By Lynn Zender
At the Zender Environmental Health and Research group, our vision of environmental justice is rooted in the philosophy that solutions must rely on community-based participatory efforts. We are a small non-profit organization based in Anchorage, Alaska and primarily serve what are arguably the most remote communities in the United States— the approximately 180 rural Alaska Native villages off the State’s road system. These Villages of 50 to 1,000 people can be reached only via small plane from one of the regional hubs. The lack of trained technicians that can address and mitigate the severe solid waste conditions and risks presented at waste disposal sites is a major issue here, as are the very poor economies and lack of income to sustain environmental programs.
And that’s exactly why EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training (EWDJT) grant program has been so helpful for us. This grant program helps low income and minority communities with unemployed or severely under-employed populations gain the skills needed to obtain employment in the environmental field. This EPA grant program melded perfectly with the issues we are working on. Recently, our organization was very fortunate to receive funding from this EPA grant program to develop our Rural Alaska Community Job Training Program (RACEJT).
RACEJT is unique because we train residents for work in their home villages, which helps prevent rural “brain drain” and erosion of community integrity. Gaining several certifications related to hazardous materials handling and job safety means that students can be hired by contractors that manage site cleanup, water hookup, landfill, road, facility renovation and other environmental projects. Without these skills, villages are forced to hire contractors with their own crews and the local Alaska Native economies gain virtually nothing from these projects.
Over 88% of RACEJT graduates have been able to find permanent or part-time work. In both cases, we’ve learned that any income can make the difference and help families retain their lifestyles and continue to live within their ancestral lands. In these traditional hunting and fishing villages, a day of work can pay for gas to allow a hunter to provide moose, seal, caribou, or other game for his or her family and community, and for artists to search for ivory and other traditional materials used in making creations that they are able to sell and support their family.
One of the beauties of RACEJT is how many of our students gain self-esteem and confidence by succeeding in completing our rigorous program. Many graduates have found back their ways after stumbling on alcohol and other hardships that are all too common in rural villages. Another lesson we’ve learned is the need to frame the program and students’ responsibilities in the context of Alaska Native cultures. We invite Elders and other Alaskan Native mentors to evening dinners who offer great praise and encouragement to students working hard to return and help their community protect health and the subsistence way of life.
To those of us who manage the program, each student is a hero for taking on their challenging village environmental health problems, and we let them know it. Students like Brandon Tocktoo, David Olanna, Eric Alexie, and Brandon Willams have returned to their councils and educated their communities about the serious health risks posed by their open burning and uncontrolled dumps. Chad and Garret Anelon, and Kenneth Charlie have gone back to their villages and instigated infrastructural improvements in their environmental programs. Kacey John has helped to clean up contaminated soil at her school and weatherized homes. Harvey Nusingaya has led the tank farm maintenance for his Tribal Corporation’s oil development program. All of these students and many more are able to continue their customary and traditional practices and thus contribute to their community’s subsistence and wellness.
About: Lynn Zender is the Director of RACEJT, and Executive Director of Anchorage–based Zender Environmental Health and Research Group.
The EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, was created in 1998, partly as a result of recommendations raised by the National Environmental Justice and Advisory Council’s (NEJAC) Waste and Facility Siting Subcommittee to provide training and workforce development opportunities for local, unemployed residents of predominantly low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected by brownfields and other polluting facilities. Click here to read more!