Community Engagement

20/20 Vision: Inspiring Us to Act

By Jalonne White-Newsome

I’ve been wearing glasses since the age of five because my vision has always been pretty bad.  So I was surprised when my eye doctor told me during my last exam that my vision had actually improved and my eyes were getting stronger! I was shocked because I assumed my vision would get worse as I got older.  But, luckily, that was not the case.

While my physical eyesight has improved over time, my view and perspective about environmental protection and public health have changed as well.

When I worked as an engineer at a chemical manufacturing facility, located adjacent to a low income community of color in Texas, I saw the importance of environmental regulations, and I also saw the need for compliance and enforcement to protect communities that had been dumped on for years.  My vision sharpened when I moved on to work in state government, where I organized environmental justice meetings to foster multi-stakeholder conversations about re-building trust between government and citizens, and working to develop holistic, participatory solutions to solve complex environmental and economic challenges.  Later, as a public health researcher who used science and tools to unpack the cumulative impacts of climate change, poverty, and disease on the elderly, my vision became clearer again.

Little did I know that almost every element of my work at the state and local level to protect public health and the environment was shaped by EPA’s agenda.  Whether it was recognizing the importance of compliance and enforcement, building trust between government and communities, or using research to inform policy and advocacy, these elements – and many more – continue to be critical pieces of EPA’s agenda and the agenda of many advocates working for environmental justice across this country.

Now, as an environmental justice advocate who works on federal policy, I have learned the importance of vision.  EPA has a vision that’s 20/20.  What is laid out in its draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda Framework (currently out for public comment) builds on the accomplishments of Plan EJ 2014 to carve a vision for the work that will continue through the next five years.

But most importantly, EJ 2020 is about moving this vision to reality.  EPA’s vision has been sharpened by its experience with environmental justice leaders across this country who have continued to engage, participate, criticize, and push the Agency to work to eliminate the environmental injustices that persist in communities across this country.

It is time to be clear that the expectations from communities are greater. Affected communities must be engaged early in the game. Agency actions must include an adequate EJ analysis. All programs and efforts should be transparent and evaluated through a collaborative process with multiple partners.  The vision of this Administration and the EPA must be clear.

The time is now that the “frames” that seek justice – Executive Order 12898, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EPA’s guidance on considering environmental justice in rulemaking, EJSCREEN, and soon, EPA’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda – will allow the Agency to implement the priorities laid out in EPA’s draft framework.

The vision is clear and we know what we need to further environmental justice. EJ 2020 – coupled with intentional community engagement and accountability – is the framework that can get us there.

About the author:  Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is the Director of Federal Policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.  She is based in Washington, DC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Real Time Monitoring: A Game-Changer for Industrial Fence Line Communities

by Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer, PhD

I often hear people say they would like better tools to measure air pollution, especially in industrial fence line communities where environmental justice issues are paramount. The good news is that the capabilities are already here!

The techniques for detecting air toxics hot spots are not as developed as those used for studying ozone.  Conventional technologies (such as summa canisters, adsorption cartridges, and limited networks of stationary automated gas chromatographs) are like the traditional land lines compared to state-of-the-art capabilities which are more like today’s smart phones. New methods enable us not only to monitor ambient, or background, levels of air pollution in real time with tremendous accuracy, but they also link the often surprisingly large concentration peaks to specific emission points (such as individual flares or a small group of storage tanks) in industrial facilities.  While conventional tools bring a level of sophistication and improved accuracy to community air toxics monitoring efforts, the newer technologies enable communities to precisely quantify the transient emissions associated with industrial releases, all while operating outside facility fence lines!

beetex

Earlier this year, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) led a multi-institution research campaign in three Houston Ship Channel communities with long histories of air pollution issues – Manchester, Milby Park, and Galena Park – to shed new light on those questions. These communities were chosen because they are located in the immediate vicinity of petrochemical facilities, including a major refinery, a rubber processing plant, several storage tank farms, crude oil and refined product pipelines, and rail yards and marine docks where chemical products are routinely loaded and unloaded, not to mention a large amount of truck traffic.

Our field experiment, known as the Benzene and other Toxics Exposure (BEE-TEX) Study, is very different from air pollution studies in the past.  The study focused on the development and demonstration of updated methods for real time monitoring and modeling of health-threatening air contaminants and air quality at the neighborhood level.  HARC and its partner research institutions, including UCLA, the University of North Carolina, and Aerodyne Research, Inc., applied the latest real time monitoring and modeling techniques to the measurement and attribution of ambient exposure to air toxics, such as the notorious carcinogen benzene.  The ultimate goal of the project is to help improve air quality and public health in those and other near-industry neighborhoods.

At Manchester, we deployed computer-aided tomography (CAT) scans (just like in medicine) to map toxic pollution around the clock throughout the neighborhood. Air quality CAT scans were complemented by real-time mobile monitoring outside industrial fence lines with immediate, real-time broadcasts of ambient measurement data over the Internet, followed by source attribution and quantification of transient emission events within an hour of field measurements. In addition, cultured human lung cells were exposed to ambient pollution so that the release of cell proteins and enzymes in response to air pollution, as well as the accompanying genetic response, could be measured.

Community engagement with local community residents was an essential part of the project, which included explanations of the science and tours of experimental sites and facilities. To better enable local residents and other stakeholders to understand the aims and objectives of BEE-TEX, a project website  was developed that includes, among other things, an interactive map of the study site where you can click on individual storage tanks and other industrial emission points and see what emissions are reported to the EPA by local petrochemical facilities.  Check out this video that explains what the BEE-TEX field study is all about.

The ability to have technology that can monitor around the clock, 24/7, 365 days a year, coupled with the ability to pinpoint the location of sources of that may be responsible for the peaks in pollution that we see, is a total game changer in terms of what people can do to protect the health of communities living in close proximity to facilities.  The ability to adaptively deploy mobile resources in response to real time information on the Internet enabled us to discover some surprising industrial emissions. But that is the subject of another story sometime in the near future, after the field study data analysis has been completed and subjected to rigorous peer review.

About the Author: Dr. Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer is the Director of the Air Quality Science Program at HARC, and the lead scientist of the BEE-TEX field study.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Choosing Public Health in the U.S./Mexico Border City of Laredo, Texas

by Hector Gonzalez, M.D.MPH

The City of Laredo, Texas is the gateway city on the border between the United States and Mexico. The city has four international bridges crossing the Rio Grande that supports 47 percent of U.S. international trade headed for Mexico and more than 36 percent of Mexico’s international trade into the U.S.

Laredo is the second largest port of entry in the United States and is also home to the largest inland port along the border. A vibrant and diverse city, Laredo also has communities that bear disproportionate burdens of environmental harm, public health disparities, and economic problems (up to 40% of the population is uninsured). The international flow of trade, as well as potential pollutants on both sides of the border, compound health disparities already present and heighten the potential for health hazards (many of which necessitate some sort of public health response).

2015-05-13-ej-1

In recent years, Laredo, like other U.S./Mexico Border communities, has taken important strides to improve healthier outcomes and safeguard the environment. Planning and taking strategic steps to improve the city’s economic condition and to address critical public health issues is part of the intervention. Such planning includes engaging citizens in public decision-making, providing greater access to outdoor spaces, educating people about public health and prevention through healthier choices, and establishing new developments that enhance the overall quality of life for all residents. With our “Healthy Living/Viviendo Mejor and Active Living Plan” we have challenged our community to think healthier and to build and plan with health in mind (such as walking clubs, healthier eating and nutrition education, and the Mayor’s Active Living Task Force).

One of the city’s showcase projects is the Haynes Health and Wellness Center, a state-of-the-art park in Laredo that provides open access to indoor and outdoor exercise areas and community spaces, such as a pool, rooftop gardens, and a playground equipped for special-needs children. This park, funded jointly through public funds, private funds, and EPA brownfields funds, is a prime example of how green infrastructure and engaging the community in public decision-making can uplift emerging communities.

The primary mission of the Haynes Center is to provide the public with access to recreational facilities as a way to improve their overall quality of life. The presence of a public recreation center also serves to connect the community around central values. With public access to trails and facilities comes increased public participation in regular exercise regimes and a greater appreciation for the outdoors. In addition, a building like the Haynes Center promotes unity and well-being throughout the entire community.

In 2004, Laredo passed a Green Space Ordinance, which aims to achieve both economic development and environmental protection goals. The ordinance requires developers to include green space when constructing a new development.  For instance, the new outlet mall scheduled to be built along the Rio Grande River will feature a community waterpark on the riverfront.  This development allows businesses to set up shop in Laredo, but also gives the community an outdoor public area that will entice more children to play outside.  For developments in areas that already have designated green space, developers are encouraged to make additions. Overall, the Green Space Ordinance encourages more community areas that encourage more time spent outdoors.

And the most notable feature of Laredo’s decision to put public health as “our choice,” is that we have engaged citizens through the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee (CEAC) and the Laredo Health Coalition. CEAC is a group of professionals and environmental advocates hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds who weigh in on proposed city plans and ordinances, effectively providing a voice for the people. These meetings are publicly announced, and there is a time for community issues to be brought before the committee. Once consensus is reached on an issue, a recommendation letter is drafted and sent to the decision-making body, and the city council takes action. The CEAC played a tremendous role in the plastic bag ban ordinance, as well as a program to offer deposits on used tires to prevent tire discards into the Rio Grande River and the environment.

In Laredo, putting citizens first is our public responsibility and one we feel very proud of. And when you put citizens first, it becomes a healthier community for all.

About the author: Dr. Hector Gonzalez is the director of the City of Laredo Health Department. He has more than 30 years experience in public health and is committed and determined to ensuring the protection, well-being, and disease control in Laredo and Webb County.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Help Shape the Future of EJ at EPA: Participate in Webinars on EJ 2020 and EJSCREEN

by Charles Lee

Too often, America’s low-income and minority communities bear the brunt of our country’s pollution. These environmental and public health threats make it harder for kids with asthma to learn in school, families with medical bills to manage finances, and people hurting from pollution to find a job.

Under the leadership of Administrator McCarthy, EPA is committed to making a visible difference in these communities. As chair of the federal interagency working group on environmental justice, she is working to ensure that EPA and other federal resources go to communities that need them the most. That’s why I’m excited to share with you exciting news about opportunities for you to learn about and have a voice in developments that will help EPA advance environmental justice.

As part of our effort to engage as many stakeholders as possible, EPA is hosting two national webinars about the new draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda framework – EPA’s next overarching strategic plan for environmental justice. EJ 2020 is a strategy to advance environmental justice through EPA’s programs, policies and activities. Read Mustafa Ali’s blog for more about how EJ 2020 is about defining new goals for the coming years. You can RSVP for the EJ 2020 webinars here.

EJ 2020 National Webinars

  • May 7th: 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Eastern
  • May 14th: 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Eastern

We are also hosting three informational webinars about EJSCREEN, EPA’s soon-to-be-released environmental justice screening and mapping tool. The tool provides demographic and environmental information for all areas of the United States, and includes a method for combining environmental and demographic data into “EJ indexes,” to assist in identifying areas in the country that have higher pollution burdens and vulnerabilities.

We’re sharing this tool with the public to broaden its impact, build transparency, and foster collaboration on a shared commitment to protect American communities. We hope you will participate in using the tool and providing us feedback on how we can make it better. You can RSVP for the EJSCREEN webinars here.

EJSCREEN National Webinars

  • May 12th: 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. Eastern
  • May 28th: 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. Eastern
  • June 3rd: 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Eastern

I want to invite you to these webinars because the success of both EJ 2020 and EJSCREEN will be greatly enhanced through robust input and dialogue with the communities we serve. I look forward to hearing from you during these webinars, getting your thoughts and input on EJ 2020 and EJSCREEN, and continuing this conversation to advance environmental justice. Your voices, experiences and expertise can help shape a strategy that addresses the needs of communities.

About the author: Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice. He was the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. He helped to spearhead the emergence of a national environmental justice movement and federal action including Executive Order 12898, EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Brighter Future for My Community and Yours: A Mayor’s Perspective

By Lisa A. Wong

(c) 2015 Sentinel & Enterprise. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Digital First Media.

(c) 2015 Sentinel & Enterprise. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Digital First Media.

Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is a wonderful community that built its foundation along the Nashua River. The town flourished along the banks of this great river until the industry and jobs moved south, leaving behind abandoned mill properties that deteriorated into brownfield sites. When I first decided to run for Mayor, I had one clear vision: to promote economic growth in a manner that also improves the community’s environment and public health. The projects that I have undertaken as Mayor have been based in economics, but also in promoting environmental and health equity for all the community.

My time in office has taught me a number of things, but two really stand out. First, I have come to realize that problem solving doesn’t necessarily require more spending, but it does require innovative spending. Second, government cannot solve problems alone — you have to engage the citizens of the community to develop solutions that will improve everyone’s lives. By working with my community to connect them back to the river and focusing on environmental justice challenges, we have made a better, more sustainable future for all. Today, the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, prospers because we are working together to promote a cleaner environment so that all of our citizens can collectively share in that brighter future.

As chair of the Environmental Justice workgroup for EPA’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), there is a lot to reflect on for Earth Day 2015. The LGAC is a federal advisory committee comprised of 30 elected and appointed officials of state, tribal and local governments who meet regularly to advise the EPA Administrator about environmental and public health issues that affect local government. Recently, the LGAC produced the EJ Best Practices for Local Governments report that highlights best practices that local governments have undertaken in communities to address environmental justice and sustainability.

The LGAC understands that communities with environmental justice concerns face many challenges when it comes to human health and the environment. Indeed, these communities are impacted more by environmental damage and health disparities than other communities. In our report, the LGAC highlighted several findings:

  • EJ communities need a forum to discuss and collaborate on solutions
  • EJ communities need access to resources to address community problems
  • EJ communities lack the basic infrastructure for clean drinking water, stormwater, wastewater, and utilities to meet citizen needs and promote economic prosperity

My colleagues on the LGAC are very excited to share our stories about addressing such environmental challenges to promote environmental equity for all. Our LGAC members have developed innovative strategies to close economic, environmental, and health disparity gaps. In the blog posts to follow in the coming weeks, we will present examples illustrating where local governments have made advances in closing the gap of environmental and health disparities. I sincerely hope that by sharing our stories, it will inspire individuals and local leaders to take on these challenges. It is only through a continuing and meaningful dialogue at the community level that problems can be addressed and solutions found that will benefit everybody, both in terms of economics and the environment.

About the author: Hon. Lisa A. Wong is currently serving her fourth term as Mayor of the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Before then, she worked for the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority where, as director, she managed several urban renewal projects to revitalize the city.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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EJ2020: Defining New Goals for the coming years

By Mustafa Santiago Ali

Realizing environmental justice for all people, regardless of their race, income or educational status is a long journey. It will not come overnight, but EPA made an important step forward recently with Plan EJ 2014. That five-year strategic plan laid a foundation for integrating environmental justice in EPA’s programs by developing basic guidance in rulemaking, permitting and enforcement, and basic tools such as EJ Legal Tools and EJSCREEN. Now it is time to build on this foundation and expand collaborations with our partners toward making a bigger difference in the overburdened communities we serve.

That is why we are developing EJ 2020, our next strategy to advance environmental justice in EPA’s programs. EJ2020 will:

  • Deepen environmental justice practice within EPA programs
  • Strengthen our collaborations with partners
  • Demonstrate progress on outcomes that matter to communities

Today, we start community and stakeholder engagement on EJ 2020. We are already learning from the initial input on areas that we have yet to fully address. By engaging our partners at the state, tribal, local, and federal levels we’ve developed ideas like integrated and area-wide planning, green infrastructure, and advanced environmental monitoring. They’ve helped us understand the need to meet the challenge of climate change, and ways to demonstrate progress that matters to communities.

We have heard from local governments who have identified best practices in how they are addressing environmental justice. Communities from Santa Barbara, California to Bridgeport, Connecticut are coming up with solutions in areas such as green infrastructure, brownfields, climate adaptation, health disparities, reducing air emissions from the movement of freight, and issues in rural communities.

We are benefiting from everyone’s robust experience learned over several decades of work.

There are a number of powerful examples of what can happen when collaborative partnerships come together between federal, state, and local governments, communities, and other stakeholders. One of those inspiring stories is the Salt Lake City Children’s Environmental Health & Environmental Justice Initiative which is working with nine neighborhoods in central and west Salt Lake City, Utah. This project brought together more than a dozen local, state, and community-based organizations with the purpose of making a visible difference in their communities. They designed a unique community engagement model to fit the needs of the neighborhoods, created a profile report characterizing community environmental and health concerns, and created an environmental data map for the West Side community. This work has allowed the community to play an important role in the design of the West Salt Lake Master Plan. As a result of the community’s active participation in the process, they have been able to increase attention on:

  • Supporting/funding community initiated ideas through the Community Implementation grants
  • Creating increased mobility and transit use options through a city-wide discount transit pass
  • Aligning city and school district opportunities through a Community Learning Center Strategy
  • Increasing understanding of affordable housing choices through a Housing needs assessment

By honoring the culture of a community and including their voices and ideas in the planning process, we can create healthier and more vibrant communities and truly make a visible difference that is rooted in the values and priorities of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.

This effort shows how critical it is for EPA to strengthen our collaborations with the communities we serve, our government partners, and all stakeholders. We hope that everyone committed to achieving the goals of environmental justice will work with us to produce a vision and plan for EJ 2020 that is relevant to the opportunities and challenges of our times.

Several years ago, I learned that we cannot solve all the intractable problems associated with environmental justice right away, especially during a period of rising demands and dwindling resources. I am reminded of the old adage that if it was so simple, it would have been solved a long time ago. Therefore, we must be strategic. We need your best thinking about key things we should focus on to most effectively and realistically advance our common goal of achieving beneficial outcomes for our most overburdened communities.

About the author: Mustafa Santiago Ali is the Acting Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Feed the Barrel: A tale of how small actions can change the world

By Lena Adams Kim

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he's pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he’s pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

It all started Thanksgiving Day 2013, with my daughters frantically yelling, “The basement is flooding!!!” A visit from the plumber, yards of ruined carpeting, and $900 later, it was clear that cooking oil clogging my kitchen drain was the culprit. And so I did what many do after experiencing the horrors of home damage – I complained to everyone who would listen.

My tale of woe reached Indah, a parent in my kids’ schoolyard. Indah, a journalist of Indonesian descent, mentioned how families in her immigrant Indonesian community in South Philadelphia were grappling with the same clogged pipes and costly repairs, yet unlike me, were often unaware of the cause.

She described how many had emigrated from rural areas of Indonesia, where every drop of precious oil is used, re-used, and then re-used again. Very little oil, if any, was discarded. And those first-world kitchen drains and sewer systems? Non-existent in the 17,000 largely undeveloped islands that comprise Indonesia. Those huge jugs of oil, available at low cost at grocery stores in the U.S.? Unheard of on smaller islands where budgets and resources are limited.

Yet things are far different in America, the land of plenty. Additionally, the cultural knowledge of what can and cannot, go down a drain is instilled in many of us from an early age. Not so obvious, however, to newcomers in a new homeland with new customs.

During my conversation with Indah, I realized there was a beautifully simple solution to this costly environmental issue of used fats, oils, and grease, also called “FOG”, which cause public health problems by entering the waste stream. Just last month, the New York Times reported on the impacts of food waste like oils entering waterways and landfills, ultimately decomposing to emit methane, a greenhouse gas. I wondered, “what if EPA worked with this community on proper oil disposal.” Could it make a difference?

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Today, two years after my basement flood, things are far different from the clogged pipes of the past. Thanks to connections made by Indah, this vibrant Indonesian community is now the first in the nation piloting a wildly successful residential oil collection program. Called Feed the Barrel, the program has gone far beyond just education on oil disposal. Now, they work with an oil recycler to collect and recycle used oil into biofuel, rich compost, and soap. The money made from the oil collected goes toward improving the community.

It would take pages to detail the unique ways this community tackled this environmental problem — how they insisted on using a local recycler, how they decided to empower children to help spread the word, and how they enlisted spiritual leadership to encourage neighbors in churches, temples, and mosques to become involved.

And it would be impossible for me to describe the pride I see in my neighbors in their newfound ability to spread environmental awareness — which they can give back to their new homeland that has given them so much opportunity.

News of their success in diverting more than 300 gallons of oil in the first year alone has traveled fast. They have been approached by communities throughout the greater Philadelphia area, and in New Jersey and Houston, Texas. Media coverage has been powerful in spreading the word, as their efforts have been highlighted on National Public Radio, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the city’s respected Grid magazine.

Imagine — Feed the Barrel started from a schoolyard conversation about providing people with something as simple as information. While EPA’s goal of “meaningful involvement of all communities in environmental decisions” might seem broad, its simplicity allowed, in this case, room to develop a creative solution to a nagging problem.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that, “when people are made aware … they are empowered to act.” To learn more about the possibilities of oil recycling, or to follow pilot progress, visit www.facebook/feedthebarrel. And join the rallying cry: Feed the Barrel to Fuel America!

About the author: Lena Adams Kim is a member of EPA Region 3’s Asian Pacific American Council, as well as a communications specialist in the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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It Takes an Extended Village

By Michael Burns

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, Georgia at the Lithonia City Hall.

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, GA at City Hall.

There is an old Nigerian proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Its basic meaning is that a child’s upbringing is a communal effort, in which the responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger, extended family. Even the wider community gets involved, such as neighbors and friends. This proverb, and many others like it, focuses on the values of community, unity, cooperation, and sharing.

Today’s modern village is more than just an actual geographic place where individuals and families live, work, and play together. For underserved communities like Lithonia, Georgia, the horizons of the contemporary village extend beyond the town line to include colleges and universities, some local and some not so local. Through efforts like the College-Underserved Community Partnership Program, this wider community of students and professors are being engaged to build long-term partnerships with small municipalities and provide no-cost technical assistance to help the towns accomplish their planning goals.

With the success we had in getting Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College onboard, I began reaching out to other schools to participate. I had met Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson shortly after she was elected, and really wanted to provide a partner for her to help her city move forward. I reached out to Dr. Charles Richardson from Clark Atlanta University to see if he could work with Lithonia. As I was in his office discussing the possibility with him, one of his MBA students walked in to talk about what they would be working on the upcoming fall semester. Dr. Richardson turned and looked at the student and said “Shake hands with Mr. Burns, he just gave you your class project for this semester.” And just like that, another school was added.

Clark Atlanta University’s MBA students formed an Organizational Development Planning Team to help “rebrand” the city. They developed an organizational structure that allocated different responsibilities not only to members of the Lithonia Business Alliance Group but to local residents as well. They established membership guidelines, governance principles, and scheduled guidelines for meetings and events to keep things well organized. They identified benefit sets for members and potential collaboration opportunities that would ultimately help increase community involvement. They also identified marketing tactics for the association and business members of the business alliance.

They did a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis of the city’s economic situation and provided valuable recommendations to the city to help it move forward.

  • They worked with the City to help rebrand to improve their ability to promote the city.
  • They worked with local businesses, and provided recommendations on how they could work better together, and how the city could help them move forward.
  • They provided recommendations on how to attract business to become a part of the city.
  • They also worked with the City to help them identify grants to address their brownfields site in the downtown area.

We often talk about the benefit the program provides to our underserved cities and communities, but the value to the students who participate is also great. For these students, the CUPP Program has given them an edge in competing in the marketplace for jobs and opportunities. One of the students had this to say:

“This [project] personally helped me in my career to be organized, to be an intelligent decision maker, and to most importantly take a risk to make a real difference! I am extremely proud of Clark Atlanta University for recognizing talent when they see it and they certainly saw something in Dr. Charles Richardson who pushed us to our limits and encouraged us to work smart. Thank you Clark Atlanta University! Thank you Dr. Charles Richardson! Thank you to the City of Lithonia, GA!”

Efforts like CUPP illustrate that it takes a modern, extended village not constrained by geography to make a difference. It’s a timeless reminder that a community will thrive if the whole of society works together. We are not just making a visible difference in communities; we are making better students entering the workplace. Both sides are winners!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Grassroots Mojo

by Fred Tutman

The recent 50th Anniversary commemoration of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights brings to mind the long history of grassroots organizing, and the role the local Selma freedom movement played to help raise the civil rights conversation to national prominence.

In making the connection from Selma to today, we need to remember that there is a power, an inspirational wallop, that flows from small grassroots movements, like those that served as the foundation of the civil rights movement and today’s environmental justice movement. The civil rights movements not only achieved their own local goals but served to pursue larger ones as well.

The grassroots have a powerful “mojo” with a deeply inspirational history of achievement. Grassroots causes have a track record of success that channel the raw energy needed to change the world in order to make it more just. Grassroots causes are also inherently democratic, compassionate, equitable, empowering, and diverse! The fact that such movements generally lack money is unimportant, as their lack of cash is more than made up for with their zeal, ingenuity, and passion. Grassroots causes can produce charismatic and highly effective leadership. My own grassroots heroes include people like Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ. Nobody paid them lots of money to be change agents.

A true grassroots movement generally draws its strength and vision from rank and file participants, while empowering the people and communities from which that same power and initiative flows. These mostly unpaid and localized grassroots groups often have intensely active and engaged members who control the priorities of their movement.

So while grassroots groups build coalitions and campaigns around mutual self-interest and shared moral commitment, top down ones often do so around issues that can rally more people and more money. And why not? These groups surely have more expenses and compete with other similar groups on national and international stages for both members and resources. But the key is that while both forms of advocacy can do vital and worthwhile work, they rarely do exactly the same work, nor should we always expect them to! Recognizing distinctions between top down organizations and grassroots movements is vital when understanding how true community-based advocacy works, and how such work occasionally clashes with well-meaning institutionalized environmentalism.

Despite these differences, if there is one thing of which I am certain, large top down movements need grassroots partners as well as a deeper appreciation of the rich potential of grassroots work and environmental justice.

I have heard it argued that these distinctions are unimportant because, regardless of the business model, grassroots and big environmentalism “all want the same things.” But it’s important to realize that communities don’t usually band together simply because “everybody” wants clean air and water. They do so more forcefully because their sense of place is threatened by dirty air and water. The reality of attacking a local threat is a much stronger motivator than an issue that is a diffuse and amorphous threat that attracts empathy and donations. The momentum generated by a movement serving actual communities and local constituencies presents an enormous advantage in terms of the payload it can deliver.

That is why it’s especially important for large, well-funded environmental groups to explore fresh ways to jump on local bandwagons, instead of the other way around. And the fastest way to satisfy the need for diversity in environmentalism is to build stronger connections to grassroots advocacy.

So how do we forge stronger bonds between the larger and more nationally influential organizations to invest more deeply in local work? One way is to better understand that local advocates are drivers and not passengers along for the environmental ride. It is important to remember that the civil rights movement was really a series of grassroots efforts, like the Selma march, of ordinary citizens determined to end racial injustice, not only locally but across the United States. Success came when they banded with others, locally and with other like-minded souls from around the country.

There is no greater calling than doing grassroots work that helps real people and real communities, as well as the nation and the planet.

About the author: Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, has served more than 11 years as the Riverkeeper for Maryland’s longest and deepest intrastate river. Fred also is an adjunct instructor at historic St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he teaches an upper level course in Environmental Law and Policy.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Building Partnerships Between Colleges and Underserved Communities

By Michael Burns

During my 30-plus years with the federal government, I have held many great positions, such as Deputy Director of the Army Reserve Base Operations Division, and Executive Director of the Navy’s Southeast Region. I have enjoyed each and every position, but I never felt that I was giving back to communities as much as I would have liked.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Five years ago, I worked for the National Park Service, and attended a meeting with various federal agencies to work together on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects where we met with the Mayor of Hayneville, a small town in southern Alabama. The Mayor described how she had many infrastructure issues to address, but expressed concern about her city’s capacity to pass federal audit requirements that come with the funding needed to address the issues. She said a Certified Public Accountant told her it would cost about $20,000 to ensure she passed the audit. For a small, poor town of 1,080, such a fee was beyond their means. I thought about it, and remembered that a university only thirty minutes away could possibly help them. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was unable to follow through with the idea.

Many small, underserved communities, like Hayneville, are in need of resources to improve their environment and quality of life. However, they often lack the technical expertise in engineering, transportation, and infrastructure planning to pursue initiatives in a progressive and sustainable manner.

Eighteen months later, I was talking to folks from EPA Region 4 about this idea of connecting underserved communities with the talents of college students and faculty. They asked if I would be willing to collaborate with EPA. I agreed, and began to reach out to colleges and universities.

With no budget or funding to provide to the schools, it was tough going! Our first breakthrough came when the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to provide stipends to students through its Massie Chair of Excellence Program at Tennessee State University. The students worked with the City of Cooperstown, Tennessee, helping it upgrade its financial recordkeeping and develop an economic development plan. With this effort, we were able to prove that the college-community partnership concept was not only valid, but we could help make a difference in small, underserved communities. But the lack of funding continued to plague our efforts.

Our biggest advance came when Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a small college in Tifton, Georgia, agreed to provide economic development plans for two small cities in Georgia with no financial support from the federal government. The College understood the value of giving its students such a rich experiential learning opportunity in which they could take what they learned in the classroom, apply it to real world problems, and come up with real-world solutions. The school also understood that such opportunities were more important than simply extending financial support to these cities. Just as critical was that the program gave their students a leg up when looking for employment after graduation – they not only could talk in interviews about what they learned, but about what they had DONE. In addition, the school is now an important pillar of the community. It is looked upon as an organization that can and has made a visible difference in these communities.

The briefing the school gave the communities about concepts and plans for economic development was fantastic! It has offered to help these communities develop grant proposals to move forward, and get the resources they need for improvements.

As a result of the growing success of the program, I was hired at EPA Region 4 to expand EPA’s College/Underserved-Communities Partnership Program (CUPP), which develops long-term partnerships between local colleges and universities and underserved cities and communities. Through the program, schools provide technical support to communities at no cost to them. Small rural communities are able to use this assistance to address important issues – like energy savings projects, land reuse, and economic development – that will support the long-term viability of their communities.

We continue to add colleges and universities to this effort, and in future blog posts we will talk about plans and projects that are moving these underserved communities forward. We are also looking for schools that wish to voluntarily be a part of this program. Do you know a school, or does your school want to make a difference in the lives of those who need the help the most? Let us know!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.