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Environmental Justice at CitSci2019

We chose environmental justice as a special track at CitSci2019 to highlight the unique lessons we can learn from community science methods employed by environmental justice groups since the 1980s. Environmental justice (EJ) advocates and activists have for decades used community science to raise awareness about EJ concerns, inpower residents, increase community capacity, and translate research to action. A special panel discussion with activists from across the US and Puerto Rico was held on this topic called, “Environmental Justice and Community Science: A Social Movement for Inpowerment, Compliance, and Action.” In addition the the special panel, there were workshops and talks on community organizing, environmental justice, participatory research methods, collaboration, and equity, diversity and inclusion in citizen science, that wove the EJ theme throughout the conference. Our hope is that conference goers left the conference with a broader understanding of how to engage with the communities they work with because of these presentations.

We were able to convene the special panel, and support environmental justice leaders and advocates from across the country with scholarships, through a grant from the National Science Foundation*. For the CSA to meet our mission of advancing citizen science, it will require capacity-building to support scholarship and practice across the full range of styles of citizen science across diverse populations. Practitioners in the environmental justice movement, who are often racial/ethnic minorities, frequently utilize citizen science methods without the support of the professional network and resources that we offer through the CSA. The goal of this proposal is to increase the quality and extent of practice of citizen science by broadening the networks, membership, and leadership of the CSA with experts from the environmental justice movement. The conference benefitted greatly from the perspectives of 50+ environmental justice scholarship awardees who shared about their work through posters, presentations, workshops, and in person exchanges. Our hope is that these efforts will culminate in the broadening of participation of marginalized groups, people of color, economically disadvantaged, and tribal populations in STEM learning via citizen science.

Environmental Justice and Community Science: A Panel Discussion

Panelists discussed their experience using community-driven research to address 1) environmental justice and military wastes in Alaska; 2) goods movement, ports, and refineries in Oakland, California and Detroit, Michigan; 3) lack of basic amenities in North Carolina; and 4) environmental justice, hurricanes, and health disparities in the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico at the Friday evening panel discussion. Each outlined how they got involved with community science and the work that they are currently involved in, highlighting successes and challenges, and described what kind of support they would like to see from CSA and the broader citizen science community to empower their work. A full recording of the panel discussion can be viewed here and details on panelists can be found here.

Panelist Viola ‘Vi” Wahgi speaking during the panel discussion

A common challenge discussed by the panelist was getting state governments  to take action on the findings EJ groups presented to them when they had invested interests in the industries that were polluting the communities. Environmental justice organizations are often dismissed by state officials despite having sound evidence that environmental contamination is causing health disparities in their communities. Several panelists called for increased attention by the CSA to supporting policy initiatives that can help turn citizen and community science data into action.

Another call to action by the panelist was to translate the work done by universities and outside research groups into tangible outcomes. Omega Wilson of the West End Revitalization Association in North Carolina called for researchers to, “stop studying us—put the energy and money into solving the problem.” Others echoed a similar feeling that researchers often come into their communities ill prepared to engage with communities in an equitable manor.

Others highlighted the need for more scientists of color to help address the problems in their communities. Omega Wilson and Dr. Beverly Wright discussed the need for more partnerships with historically black colleges (HCBUs) to help train a future generation of black scientists equipped to address the complex environmental and health problems that are disproportionately impacting their communities. Ms. Margaret Gordon and others discussed a lack of trust that white researchers will maintain a long term commitment to their community and would like to see more effort put into training communities members rather than relying on the expertise of university researchers.

Reflections from EJ Attendees

Omega Wilson president of the West End Revitalization Association in Mebane, NC, and Sacoby Wilson, an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health, at the University of Maryland-College Park and director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health (CEEJH) Initiative, shared reflections on the conference in a webinar National Institute of Environmental Health’s Partnerships for Public Health program shortly after the conference (presentation slides available here). Both participated in the panel discussion, numerous workshops and symposia, and assisted with planning of the environmental justice components of the conference. They spoke about some key issues they see when relating environmental justice to citizen science, outlined below.

Dr. Sacoby Wilson presenting with Omega Wilson (left), Ms. Margaret Gordon, and Azibuike Akaba in a ‘Science for Compliance’ workshop.

The panelist discussed issues within the culture, research practices, and methodology of citizen science that hamper efforts of citizen scientists when working on problems related to environmental injustice. The panelist felt that there was not enough recognition or inclusion of community-driven, community based, and applied/action oriented science in the fields of public health and environmental justice within the citizen science community. They also raised concerns about the use of the word citizen and how the term excludes many non-citizens in this country who can have valuable contributions to community science efforts. They also pointed out the lack of racial/ethic diversity in CSA leadership and universities in general that results in the contributions of communities of color being overlooked.

Sacoby Wilson, in his portion of the presentation, discussed how impacted communities have a general lack of trust of both the research process and researchers due to scientific racism, scientific colonialism, hero academics, and funding mechanisms that value academic publications over tangible results for communities. He called for researchers who are wanting to engage in communities of color to focus more attention on action, impact, capacity-building, and community ‘inpowerment,’ calling for researchers to value knowledge gained from lived-experience of community members and not to privilege their agenda over the concerns of the community.

Lastly, the presenters emphasized the need for grassroots affordable and friendly new research monitoring technology for air, water, soil, and human exposures that can be operated directly by community members. Omega Wilson called for more technologies that focused directly on human exposures and capture cumulative impacts because existing monitoring frameworks are inadequate and regulatory agencies are failing to privilege health over industry interests. He also highlighted how often the three B’s: Birds, Bees, and Butterflies, get more attention and protection than communities of color in many fields including many citizen science projects.

The two summarized some of the recommendations for CSA as an organization gathered from a debrief of the environmental justice scholarship awardees during the conference. The group encouraged CSA to create an environmental justice working group, integrate environmental justice into the established Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion working group, integrate an environmental justice framework and principles into other CSA programming, and increase the diversity of the CSA board, including more environmental justice practitioners. They encouraged the CSA board to emphasize action when addressing environmental justice in communities of color, develop an environmental justice declaration of rights, develop new funding mechanism, and deepen engagement with institutions that train students of color among other things.

We look forward to working more closely with the environmental justice leaders convened at CitSci2019 in the future to better incorporate environmental justice and equity into the work we do as an association.

Ms. Margaret Gordon and Azibuike Akaba presenting in a workshop at CiSci2019

We also heard from Ms. Margaret Gordon, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (EIP) and co-coordinator of the Bay Area Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative. She participated in the special panel discussion, presented in a workshop called Environmental Justice Science for Compliance, and co-presentation on using citizen science research for advocacy. She provided the following reflections on her experience at the conference:

The Citizen Science conference was a space and place to upgrade your skills and teachable moments to new participants. By attending the conference there are various people that you can transfer knowledge of the past, present and future, also by having face and face conversation is better just having social media.

To me, what was missing from the conference to many young people, don’t know how to strategy, are clues of the skills or training to what organizing needs are to the EJ community. There should been  have more sessions that include “organizing 101 and Citizen Science.

My interest in Citizen Science regarding evidence for Public Policy for the Environment Justice communities. Citizen Science from my experience support empowerment to EJ community, as a tools and resources.

Ms. Margaret Gordon, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project

*This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1842188. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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