CitSciVirtual Plenary Roundtable

Always on the Front Lines:

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Engaging in Citizen Science and Community Science

Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson, Dean of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities at Shaw University, leads this live CitSciVirtual roundtable conversation with faculty of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) who are exploring and deeply integrating citizen science and community science as part of their undergraduate curricula. These anchor institutions are on the frontlines of communities facing racial and environmental injustices, and are nurturing the pathway to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math careers for students of color in the United States.

This convened panel of experts will share current work underway at each of their institutions, and will touch on timely topics including the role of citizen and community science in undergraduate education, HBCU leadership in community engagement, new research lenses including spatial justice, and the realities of funding disparities and their impacts on institutions, researchers, and communities.

For this Roundtable, Dr. Johnson is joined by (click on each name or scroll down for bios) Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks (Spelman College), Dr. Mark Barnes (Morgan State University), Dr. Russell Smith (Winston-Salem State University), and Dr. David Padgett (Tennessee State University). We are grateful to the Citizen Science Association’s Environmental Justice Practitioners Working Group, particularly Co-Chair Ms. Veronica Bitting, for the vision and leadership for this plenary session.


The Roundtable, part of the month-long CitSciVirtual convening of the Citizen Science Association (CSA), will be streamed live to the CSA’s YouTube channel, as will other plenary sessions (including talks by Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, Joseph Kerski, and Sylvia Acevedo). For deeper connections and extended conversations, join the larger event, CitSciVirtual. Free CSA memberships (and resulting discounted event tickets) are available for Environmental Justice and Social Justice Practitioners. Student support are also available for those with financial barriers, as are two networking and fellowship opportunities (one specific to HBCU students).


Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson

Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson is the Dean of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities and Professor of Sociology at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She is also co-Director of Shaw University’s Center for Racial and Social Justice.  Previously, Dr. Johnson was the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

Dr. Johnson holds a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco; M.A. in Sociology from Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University); and B.A. in Sociology from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research, conducted in Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, the Seychelles Islands and the US, and publications, center on gender, bioethics, disability, the health of women and girls, environmental humanities, and environmental justice.

In North Carolina, Dr. Johnson conducts research on both African American foodways and African American attitudes toward and experience with “nature spaces” with special emphasis on Black women’s garden clubs. Her speaking engagements include this work as well as public commentary on the issue of confederate monuments on public lands.  Dr. Johnson serves the state of North Carolina as chair of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission and member of the North Carolina Historical Commission and National Register Advisory Committee.  Other service includes membership on the boards of the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee; NARAL Pro-Choice NC; North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and planning committee for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Most recently, Dr. Johnson has accepted appointment to the Executive Board for the North Carolina Maritime History Council. Dr. Johnson lives in Oxford, NC with her family.

Dr. Mark Barnes

Dr. Mark Barnes has a faculty appointment in the History, Geography and Museum Studies Department at Morgan State University in Baltimore City, MD. As a geographer, his scholarship intersects hazards, environmental, urban, and economic geography subfields. His work emphasizes equity, mobility, sustainability, and environmental justice to help stimulate interventions relating to the causes and consequences of institutional responses to weather hazards and disasters. His current research agenda centers on the responses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities to flood events.

Dr. Barnes coordinates the Environmental Studies Program at Morgan State University, whose purpose is to help bridge curricular divides across the humanities, behavioral and social sciences, and STEM fields. He is a founding father of Morgan’s Geospatial Collaborative. Dr. Barnes also leads the Second-Year Experience Strategy Implementation Team at Morgan.

Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks

Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental and Health Sciences Program at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.  Dr. Jelks investigates urban environmental health disparities; the role that place, race, and social factors play in influencing health; cumulative risk assessment; the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations, and the connection between urban watersheds, pollution, the built environment, and health.  She also develops, implements, and evaluates community-based initiatives that set conditions to enable low-income and communities of color to empower themselves to reduce exposure to environmental health hazards and improve health and quality of life. Jelks is particularly interested in approaches that engage environmentally overburdened communities in monitoring local environmental conditions, generating actionable data for community change, and developing effective community-based interventions that revitalize toxic, degraded spaces into healthy places.

Dr. Jelks co-founded the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), a community-based environmental justice organization that works to grow a cleaner, greener, healthier, more sustainable West Atlanta through authentic community engagement, organizing, education, community science, and participatory research. Since 2018 she has served on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee that works to integrate environmental justice into the Environmental Protection Agency’s programs, policies and activities as well as to improve the environment or public health in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risks. 

Jelks studied Chemistry and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Spelman College and the Georgia Institute of Technology respectively before earning a Master of Environmental and Occupational Health degree at Emory University and a Ph.D. in Public Health at Georgia State University.

Dr. David A. Padgett

Dr. David A. Padgett, Associate Professor of Geography and Director of the Geographic and Information Sciences Laboratory at Tennessee State University, and the winner of the sixth annual Youth Environmental Science (YES) Medal.

Padgett credits his love of science to his parents, both graduates of Historically Black College and University (HBCU) institutions. After graduating from Morgan State University in Baltimore, his father, Dr. Joe L. Padgett, earned a Ph.D. in Physics and Chemistry from the University of Maryland. His mother, a graduate of Coppin State University, enjoyed a long career in Baltimore City Public Schools as a mathematics teacher and principal. When David was 12 years old, his mother enrolled him in a Chesapeake Bay Foundation summer science camp. This experience opened young David’s eyes to scientific research and taught him that if you put urban youths in the right environment with the right people, they will find their passion and realize their potential.

David graduated from Millford Mill High School, which at the time, was the only high school in Baltimore County with an environmental studies program. His experiences in this class cemented his love of environmental science. 

David started his collegiate studies at Western Kentucky University (WKU) as an engineering major.  However, after taking Dr. Nicholas Crawford’s introductory physical geography class, Padgett found his true calling, and changed his major to Geography.  Crawford, a world renowned hydrogeologist, and other WKU Geography faculty members, inspired in David a love of geoscience and introduced him to early applications of geospatial technology.

When Padgett joined the faculty of Tennessee State University (TSU) in 1999, TSU was among the  HBCUs that did not have earth science or geospatial technology programs. Undaunted, in 2000, David founded the TSU Geographic Information Sciences Laboratory.  Over two decades as the lab’s Director, he and his many undergraduate research assistants have provided technical assistance in geoscience and geographic information systems (GIS) to environmental justice communities throughout the United States.

Dr. Russell M. Smith

Dr. Russell M. Smith is a Professor of Geography in the Department of History, Politics & Social Justice and the Faculty Lead for the Spatial Justice Studio at the Center for Design Innovation (SJS @ CDI).  He received his doctoral degree in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His research interests include a variety of topics related to spatial justice including: local government boundary change, urban form and the built environment and urban sustainability.  Recently, Dr. Smith has been selected as a Fulbright Specialist for his expertise and experience in urban planning.

Dr. Smith is the author of numerous research publications (20), contracted reports, and presentations. In 2018, Dr. Smith published a book titled, Municipal Incorporation Activity in the United States: Patterns, People and Procedures, which highlighted his decade long investigation into new municipalities in the united States. He is also the 2017-2018 recipient of the Cedric S. Rodney Distinguished Service Award and the 2018-2019 Bill Sheppard Master Teacher Award. Prior to joining Winston-Salem State University, Dr. Smith was an AICP certified urban planner for a variety of local governments where he specialized in land use planning and urban redevelopment.

Dr. Smith has made a concerted effort and had been committed to supporting a variety of projects, programs and initiatives aimed at addressing spatial justice issues on campus and in our community through his service work.  He has served as the Chair for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities within the Department of History, Politics and Social Justice, had classes participate in the development of a strategic plan for the Waughtown neighborhood and served as the Vice President of the S.G. Atkins Community Development Corporation.  Dr. Smith has also spearheaded the development of a minor in Urban Studies & Sustainability and a new concentration in Spatial Justice for students at WSSU.