers or members of our community. There are a small number of individuals in the world who possess a combination of talents, drive and capacity to make the lives of thousands and perhaps millions of people better in concrete ways. I was privileged to know one of these people—Joan Parker, whose advocacy for protecting people from hazardous workplace conditions knew no bounds.

My career path was set when I enrolled in a course during my first year of grad school at Cornell University with the unlikely title of Politics of Technical Decisions. I had a glimmering of what it was about but knew little about the professors teaching it – Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist, and David Milch, a political scientist. As an undergraduate, I majored in politics at UC Santa Cruz, took a couple of political science courses and focused my studies on political theory, and “minored” in surfing and anti-war organizing (it was the Vietnam War era). The course turned out to be just what I was looking for in grad school—an exploration of policy, politics, and social justice issues that at their core were a mashup of science, economics, equity, and power. The syllabus covered controversies ranging from nuclear power to creationism to vaccines and recombinant DNA. One of the students in the course was a senior staffer at the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) who was taking graduate courses for a year. He had worked on the OSHA regulation for vinyl chloride, a carcinogen that is the precursor for PVC, that went into effect a few years earlier after longtime controversy. My brother had worked in a factory making PVC pipe and I was scared stiff that he would get cancer from that job. I wrote a term paper on the fight over regulating vinyl chloride and that launched me into the world of occupational and environmental health with Dorothy (Dot to her friends) as my mentor.

A few more years of grad school and I left to join the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working on regulations for ozone depleting compounds. The election of Ronald Reagan put a halt to that effort, and I returned to my grad school to work with Dot who was the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation funded project investigating workers’ responses to health risks on the job, which I intended to use in writing a dissertation for a PhD. Dot hired several others to work on the project including Joan Parker, a Cornell Plant Science grad who was working at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (now Boyce Thompson Institute) located on the Cornell campus. Joan became a mentor as well and for much of my career and my volunteer life, a guiding light.

Joan had become an activist on health and safety issues when she developed a sensitization reaction to chemicals on the job. Despite legal requirements to protect workers’ health, Joan had to fight to keep her job and protect her health. A prodigious intellect and a righteous sense of justice led her to learn about occupational health laws and regulation and to demand better working conditions for herself and her co-workers. She read up on occupational health issues and reached out to health and safety activists in the New York region who supported her in her efforts.

Through Joan, we had access to some of the leading thinkers and doers on workplace health, the pinnacle of which was a chance to sit and talk with Tony Mazzochi, a union leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, who had led the fight for the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and was at the cutting edge of the workplace health and safety movement. To a great degree, Joan was Tony’s equal in passion and smarts. She came up with the idea of starting an occupational health information service while we were working on the project to serve workers in the Finger Lakes region who didn’t have access to union resources on workplace health. The two of us set up a phone line, took calls, did research as needed and provided information and potential resources to remedy the risk of harm.

By the end of the project, Joan had decided to become a full-time workplace health and safety advocate. She became involved in the Coalitions for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) activist movement and got me to join in. Moving to Boston, she received a Master’s in Industrial Hygiene from Harvard’s School of Public Health and went to work in the Division of Occupational Hygiene at the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industries, inspecting workplaces, responding to workers who were harmed by hazardous chemicals on the job and pursuing criminal penalties against polluters. She moved over to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to lead its Division of Occupational Safety investigating nightmare conditions in factories and construction sites and bringing justice to workers. And through it all she was a tireless educator, volunteer, and general advocate for a world that was safer, healthier, and more just.

Joan died in January 2021 from a long bout with cancer. Perhaps there was an environmental or workplace source or maybe it was some other cause. I lost a friend and a role model. The world lost a person who made a difference.

In my career and my volunteer work, I have tried to live up to Joan’s commitment to a safe and more just world. May her life imbue all of us with a passion for making a difference.

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