Spring 2021 Baldy Center Magazine


New scholars in law and social policy at UB


The mission of the Baldy Center is to advance interdisciplinary research on law, legal institutions, and social policy. UB faculty supported by our conference and research grants mentor graduate students as interdisciplinary scholars in law and social policy. Here we profile five of these new scholars in law and social policy at the University at Buffalo.

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Marissa Bell, Department of Geography

Marissa Bell.

Marissa Bell

Name: Marissa Bell

Degree Program: Department of Geography, Ph.D. Candidate

Research Topic Title: Energy Justice, Nuclear Landscapes and Consent: An Examination of Canadian Nuclear Waste Siting

About Marissa’s Research: Nuclear waste policy is at a critical juncture globally, where technocratic approaches to siting, often unjust and failing due to lack of socio-political acceptance, are being replaced with consent-based siting practices. During my doctoral research, I examined the implementation of consent-based siting for high-level nuclear waste in Southern Ontario, Canada. Specifically, the way local context shapes the operationalization of consent-based policies, the mechanisms through which consent is negotiated, and the extent to which the waste siting process is deliberative, fair, and just. 

This research was grounded in ethnographic research, including participant observation and in-depth interviews with a range of community, policy, and advocacy stakeholders. I found that for siting practices to be successful and environmentally just, the process must consider local context, perceptions of process, and conduct meaningful community engagement to ensure translation of equitable policies into successful practice. This requires a deeper understanding of local social, political, historical, and economic context to ensure there are stronger guidelines for how community consent or willingness is assessed. 

Policies that were designed to be community-driven, in contrast to top-down models, had the unintended consequence of allowing local power dynamics to shape the siting process to reproduce unequal power relations influenced by the political-economic dominance of a local nuclear power plant. Other findings revealed complexities in defining the temporal, geographic, and epistemic boundaries of consent, from assessing perspectives of future generations, correcting past wrongs, to lack of engagement with critical voices in the process. 

This research has a range of important policy implications. For Canadian nuclear waste siting, the implications relate to engagement with diverse stakeholders to ensure final decisions are supported by the community. This research also informs the nascent consent-based US siting program that the US federal government will likely restart under the new Biden administration, given the failure of top-down approaches of Yucca Mountain. For environmental governance more broadly, the results are relevant to infrastructure siting and environmental governance strategies designed to be more community-engaged, particularly where siting might be contentious or embedded within existing power inequalities.


Keywords: Environmental justice, nuclear waste policy, community-engaged practices, infrastructure siting, inclusion


Jake Cercone, School of Law


Name: Jake Cercone

Degree Program: UB School of Law, J.D. Candidate; Sports Law and Cross-Border Studies

Research Topic Title: Black Labor and Black Management: Explaining the Lack of Black Sports Executives and Coaches

About Jake’s Research: How can a field with roughly 70% Black athletes only have 12.5% of Black head coaches? Well, the answer is more complicated than just hiring more Black coaches. African American coaches thrive in head coaching development roles. Four of the eight coordinators, defensive and offensive coaches right below the head coach, of teams that made their respective conference championship game were Black. Both coordinators of the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Todd Boles and Byron Leftwich, are not only Black but have successfully made the transition from playing in the NFL to coaching. If Black coaches thrive in coordinator roles, how are they not given equal opportunity to become head coaches? Well, sport is a microcosm of society, and the issues that are prevalent in society are magnified in sport. Despite making up 12.8% of the American population, African Americans are grossly underrepresented in fields beyond NFL coaches, like doctors, accountants, lawyers, and business executives. Can this data possibly answer why Black coaches are not given equal opportunity to become head coaches? Understanding the depths of this possible relationship is the purpose of the research. Using data from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, United States Census, and industry-specific sources, my research will examine whether a link exists between societal-wide issues of discrimination and the lack of head coaches in the NFL. If a link is drawn, the possible solutions to this issue would increase the number of Black NFL head coaches and increase the number of Black doctors, accountants, lawyers, and business executives.

Keywords: Black labor, management, sports, coaches, football, diversity, ethics, discrimination

Matthew McCleskey, Department of Sociology


Matthew H. McCleskey

Name: Matthew H. McLeskey

Degree Program: Sociology, Ph.D. Candidate

Research Topic Title: Life in a Leaded Landscape: Housing, Stigma, and Struggle in American Cities

About Matthew’s Research: My research focuses on an issue at the intersection of sociolegal studies and urban sociology: how the causes and consequences of lead poisoning in urban neighborhoods arise from the structural inequalities found in cities and impact the everyday lives of families. Lead poisoning remains a social problem with implications for housing affordability, racial inequality, environmental justice, health disparities, and educational outcomes. I unpack the ways lead poisoning contributes to urban inequality by documenting the legal, material, and cultural processes defining the threat of lead exposure for both tenants and landlords in disinvested, often minority communities. Dilapidated housing still contains traces of lead that children might ingest from chipped paint due to varying housing code enforcement. This may cause permanent physiological consequences in children if left untreated, however, landlords bear legal responsibility for tenants’ well-being and face potential criminal liability when leasing units in neighborhoods known for lead poisoning. At the same time, housing policy can act as a coercive power exercised to enforce a lawful order in favor of landlords, as tenants - already precarious due to often working in the informal economy - see their justified complaints about lead risks result in housing court cases and evictions. To capture “life in a leaded landscape,” I employ qualitative methods: semi-structured interviews with tenants and landlords, informational interviews with legal professionals, and archival research of media articles and policy documents. Respondent recruitment include collaboration with social service agencies, tenants’ rights organizations, and landlord educational programs. The field site, Buffalo, provides a case of urban decline: its poverty levels, segregation measures, population shrinkage, and lead poisoning rates resemble Cleveland, Baltimore, and other declining cities. My research furthers understanding of an understudied environmental factor contributing to the reproduction of urban poverty, and contributes to debates about the causes and consequences of America’s sustainable housing crisis.


Keywords: Housing, urban sociology, lead poisoning, health disparities, environmental justice, minority communities, tenants’ rights, landlords, poverty

James Ponzo, Department of Africana and American Studies

James Ponzo.

James Ponzo

Name: James Ponzo

Degree Program: Africana and American Studies Department, American Studies Ph.D.

Research Topic Title: Bold Truths and Uncomfortable Insights: Rereading James Baldwin in an Age of Uncertainty

About James’ Research: My research interests involve the Late 19th to Early 20th Century, as well as Contemporary, African American Literature, Critical Race Theory, and Black History, Politics, and Popular Culture. My dissertation in progress focuses on the works of James Baldwin, their relevance, and significance to contemporary society, and my MA thesis is centered on major themes from Ralph Ellison’s life and Invisible Man. Additionally, I am currently teaching the following classes: Introduction to African American Studies (AAS 100), Public Policies & Social Justice (AAS 128), and a UB Seminar that focuses on the City of Buffalo (AAS 199). Other courses that I have taught over the last 4 years both in-person and online include Black Gender Studies, Black Social & Political Thought (236), and Research Methods (320). 

The topics of law, legal institutions, and social policy have been present throughout each of my courses. In my AAS 100 and 261 classes, my students are educated about the socio-legal construct of race, and learn that although it is unscientific, it has very real consequences. Additionally, they learn about how the initial myth of a racial hierarchy was not only supported by laws and legal institutions, but also served to shape social policy. In fact, in classes such as AAS 128 and 236, students learn about how since the inception of this country, Black people have devised strategies and pushed back against the oppressive conditions stemming from the perpetuation of this dangerous ideology. Moreover, events such as the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., underscore how vital it is for students to understand the genesis of such beliefs, and hopefully become inspired to enact change.


  • Freedom Seekers: The Underground Railroad, Great Lakers, and Science Literacy Activities: Middle School and High School Curriculum,” co-author (Center for Great Lakes Literacy, 2021). Freedom Seekers
  • “Jack Johnson” in The Harlem Renaissance: An Encyclopedia of Arts, Culture, and History, Ed. Venetria Patton (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, forthcoming).
  • “Racial Violence at Trump Campaign Rallies” in History of American Racial Violence, Ed. Michael Pfeifer (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, forthcoming).

Keywords: African American literature, Black history, critical race theory, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Emma Powlin, School of Law

Emma G. Powlin.

Emma G. Powlin

Name: Emma G. Powlin

Degree Program: UB School of Law, J.D. Candidate; Sports Law Certificate

Research Topic Title: Pink Concussions: A Call to Action to Change How Female Athlete Concussions Are Handled

About Emma’s Research: My research focuses on female athletes and concussions (a.k.a. Pink Concussions), and the legal liability associated with them. Currently, there is significant medical research on female athletes and concussions, primarily, data showing that females are at a higher risk for concussions, more severe symptoms, and varying and often longer recovery time than males. 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Football League (NFL) have all recognized the seriousness of concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) with male hockey and football athletes. Those same leagues and associations have addressed liability and risk with respect to concussions—specifically with the lawsuits brought by former players and their families against the NHL and NFL—as well as other medical conditions, such as heat stroke and sickle cell anemia. Yet, women’s soccer is only second behind football for highest concussion rates in high school sports and no such recognition has been given. In fact, women and girls sustain more concussions at a higher rate than their male counterparts in sports with similar rules. 

Historically, women’s issues have not been recognized or considered as serious as men’s. We are at a critical point where there is substantial data that females are different when it comes to concussions, which naturally seems to point towards prevention and rehabilitation. The question is, however, is that enough to hold institutions responsible. If we know a group of individuals is of a higher risk, shouldn’t we be protecting them? At the very least, we should proceed with caution and perhaps even reconsider the effects of young women participating in athletics.

Publications:  UB Law Sports Forum  

Keywords: Concussions, female athletes, athletics, sports, women’s issues