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Episode 5: How to Stay: Disability Justice Lessons for Dust Bowl City

Flor Isabel, an air quality advocate, and their child.

Nat Slater is a filmmaker and researcher connecting Environmental and Disability Justice.

Episode Description

As Great Salt Lake dries up, threatening to become a toxic dust bowl, this environmental disaster impacts not only our more-than-human ecosystem but the physical and emotional health of our communities. For this episode, we explore how factors like disability, health, finances, and access to housing impact what it means to stay or leave. We talk with Nat Slater, a researcher and artist whose work focuses on the intersections of environmental and Disability Justice work. And we hear from Flor Isabel, a mom, community organizer and air quality advocate, and longtime resident of Kearns. Our guests discuss challenges as well as lessons and opportunities for how we can build resilient communities of care that leave no one behind.

If you want to learn more about the subminimum wage laws for disabled workers in Utah that was discussed in this episode, this article in Prism Reports is a great source, and includes quotes from one of our guests, Nat Slater. 

Below is a transcript for Episode 5 of Stay Salty: Lakefacing Stories. Listen to the episode on our Podcast pageSpotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Episode Transcript


Nat Slater: Focusing on disabled perspectives and perspectives of those closest to environmental injustice or environmental catastrophe in general is so important because there are lessons that you learn when you're encountering a world that's not made for you when you're encountering those impacts of disaster.


Meisei Gonzalez: Hola, hola! Welcome back to another episode of Stay Salty: Lakefacing Stories. I'm your host, Meisei Gonzalez, AKA the Enviro Cowboy. And you just heard from our interview with Nat Slater, a researcher and artist whose work focuses on the intersections of environmental and Disability Justice work.


MG: In today's episode, we explore how the drying Great Salt Lake is a disability justice issue. We get into the health impacts of this crisis and share lessons from people with disabilities about what it means to stay.



MG: Disabled people are among the most systematically overlooked and marginalized groups when it comes to climate, environmental and public health disasters. Our political, economic, and social systems often neglect people with disabilities before, during and after crises. And these crises can often be disabling. The Wasatch Front is already known for its bad air quality. And as the Great Salt Lake dries up, toxic dust from the dried lake bed is putting more people at risk of developing long term health problems. We'll talk a lot about air quality in this episode, but that's just one of the many factors to consider when it comes to the intersections of Great Salt Lake and disability.


MG: There are many ways to define disability justice. But one commonly used framework is a set of 10 principles outlined by the performance art collective Sins Invalid, which centers Black and Brown and LGBTQ+ artists. Among these principles are the ideas that all bodies have needs, and all bodies are essential and worthy, and there are no normal bodies. Disability Justice also calls for a shift in our shared cultural values, and the dismantling of capitalism, racism, and ableism. This movement recognizes our shared interdependence and the importance of cultivating communities of care.


NS: There's not enough attention to the intersection of disability and climate change that comes really from a disability justice perspective, where you're thinking about, you know, what are the values and sort of vitality and like lessons and wisdom associated with disability communities that we can sort of learn from and orient ourselves to.


MG: That was Nat Slater, who moved to Salt Lake City in 2021 to attend the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities master's program. While in graduate school, Nat created an art show called Embodied Ecologies to explore the intersections of disability and environmental justice. They partnered with Art Access, a local nonprofit creating opportunities for artists with disabilities. The exhibit included multiple pieces about Great Salt Lake including a large three-dimensional canvas painting of Antelope Island. While putting out this episode, I actually remember visiting this exhibit so I was really excited to learn how it came together.

NS: I care a lot about art and I'm an artist myself. So doing something that brought together all of those aspects – the environmental and climate justice, Disability Justice and sort of collaborative art making – felt really exciting to me. This working group of artists and I sort of met over a series of months and came up with guiding themes for an installation that were kinship, weaving and water.


MG: You're hearing archival sounds of Great Salt Lake that were included in the film that Nat made for the exhibit.

NS: And the other thing that we tried really hard to do was create an accessible installation experience. So everyone wrote a visual description of their art, so that someone could interact with the pieces, through audio, and also through like a written description of the pieces. And then we created a sensory table where people were able to tactilely interact with some of the elements of different pieces and just sort of interact in that different way. And then we specifically chose like hanging heights that were appropriate for wheelchair users. Access is a process. I try to think of it as more of a relationship and something that you are constantly sort of navigating and negotiating with people, rather than sort of like a checklist.

MG: This topic regarding access is something I have had actual personal experience with. I'm going to share a bit of my lore with y'all. But back in 2020 – yes, already a great start to the story – I had a very scary and honestly traumatic car accident that left me not able to walk for half a year, and then another half year of recovery. And I want to highlight that my experience was very much temporary, and doesn't fully reflect the day to day hardships of someone who may be permanently or chronically disabled. But I learned a lot about just how our world doesn't take into consideration the basic needs of people with disabilities.


NS: When I moved to Salt Lake City, it was peak COVID, and our air quality had just been described as the worst in the world on sort of the week that I arrived, and I have a spinal condition and was having a really bad flare up. And I was taking medicine for my back that would have made me more vulnerable to COVID. And being vulnerable to COVID was also worsened by the air quality. And it was sort of unsafe to go into indoor spaces and difficult to be in outdoor spaces, and my mobility was limited. And so it was just sort of this confluence of sort of like my personal health, and then environmental health aspects, and then sort of like this public health emergency of COVID that just like, yeah, sort of slapped me across the face like the week I arrived in Salt Lake City.


That I think is maybe more of how I think about the lake on a day to day, is like what is this doing to my health as someone who sometimes takes like immunosuppressing medicine. What is this doing to other people's health who have, you know, particularly like people living on the West side and people who are disabled? Like, what impact is this having? But there are days when I'm able to, like, go out to the lake and feel grounded in the beauty of it and feel really comforted by having a body of water in this sort of landlocked western state. So I do try to find a little bit of balance with that.

MG: Yeah, and I think more and more, we're starting to see that connection of like, the Great Salt Lake not only as like land, but like air, and how that's affecting our health and how we're like, in a way like connect to the Great Salt Lake without even thinking about it. 

What kind of questions may come up for people with disabilities, when they consider if they can stay or leave as Great Salt Lake collapses?

NS: Sometimes it can be helpful for maybe like political or organizing reasons to think about the disabled community as one community. But the variance in experience among disabled people is so huge. So I think the impacts of the Great Salt Lake could be very, very different. 


NS: Access to medical support, access to social support, whether that's your family or your friends or your care network, and access to financial resources. That'll be huge. 

I think about a question of, are you in a place where you feel valued as a disabled person here, are you in a place where you feel like your perspective is being taken into account? I've heard from a lot of people who are a part of the church that the perspective the church puts forth about disabled members could range from sort of a charity approach, which is like, oh, it's, you know, our responsibility to take care of and provide for disabled committee members to a really sort of dehumanizing approach where it's a manifestation of being out of God's grace or something of the like. Utah's legacy as a really charity based state as a really service based state – that's the rationale behind the subminimum wage programs is that, you know, for-profit business is being charitable by employing someone disabled and giving them an opportunity to contribute and leave the house and taking into account that quote, unquote, like economic loss and productivity that having a disabled employee would bring to the company. So the same practice that is exploiting someone is repackaged as a service or charity.

MG: A federal law dating back to 1938 allows employers to pay disabled people less than the minimum wage, which is currently set at $7.25 dollars an hour. While 16 states have overturned this, Utah has yet to, and more than 500 disabled workers across the state are still being paid a subminimum wage. 

This is just one of the many economic justice issues people with disabilities face. Supplemental Security Income and disability Medicaid have strict income limits that effectively keep disabled people who rely on such programs and poverty. 

Beyond health impacts, Nat shows how mobility and finances are also huge factors that influence whether disabled people can stay or leave, if Great Salt Lake dries up. This is something that keeps coming up in our show. What resources do I have access to? Do I have the money to leave? Can I leave my community and network of support? And do I have enough of a network of support here? While talking with Nat I was also reminded that whether because of aging, or an accident or other forces, chances are at some point in our lives, we will be disabled.

NS: There's been this big movement in Disability Studies and sort of disability communities to move away from an understanding of disability as like an either/or, either you're disabled or you're not. And think more about temporary able-bodiedness or sort of a spectrum of ability and disability and the idea that disability not only can happen to any of us at any time, but most often will, whether that's through an accident like you experienced or aging or you're born with a congenital condition, it most likely will happen to any of us. And COVID, this mass disabling event, is just changing the landscape of disability as well. And do you want to be in a state that is comfortable not paying disabled people when you know that at any time you could become disabled? 


NS: Disabled communities are at the forefront of offering solutions to some of these issues that would help us move through this time in a way that centers care for everyone in a more equitable way. There's both the aspect of relying on one another and being really adamant that what you produce has no bearing on your value as a person. But I think that is such an important ethic to bring to this crisis that we're in – the climate crisis, the Great Salt Lake crisis – that we can't leave people behind. And no matter who you are, you are important. If you really truly believe that every person has value outside of what they produce, then some of the core principles of capitalism, of extractive capitalism, of our healthcare system, just don't make sense anymore. And so that, to me, feels like one really powerful sort of paradigm shift that we can use to resist and try to change the situation we're in. 

There is this really long, beautiful legacy of disabled communities resisting and finding care-based and creative solutions to a world that wasn't built with them in mind, in a world that is often actively antagonistic to their needs. The approach of care, and care for your community, and the aspect of creative adaptation when the environment that you're in isn't meeting all of your needs – that's the type of mentality that we need to bring to this crisis to stay here, is finding a way to, you know, tinker and hack and adapt what we have to make it work for the most number of people in the most equitable, ethical way possible, so that we're not leaving people behind. So that we're taking into account diverse needs, so that we're taking into account who is at multiple intersections of marginalization, and we’re putting our collective resources towards those folks. And I think that Disability Justice can provide some really, really powerful frameworks and maps to get us there.


MG: To get another perspective on environmental and Disability Justice and what it takes to stay, we sat down with Flor Isabel, a mom, community organizer and advocate who has lived in Kearns for 25 years. Flor and their children have asthma, likely due to air pollution on the West Side of the Salt Lake Valley. Our conversation explored how air pollution is affecting them and their family, their newfound advocacy for the lake, and some of our favorite memories of living in Kearns. 


MG: Is there any favorite spots in like the Kearns area? For me it’s Aztec Deorro, like, Sunday nights when they do their taco thing. 

Flor Isabel: Oh my god, that's so yummy. It is definitely take – that brings me memories. I've been there a lot with my kiddos, got lots of good memories. Kearns, Utah. I've been here all my life. So I kind of relate with, like, being all over the valleys. But special spots. I really love my house. I really love my house, which is, you know, it – for a single parent of four, it's like, I really value this piece of home that I have. And you know it took a lot of work. So my home is very, where all the memories are with my kiddos growing up.

MG: Okay, as someone who grew up in Kearns, I was honestly not expecting so much Kearns representation on this podcast. Like, seriously, it's a small town. One memory that both of us share was the almost rite of passage drive to Wendover with our families, which to many of us was our first introduction to great views of the lake, the Salt Flats, and that random piece of art, the Tree of Utah, all before staying the night in Wendover.

FI: I just remember driving by every time with my folks, my parents, you know, those Wendover trips during my teenage years. And then just those drive-bys to see the beautiful scenery with my kiddos. I love the Salt Flats, like, it's just kind of astonishing to me how they could just be so big and immense. Recently, in the past two, three years, I've been heading over to the Saltair. And that's been very lovely, because me and my kiddos have become more aware. So it's kind of been like a family bonding activity, where we are also creating this awareness for ourselves and knowledge in our community about what's happening.


FI: And then knowing that, you know, like, there's a beautiful, big lake, but it's drying out. But then not only that, that it can also bring dangers and more damaging health effects to my family. I think all of that really connects me to my community, to my lake, like a lot. And then I have kids, so they're gonna grow up here. And, you know, I think from what I hear from their words, they don't plan on leaving Utah. And so that is, you know, a place where we bonded, and I know, I'd love it if there was opportunity for them to be healthy in their home, visiting their backyard.


MG: Flor and I talked a bit about toxic dust issues and then quickly got into a bit of a deep dive into air quality issues here on the Wasatch Front. 

As Great Salt Lake dries up, toxic dust storms will blow across the Salt Lake Valley. And even without this crisis, we already experience some of the worst air quality in the country. More alarming, we know that West Side residents have been breathing in higher concentrations of toxins due to more highways in our neighborhoods, the landfill, refineries, factories, warehouses, the list goes on and on and on. 


MG: I would love to get your perspective and your background on how the pollution has personally affected you and your family.

FI: So my kiddo, for all his elementary years was like – I was that hovering parent because he couldn't go out during recess because I was always very concerned that his asthma or his little – he would have little breathing attacks because of the air quality.

When I was at work I'd have to be, on day-to-day basis, tracking the air quality monitoR. And so depending on what the air quality was, he wouldn't go out. So we have a lot of really bad days, he – a lot of the times was deprived. Now that I've been talking to him and involving him in these conversations, he tells me he hated it, that it sucked that he never got to do anything fun during recess and so that's – For me, I feel bad. For him, I feel worse because he didn't ever get to have that recess because of our air quality.

MG: Another challenge Flor and I talked about is indoor air quality, which can be just as bad as outdoor air quality. 

FI: I did a program or something, pilot thing a couple years ago, two years ago, I think, and they gave us this device and we tracked our air in our house for a good couple of months. It was so bad that I wanted to throw the thing out because I got overwhelmed of how my air was not even at like the red, it was like up at the purple level. It was extremely bad on occasions, and I learned that it was because my own cooling system was bringing everything in.

Now that I've gotten some support and been able to get a purifier, too, in the house. Those things help, it helps to have that to clean, it helps to not have your windows so open, it helps to change the kind of cooling system that you're using. But that's very tough. 

MG: When we have these bad air days, we are usually told to stay home, take public transit and don't go outside, which is all great advice if you have air purifiers or a good ventilation system, but in many of our communities, this advice is just not realistic. 

MG: Yeah, and speaking about that working side of things that you were having to work and like it's not – we always see the signs that says like, consider working from home on a bad air quality day. I don't know about you, but those piss my parents off, because they see those. And they're like, we would if we could. 

FI: Exactly.

MG: We have to go to work. We can't just call out like, or try to – because I work on, like helping make public transit free and trying to expand it. But even my parents are like, we love that, we support you Meisei, love you. But we cannot do that. It would take us an extra two hours to get to work. You're telling me I'm gonna have to sit in a bus for two extra hours to get to work. And then back when I'm really tired. And I'm on my feet all day, is what they always tell me. So I love when they give me that feedback, because then I can give it back to legislators. I'm like, this is a real day to day life for a lot of people in Utah. Would love that these signs –iIt's really cute. You're saying stay home. But the reality is a lot of us have to go out there to make sure that we can keep the lights running at home.

FI: Yeah, well, we need the opportunity to be able to have a work from home job, or how does that help me if I just stay home? I am literally talking and speaking out. Because, you know, I'm already in my 40s. But my kiddos have a long way to go. And I can say I'll stay home from work because I might have that luxury right now. But my kiddos have to go to school. My kiddos will have to go back and forth. My kiddos also have a job. And so that's kind of like, you know, the tough part about trying to take care of yourself like, even my kiddo who now grew up who wouldn't go out before now doesn't have that luxury, has to go out because he has to have a job. So quite tough that they tell us advice that is not really doable. 

MG: Yeah, and like, not to go down like this rabbit hole, but it always reminds me of when COVID happened when they're like, stay home if you could, and a lot of us were essential workers, and we just didn't have that luxury. So if like for people who are like having a hard time, like realizing or talking about it, like it's kind of the same thing. When we're having these bad air quality days, we're still essential. We're still needing to work. My dad works construction. He's outside doing that work. And it's not something we can just say like "hey, boss, the air's bad today. I'm not coming in."

FI: Yeah, the world doesn't stop around us on bad air days or COVID. Or even because we have the flu, like you know, a lot of us folks have to work on, and I think that's the challenge for a lot of communities that are even closer in the West Side to the lake. It's like, I thought about it once when the air and everything was very red because all the smoke was coming in from everywhere. I was like, can't breathe. It's burning. Where do I go? Can't go anywhere. It's too expensive, not even for the weekend.

MG: This conversation about the need to work quickly brought up finances, and reminded me yet again how money is closely tied to whether or not we are able to stay or leave. 

To make things even more complicated, neighborhoods like Kearns, which are historically more affordable, are facing waves of gentrification. 

MG: And we're seeing a lot of people like moving into our neighborhoods too. Like they are the more affordable neighborhoods and now that no one can afford this area, like coming into our place and they're taking over these spaces, which has been very concerning. 

FI: Oh, yeah. That's a whole – it's, it's happening in my – gentrification. Is that the word, right? Iit's I feel it's – Kearns had been lucky for a minute but it's, it's happening, it's happening, it's happening on 54th and Bangerter. And it's not pretty and –

MG: It's so concerning, because it's like my – my like, little like, "oh my gosh, it's happening here" was when our neighbors across the street came home with like Whole Foods bags, and like Trader Joe's bags, and I was like –

FI: Oh gosh. 

MG: That's not around here. Like –

FI: No, no.

MG: I was like Rancho Market's like down the street. 

FI: Oh, do you remember 5400 South used to have more houses until they took them down for a little walkway? 

MG: Yep. 

FLOR: Which – I've used once, don't get me wrong. I've used it once. Thank you for putting that there but –

MG: Yeah, they took away like 20 homes I think in that whole area. And then they're building like affordable or luxury apartments now where the Kmart used to be.

FI: That's the one I was mentioning. Yeah.


MG: Talking with Flor about gentrification and housing issues really struck a chord with me. I joke that I've lived in so many spots, but the reality is many of us are facing housing instability and are just trying to survive.

So when we are asked the question about if we would stay, it can feel out of reach to many of us. 

FI: Yeah, I thought about moving a couple of times, even more as recently with a couple of changes happening to our town. But I got this house a little over nine years ago, you know, to some person's misfortune. So right now the houses are, I think, around over $200 more, $200,000 more than what I bought my house at, so on my single parent income, there's no way I could move. 


Plus, there's all these ties to our home, our lakes, our outdoors. Like I have created a whole life here with my kiddos. I thought of moving but the cost, it's not doable. It's just not doable. I'm still trying to make my mortgage payments meet. And so. And also, I don't really think there's any other place that might even be safe of toxic or waste or gentrification even.


It's a shame because to be honest, I specifically looked for a house in Kearns because I wanted to stay in Kearns because it was a – it is a township. And it's kind of near everything and close, but far away at the same time. And so it's a shame to have to think of moving where, you know, that's really where I want to stay. But it's happening everywhere. You know, it's happening everywhere. And this affects like West Valley and a lot of our area surrounding.

MG: Well, that helped kind of a lot with that perspective of like the actual challenges for needing to leave. Is there any challenges you see for staying? So we talked about finances, air quality, do you see any other challenges for staying?

FI: Air quality, air quality, and the air quality. Because other than that, you know, everything about our home and our place, and even you know, it's good. It's just that the air quality is the one big barrier.  


MG: What advice do you have for others figuring out how to stay when a toxic dust storm is coming?

FI: We do keep our masks around. And something that I will personally do too is try to learn more, learn more, dig in more and stay more connected to all of the groups that exist that are speaking up about it, because I don't think that anybody really wants to tell us the truth, or what is happening, or what could happen, or how we could even protect ourselves. But I think it's important for us to want to be involved.

MG: Yeah, definitely, to like seek out the information and try to get yourself involved is a big thing to help out. Because sometimes, like the resources are out there, but they're not very easily accessible.

FI: Well they're not at all. I speak English to you here. But my English is not the greatest and navigating to, you know, a website to learn what's, you know, out there is not the greatest. And I actually have looked, though, I've looked and I've spent time and I've also taken the time to ask a couple of people in the environmental advocacy the, you know, about free air purifiers or purifiers for schools, and nothing exists, there's nothing out there, or what exists is really hidden. And it doesn't seem like anybody's really working to push or support or advocate for even schools having purifiers, ventilation systems. So, yeah, really needing to inform ourselves and speak out more, because, you know, like I said, this is my children's future. 


FI: This is our children's future, like, this is even still my future. Like I have a good couple years to run here. And I want to be able to get out and breathe versus like, have to hide into my house because I can't get out and enjoy. Because my own backyard is being polluted.

MG: In the next episode, we’ll talk about how lessons from different kinds of recreation help us stay. Birding anyone? 


MG: Make sure you’re following the podcast on Spotify and Apple Podcasts to get the latest episode. 


MG: Stay Salty: Lakefacing Stories is an “Of Salt and Sand” production. We explore what it means to stay in Utah through economic transition and climate crisis by producing multimedia projects with, by, and for impacted communities. 

The Producers are Maria Archibald, Amelia Diehl, and Brooke Larsen. Podcast cover art is by Frances Ngo. Our Visual Director is Jeri Gravlin. Ashley Finley and Katherine Quaid are our Event Curators. Music is by Amelia Diehl. We’re your hosts, Meisei Gonzales and Olivia Juarez. If you like what you’re hearing, leave us a review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts! This project is funded by grants, foundations, and listeners like you. You can find a list of major donors on our website. Learn more at and follow us on instagram @OfSaltAndSand. 


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