Doctoral student studying water equity lands Ford Fellowship

Omar Perez-Figueroa

Omar Pérez-Figueroa examines whether different systems of water governance affect disaster resilience

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Omar Pérez-Figueroa, a doctoral student in urban planning and public policy, is comparing aqueducts in Puerto Rico in an effort to promote equity. 

“My dissertation is titled, ‘From Water Comes Equity: Community Approaches to Resilience,’ ” Pérez-Figueroa notes. “I’m exploring whether different systems of water governance affect disaster resilience by focussing on the case of rural community aqueducts. These rural aqueducts are called non-PRASA since they are not connected to the island's main water utility, PRASA. This research seeks to find the means by which governance styles yield better community resilience, a question of vital importance in the face of the climate crisis.”

For his research, Pérez-Figueroa has been selected as a Ford Dissertation Fellow. The fellowship comes with a $28,000 award, among other perks.

Pérez-Figueroa, who expects to complete his dissertation in a year, has a master’s degree in water, interdisciplinary analysis and sustainable management from the University of Barcelona and a bachelor’s degree in Puerto Rican studies from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.

“I was trained by scholars and activists who have used planning as a radical tool to bring equitable and just community based practices,” he says. “These experiences and their stories motivated me to seek training as a planner with the goal of designing policies that ensure strong support for underrepresented communities facing severe environmental event impacts everywhere. Also, I sought to use an interdisciplinary lens to understand and address environmental problems. Urban planning and public policy inform my work on water governance and disaster management. These fields are not only key to human survival, but they are also necessarily connected to many environmental issues.”

After completing his Ph.D., Pérez-Figueroa plans to work at a research institution as faculty and consult with government environmental agencies and grassroots organizations. 

“Working in an urban planning department and consulting for the different organizations will allow me to monitor whether strategies and policies designed in academic settings address the problems they mean to solve,“ he explains. “By positioning myself in both spheres of influence, I can use an interdisciplinary approach to identifying how different environmental issues are connected and support the creation of comprehensive solutions to them. Ultimately, my goal is to create a research institute in Puerto Rico that will produce cutting-edge research on reducing underrepresented communities’ vulnerability toward environmental hazards and pollution. It will provide communities with the necessary skills for them to collaborate. A real shift toward reducing disparities and equity cannot be achieved without the communities’ active participation in the research process and policy development.”

Pérez-Figueroa was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in a town called Caguas, where he learned the value of education. 

“I come from a big family, we did not have much back then, but we always had each other,” he says. “My grandfather provided an income for his family by cleaning the boilers in a thermoelectric power plant while my grandmother sewed women’s gloves in a factory. While none of my grandparents received a formal education, they raised my parents to value education as they recognized it to be a way to help themselves and the community. My parents passed down these values to me and instilled in me the importance of pursuing the best education possible. Since then, and throughout my academic career, I have sought to inspire others to do the same. And, now that I am a father, I want to carry that legacy forward.”