One woman’s fighting passion for environmental justice
In late 2015, Camille Pannu received an unexpected phone call from an old acquaintance. It was Angela Harris, a professor of environmental justice at the UC Davis School of Law and a member of the Aoki Center for Critical Race and Nation Studies’ Committee, asking if Pannu was interested in being the director of a proposed water justice clinic. Naturally, Pannu jumped on the opportunity.
The UC Davis School of Law has a number of clinics that deal with court representation, such as the Immigration Clinic and the Civil Rights Clinic. However, the creation of the Water Justice Clinic is a result of the water bond package that was passed by the State of California in 2014 and requires that legal aid and technical assistance be given to low income, unincorporated communities.
“[Right now] I’m a [full-time] attorney for the clinic, [and] if the clinic is approved [by the law school] then I’ll be the director,” Pannu said. “Clinical education is about teaching law students how to be lawyers, essentially, and giving them meaningful opportunities to work with people.”
Pannu is a self-described “hell-raiser,” but it’s hard to tell through her effervescent and friendly personality. She told stories from her life with a twinkle in her eye, her voice full of passion as she shared her knowledge and perspectives. Pannu comes across like an old friend reminiscing about past adventures, but also undeniably as a scholar who has witnessed the world in multiple, fascinating ways.
“I grew up in Richmond, [Calif.], and [my family was] there when Richmond was the murder capital of the United States,” Pannu said. “You could really see by sixth grade where people’s life opportunities were going to be based on where they came from — I had a bunch of friends whose parents were working so many jobs to make ends meet and they just couldn’t.”
Pannu’s opportunities for an academic future after high school were nearly impossible in Richmond since none of the schools offered any of the coursework required to apply to college. She transferred to a high school in the nearby town of Moraga, which, according to Pannu, was more than 80 percent white at the time and discernibly affluent.
With a laugh, she described the difference was “like night and day.”
“You had these huge green fields and all these wonderful amenities,” Pannu said. “They had this Olympic-sized pool where the US synchronized swimming team practiced. Three-quarters of all students were in competitive sports and four people from my class went to the Olympics — twice!”
Pannu had grown up buying into the narrative of “America’s meritocracy”; that if she worked hard, she could “make it.” However, identifying as South Asian, Pannu noticed a stark difference between the kind of treatment she received from that of her white peers. Not only did her guidance counselor advise her away from the classes and extracurriculars her white peers participated in, she also dealt with racist tirades from classmates and even parents on a regular basis.
She recalled a time in her junior year when her classmate, someone she had never had issues with, raised their hand in class to express that “poor people are poor because they’re lazy.” This was the first time Pannu actively spoke up after three years of silence in the face of stunning ignorance in this community.
“I lost it,” Pannu said. “I was like ‘you guys are all going to go to college, […] you’re all going to become leaders and you’re all going to have opportunity,’ whereas my friends [in Richmond] are working hard [and] some of them had dropped out, some had gotten pregnant, some had been killed, some of them had joined gangs [and] some were trying to get back out of gangs.”
It was at this moment that she realized what focus she would work on for the rest of her life.
“This is the issue I care about, this issue of poverty and the disparities that exist and the lack of understanding between people,” Pannu said.
After graduating high school in 2002, Pannu made for UC Berkeley, where she trained in community organizing and statewide advocacy. Many of the groups Pannu joined focused on access to higher education, but she then shifted to juvenile justice issues and eventually to hate crime in search of what drives structural poverty.
“[Structural poverty] starts so much earlier with the environment you grow up with,” Pannu said. “It matters what opportunity you see and what violence you see and it matters whether your water had lead in it. It matters whether the air you’re breathing gives you asthma.”
And so began her shift to an issue she found extremely fascinating and incredibly fundamental: environmental justice.
“I had seen a lot of the environmental activism at [Berkeley] as being oriented towards things as recycling and composting and saving biodiversity,” Pannu said. “[Although] I think all of that is really valuable, it felt like it lacked urgency to me, in part because I’m overly concerned with human beings.”
Pannu graduated with a degree in political economy and a minor in African American studies. Her first job took her to rural Kenya, where she worked for a development non-governmental organization on a project focused on water-borne diseases called the Rural Water Project. After returning to the U.S., though, she moved away from the field of environmental justice and took up a research position at the Yale Law School that focused on the death penalty in Connecticut. She spent her days sitting in a dim basement, away from people and any sense of community.
“I was feeling really isolated,” Pannu said. “Yale also has a weird relationship with the local community, so living in the local community and [working at the] local school […] just felt a little off.”
Even though she wasn’t a student at Yale, Pannu was allowed to participate in one of the Law School’s clinics as a student director. This is where environmental justice once again trickled into the forefront of her mind, so it was the idea of a marriage between these two passions in addition to her work with the clinic that made her apply to law school. Laughing, Pannu expressed that her life seems to be full of circles, as she ended up back at UC Berkeley.
“I’m good at figuring out how to twist rules to do the opposite of what they’re for, and I was like ‘I should be a lawyer, this sounds like an excellent way to do this,’” Pannu said. “Lawyers are often there to tell you everything that will go wrong, and tell you everything not to do, [but] it helps to have lawyers who come out of community organizing because they’re a key that […] the community gets to turn to open a door, as opposed to being the door and the lock.”
Pannu recalled her time during law school as successful and rewarding, having had the opportunity to work on litigation suing the Chevron refinery which had plagued the resources of her hometown of Richmond. This case happened to be the first victory on an environmental case against Chevron in history. After this, Pannu left the urban-scape to work in rural areas of the San Joaquin Valley. She then worked with the Center on Race and Poverty in the Environment doing clerk work for some judges. This is when she received the phone call from Harris and began the next chapter of her life at UC Davis.
“One of the communities I’m working with has had no water for two and a half years now,” Pannu said. “What happened […in Tulare County] was that when the drought happened, a lot of farmers started digging deeper wells to get to deeper aquifers. It’s essentially like that weird part of ‘There Will be Blood’ where Daniel Day Lewis is like “I take my milkshake and I drink your water — or drink your oil” and the whole time you’re like ‘where is this coming from, what is he talking about?’ So that’s what happened with water in Tulare county — a bunch of people took a deeper milkshake and drank down everyone’s water.”
Unsure of her future goals, Pannu is content to focus on water justice as long as she can. Pannu’s journey up to this point in time has been winding, but she has never strayed from her ultimate goal of doing something where she is connected to people.
“I think one of the best pieces of advice I got when I was in college is that negative information is good information,” Pannu said. “I think that’s why I’ve had so many jobs. A lot of my life has also been figuring out what doesn’t fit and appreciating that experience for the education it gives you about yourself so you can do these really cool things.”
Written by Marlys Jeane — firstname.lastname@example.org