Bryce DuBois Speaks For The Fish, The Birds And The Humans

Bearded man leans against a bridge railing
“If we talk about ecosystem restoration alone and we don’t think about and support the people, cultures and communities that are also part of that space, we are doing some injustice to the region," DuBois said.

The environmental psychologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies champions ecological restoration of regional waterways through a cultural and community lens.

Water has played a significant role in Bryce DuBois’ life since his childhood growing up in western Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. Fishing with his father in the region’s streams and on the Rhode Island shore gave him a greater understanding of the restorative power of the environment, particularly areas around water.

It also gave DuBois, a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, a first-hand perspective of what it was like to live alongside a scenic river — the Housatonic — and not be able to enjoy it due to PCB contamination. Despite not being able to swim, paddle or fish in the river, DuBois said he understood its significance as a place of deep connection with the community and the region’s history.

His interest led him to study the field of environmental psychology, an academic discipline that considers how people’s relationships with places are shaped by their dynamic experiences with space and affected by larger, often inequitable social systems and structures. DuBois chose to focus on public space and the politics of waterscapes, from beaches and coastal climate adaptation to the social and cultural restoration of rivers.

“If we talk about ecosystem restoration alone and we don’t think about and support the people, cultures and communities that are also part of that space, we are doing some injustice to the region,” DuBois said.

Having previously worked on ethnographic research about coastal parks in Staten Island and Long Island, DuBois became interested and then invested in the debate between federal, state and city agencies and environmental advocates over how to restore Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, which was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. To him, one item  of particular importance routinely got lost in the discussions: that structural racism has shaped residential settlement of the peninsula.

Man stands on bridge over a river.

“In a broader sense, the discussions must take into context the social and racial aspects of the place in order to understand how people think and make sense of what the area means to a community. This is necessary in order to make better decisions on how to articulate their visions for the future and to have those plans supported in the best possible way,” DuBois said.

The complex issues surrounding Rockaway Beach are examples of how restoration goals have different meanings depending upon how people are situated in relation to the ongoing structural forces, often racial, that affect these places, he said. Another is the ongoing work of the Blackstone River Commons, a collaboration led by Emily Vogler, associate professor of landscape design at the Rhode Island School of Design, that includes several Blackstone River and Narragansett Bay-focused nonprofits. Much of the organization’s focus since 2022 has been to advance fish passage around the lower four dams of the river. DuBois and his Holy Cross students have supported work that highlights the social and cultural significance of fish migration, including creating materials for an annual fish migration parade led by tribal members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and the Hassanamisco Band of the Nipmuc Nation at the Slater Mill site, which is part of the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor.

The purpose: to preserve and acknowledge the importance of the river as an ecological, cultural and recreational resource. The goal is the creation of a fish passage over the lower four dams to return herring to the river, he said.

“During times of environmental crisis, there is still time to move with urgency and have a clear consideration of the frontline communities who are most impacted."

Bryce DuBois, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies

“This shows that it’s possible that ecological restoration practices can be achieved with a cultural restoration lens,” DuBois said.

As a part of the Commons and as a partner to the Blackstone Watershed Collaborative, the group has also sought to support work in the northern headwaters of the river. Driven in part by a desire to provide a meaningful way for his students to become more familiar with their immediate surroundings, they began working with officials from Worcester's Green Island neighborhood in Fall 2023.

“I really wanted my students to connect with the city. I could do that by focusing on the river and what it means to Worcester, specifically the Green Island neighborhood,” he said.

Working with Holy Cross colleague Sarah Luria, professor of English and environmental studies, DuBois began researching the predominantly immigrant neighborhood of Green Island located in one of the geographically lowest elevation sections of the city, through which the Blackstone River Canal runs. The neighborhood is also experiencing significant transformation with the introduction of a minor league baseball stadium and hundreds of new housing units. Specifically, DuBois is concerned with how the growth and cultural shifting of the neighborhood is increasing stress on the community and simultaneously exacerbating flooding due to an already over-taxed sewer system that feeds into the Blackstone River.

In the 1980s, the city built a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility, but the system can no longer keep up with the water and sewage backup during significant storms, causing overflow and backups on heavy precipitation days, DuBois said. This creates flooding in the roads and in Crompton Park, including water inundation in basements, as the city facility strives to keep up with chlorine treatment of the overflow before being pumped over to the wastewater treatment plant, DuBois said. Through initial conversations with local neighborhood and public health providers, DuBois, his collaborators and students identified that while the flooding was a common experience there was less attention to this as a potential public health issue. As a result, they started to host meetings through the neighborhood’s community center in order to hear resident concerns, as well as partner with state-wide organizations that have documented similar issues in other communities with environmental justice concerns. 

“We’re building knowledge and awareness about the issue and hopefully providing information while documenting community concerns about the flooding. We want to start conversations,” he said. To complete the work, DuBois has partnered with watershed advocacy members and researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with support from Holy Cross’ Scholarship in Action program. Specifically, DuBois and his students are also working with the Blackstone Water Collaborative, an organization focused on bringing advocacy and environmental groups together to protect water quality during urban growth and climate change. Its job is to build community between the people living within the river watershed and discuss ways to improve its ecological condition.

“During times of environmental crisis, there is still time to move with urgency and have a clear consideration of the frontline communities who are most impacted. Our intentions and interventions can sustain and enhance the lives and cultures of everyone along the river and support the ecological environment within,” he said.