By Timothy Fields, Jr.
Sometimes you wake up from a bad dream. You pray it’s not real but when you open your eyes, the reality of the situation is staring you right in the face.
Harold Mitchell faced a similar situation and learned about environmental injustice when family, friends, and neighbors in his Spartanburg, South Carolina community got sick — many of whom died young from cancer and respiratory diseases. His father and sister died due to health concerns suspected to be related to exposure to environmental contamination. Harold learned even more about this issue as he experienced similar health concerns. He began to investigate the contaminated sites in his community, and with the help of his neighbors and the support of EPA Region 4, he discovered the source of the public health and environmental problems in his community. In 1997, he founded ReGenesis to help make sense of what he was discovering and to tackle what officials once called an “impossible task” of turning around streets filled with crack houses and neighborhoods impacted by numerous environmental concerns, blight, and hopelessness. In the intervening 17 years, the ReGenesis collaborative partnership grew a $20,000 EPA environmental justice small grant into more than $250 million in public and private funding through partnerships with more than 120 organizations to transform these communities.
The story of ReGenesis is about a community and its remarkable leader being exposed to environmental contamination and then implementing collaborative problem-solving, which identifies a public health problem, brings people together to work collaboratively to envision, and implement broad solutions towards creating visible change. The story of ReGenesis is about a place that “couldn’t get any worse,” according to one resident, that is well on its way to being transformed.
ReGenesis both represented and presented local community concerns as part of a dialogue to assess and clean up contaminated sites and address the myriad challenges facing the community. As the focus of ReGenesis evolved, the community-based environmental justice organization saw an opportunity to expand discussions with local government and environmental agencies to include equitable neighborhood revitalization. In 2000, the ReGenesis Environmental Justice Partnership was formed by representatives of ReGenesis, Spartanburg County, and the City of Spartanburg, South Carolina to promote equitable development for the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods. As well, a dialogue between ReGenesis and Rhodia (now Solvay) began to address the communities’ concerns about having a chemical facility in the middle of the neighborhoods. Many felt that the chemical plant would be an impediment to redevelopment. But over several years and many discussions (both formal and informal), the local community and industry found common ground. The partnership continues today.
The new partnership brought considerable funding to the area, leveraging more than $250 million for the following reinvestment and development opportunities that benefit both residents and their industry neighbors:
- Critical transportation changes now mean that the only road into the communities is no longer blocked by standing trains. With the addition of a vital second entrance into and out of the community, residents are no longer isolated. Emergency response drills mean that the community is prepared for any potential incident that could occur in the area.
- The creation of several community health centers means that residents no longer have to travel long distances for medical care. The centrally-located facilities not only support school and behavioral health initiatives, but serve migrant healthcare needs as well.
- More than 500 new affordable housing units for residents and workers led to the removal of severely distressed public housing and new homeownership opportunities.
- Job training and employment programs that empower residents through economic opportunity.
- Environmental cleanup of formerly contaminated properties have turned brownfields into viable properties, removing eyesores and affording other redevelopment opportunities, such as a solar farm that is planned.
- Increased retail development, such as a long sought after grocery store, a pharmacy, and other shops located within the community.
- A new state of the art community center that serves as a hub of activity for the community, from young to elderly residents.
In 2009, ReGenesis received the EPA 2009 Environmental Justice Achievement Award, for its long-term – and still ongoing projects addressing environmental hazards, economic development, health care, and housing in the Arkwright community.
This transformation did not happen overnight. Nor was the journey easy. Now others are looking at ReGenesis’ work in Spartanburg as a national model of environmental justice achievement, as well as a national model of how community-private-public partnerships can work. This work has effectively addressed environmental protection and community revitalization issues in the Arkwright community in Spartanburg.
But as Harold Mitchell has said repeatedly, he could not have done it without the people of Arkwright. “The one thing that we did have was the mark of the people within the community itself. We went through three mayors, four city managers, turnover on (City) Council, but the only thing that didn’t change was a little acorn, which was the community, and that was the piece that kept everything moving here.”
About the author: Timothy Fields, Jr., is Senior Vice President of MDB, Inc., a public health and environmental management consulting firm in Washington, DC. Prior to going into environmental consulting twelve years ago, Tim served as U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator in charge of environmental cleanup, waste management, and emergency response (1997-2001).