Environmental Justice Small Grants Making a Big Difference in Local Communities

By Sheila Lewis

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” This phrase has taken on new life in Cleveland, which has been plagued by these nasty parasites. Many families in the city are ill-informed about bedbugs, and some people have endangered their health trying to combat infestations with dangerous pesticides.

To address this growing public health concern, the EPA Environmental Justice Small Grants Program awarded the Cleveland Tenants Organization (CTO) $25,000 to educate tenants and landlords about how to prevent and safely control bedbugs. By the time the project is complete, CTO plans to help educate more than 10,000 residents on how to prevent infestations before they start, which, Mike Piepsny, Executive Director of CTO says, “can save a landlord tens of thousands of dollars.”

The CTO grant is one of the 47 awarded in October 2011 by the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice that is already making a big difference in communities across the country.

Far to the north of Ohio, a grant was awarded to The Zender Group in Anchorage, Ala. to educate and engage tribal leaders and villagers on effective ways to manage solid waste. For many Alaskan tribal communities, open dump sites are the only option for household and commercial wastes. These sites are a threat to public health and increase communities’ risks of contamination from hazardous materials and pathogens.

Since the grant was awarded, the Zender Group has reached almost 100 tribal/native organizations and hosted a tribal summit on solid waste, which was attended by representatives from 20 different tribes.

And, in New York City, WEACT is using their grant to educate residents about the dangers of lead exposure, a toxic metal that is especially dangerous for children and is prevalent in older housing, which is often in low-income communities. The project goal is to provide more than 600 families with information about how to ensure their homes are healthy and safe. The project, explains WEACT’s Ogonnaya Newman, “is an opportunity for engagement, empowerment and education because families are able to identify potential sources of harm and work on proactive strategies to address them.”

Since 1994, the EJ small grants program has provided more than $23 million to fund projects that help protect and improve people’s health and the environment in more than 1,200 communities across the nation.

About the author: Sheila Lewis has dedicated 30 years to federal service and has worked to support community-based efforts since 1999. She currently serves as the Grants Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.

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