SSEHRI Member Spotlight – Lauren Contorno

Lauren Contorno is a fourth year doctoral candidate in Sociology at Northeastern University.

What’s the main focus of your current research?

My dissertation research examines the movement for a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy at both the local and national levels. The component I’m currently working on is a comparative case study of two municipalities here in Massachusetts that have both experienced coal plant closures in the past 3 years and are exploring redevelopment pathways toward renewable energy. I’ve been interviewing local government officials, dislocated plant workers, environmental activists, and community residents to learn about the sociopolitical barriers to securing economic protections for dislocated workers and the broader community amidst economic downturn and increased unemployment. I’m also learning about the barriers to procedural justice in redevelopment decision-making processes.

How has your work with SSEHRI evolved since you’ve joined?

In my first two years of grad school, I was researching coalitions between labor and environmental organizations in a broad sense. But after realizing that very few scholars were writing about segments of the labor movement that are most directly affected by the transition to a sustainable economy (e.g. the building and energy trades), I decided to focus on learning the stories of those workers who feel threatened and are losing their jobs due to the shift towards renewable energy. These unions’ leadership and involvement in the climate justice movement will be especially important moving forward. From there, I decided to focus solely on “transition towns” for my dissertation research, not only discussing the social justice implications of coal plant closures for dislocated workers, but for fossil fuel-dependent communities more broadly.

What part of your research do you find the most interesting?

Conducting interviews with former coal plant workers has been incredibly rewarding and humbling for me. These men have worked for decades doing back-breaking work in hazardous conditions. Many of them have asthma or have undergone cancer treatment, now only to find themselves unemployed and without health insurance. While it is critical that the world transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible to avoid catastrophic climate change, we cannot leave these workers without an adequate social safety net. I’m doing this research to amplify their story.

What’s your favorite memory from a SSEHRI meeting or event?

While the exact name of the device is escaping me, my favorite memory is probably when a visiting scholar brought a ray gun-like instrument that could measure heavy metal content inside objects with a quick point and scan. Very cool. Wish I had one at home.