Scalable Ideas: Small organizations tackling big problems

Author: Jerome Shabazz

About the Author: Jerome Shabazz is the founder and Executive Director of JASTECH Development Services, Inc., and the Overbrook Environmental Education Center. Under his leadership, the Overbrook Center has trained thousands of students on the Clean Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Urban Stormwater Management and other subjects that reduce exposures to toxic substances at home and school. Jerome has over twenty years of training and development experience and has a Master’s of Science Degree in Environmental Protection & Safety Management from St. Joseph’s University.

All across the nation, small environmental justice organizations are challenged with “scaling-up” –taking ingenuity and initiative to address larger concerns in spite of our small size – in order to address widespread environmental issues in our communities. And that’s what our organization in Philadelphia, Juveniles Active in Science & Technology, or JASTECH Development Services, Inc., has been all about: developing innovative and collaborative solutions for improving the built and natural environments of our city.

In 2002, JASTECH applied for and received an EPA Clean Water Act grant to transform a former brownfields site into the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC). We built the OEEC to empower students to learn both in the academic context and as participants in community reform. Since its inception, the OEEC used sustainable strategies that “do more with less,” by developing dynamic solutions to overcome obstacles typically associated with organizations who have limited resources and small staffs.

In 2014, during a visit to the OEEC, EPA’s Inspector General Arthur Elkins, Jr., remarked how impressed he was with the Center. During a conversation about how our small, nimble non-profit needed support to help our ideas grow bigger through partnerships, Mr. Elkins suggested that we call our concept “scalable ideas.” Since then, this has described our approach to developing collaborative partnerships that deconstruct large community-wide problems into manageable tasks.

GSI Program students doing a field inspection of a rain garden

OEEC students doing a field inspection of a rain garden

The OEEC puts this in action with what we describe as the “3A” approach: Awareness + Assessment + Application. Awareness being the education of, and relationship to the issues; Assessment is taking inventory of community partners, inputs and resources; and Applications are sustainable solution-based remedies. An example where the OEEC put these “scalable ideas” into action is through educating the public on Philadelphia’s combined sewer overflow problems. The OEEC worked collaboratively to build a 15-week green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) training program for local youth. Chevelle Harrison, Philadelphia Water’s Director of Student Engagement said, “GSI teaches students that their actions have a direct impact on the environment.”

The GSI program is a robust partnership based on Philadelphia Water’s Green City and Clean Waters plan and included the US Forest Service, Penn State Center Engaging Philadelphia, PA Department of Environmental Education, AKRF Engineering and others.

Blog pic 1Through the program, students from Philadelphia high schools conceptualize solutions that reduce strain on the city’s combined sewer system. The students are charged with learning “the power of small” – deconstructing the complicated concepts of pollution from sewer overflows into a series of achievable best management practices that can be realized on a neighborhood level.

Prototype for Curtis' fish farm and vertical plant growing system that utilizes rain water as supplemental “make-up” for water that’s lost through transpiration.

Prototype for Curtis’ fish farm and vertical plant growing system that utilizes rain water as supplemental “make-up” for water that’s lost through transpiration.

Before taking part in the GSI program, high school student Ayanna T. never thought much about stormwater and how it affected the city around her.  “I just thought about the sewer, to be honest,” Ayanna said. “I didn’t know there were other ways you could save [stormwater] and use it.” Now, Ayanna can easily list innovative approaches to green stormwater management, and she ticks off three: “bioswales, tree trenches and pervious pavement.” Devan Curtis, a participant in the GSI program, was challenged with finding ways to redirect and reuse rainwater before it runs off into the stormwater collector system. Curtis, who is currently studying civil engineering at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has spearheaded the development of an aquaponics system that is now in the works.

All too often, we hear about how bigger is better. However, we are inspired by the people in our community who demonstrate that when you think creatively, small ideas can conquer big problems. Whether it’s our students, a citizen scientist, activists, concerned parents, or any of the other “army-of-ones” who inspire big changes with “scalable ideas,” one remedy at a time…we all benefit from their contributions.

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