Nothing says ‘happy holidays’ like environmental justice, so the three of us co-hosted a holiday party in West Baltimore to talk about a recent lead water testing campaign and an upcoming air quality monitoring campaign called Baltimore Open Air. Anna is a graduate student studying climate science. Jennifer is an organizer with Clean Water Action, a grassroots environmental organization focused on water and air quality, climate change, and environmental justice. And Nabeehah works for a grassroots community organization called Communities United in West Baltimore which addresses trauma and building resiliency. We know each other from Baltimore’s People’s Climate Movement table, and were excited about receiving a grant from the Science for Public Good fund.
We decided to highlight key environmental justice challenges that Baltimore neighborhoods face. Rates of lead poisoning are high, especially among children. Much of the risk is from lead paint, still present in many homes throughout the city. Water is a concern too: more than ten years ago, water fountains in all Baltimore Public Schools were shut off after water repeatedly failed to meet safe lead standards. They still haven’t been turned back on. Air pollution is likewise a major health threat: in 2013, the asthma hospitalization rate in Baltimore City was 2.3 times higher than the average rate for Maryland, driven by nearby coal plants, trash incinerators, and highways. We’re each involved in monitoring and advocacy campaigns to clean up Baltimore’s water and air, and wanted to share information and ways for people to get involved.
Coalition partners in West Baltimore were invited to attend, and to share the event with their members. Nabeehah went door-to-door in the surrounding community to tell residents about water testing and air quality monitoring, and invited residents to come to our event to learn more. Anna researched answers to questions about the health impacts of lead, water contaminants, and air pollution, and prepared information on her study of local air quality using citizen science and affordable monitors. Jennifer found a local caterer to serve food, and shared information local campaigns against big polluters and her organization’s study of lead drinking water pipes in Baltimore. (You can see the presentation we put together here.) And we all worked together to write questions and answers for a fun game of Environmental Justice Jeopardy. About 50 people from West Baltimore attended the party and learned more about what local organizations are doing to fight for clean air and water in the community.
Does this sound like something you’re interested in doing, but don’t know where to start?
First off, it’s critical to partner with a local group working in the community. What community members in West Baltimore tell Nabeehah and her colleagues is that they have been “surveyed to death.” They have been offered help that never came. Residents see that their community is receiving grants and funding, but they can’t account for what it was spent on. These experiences have led people to be wary of even well-intentioned organizers, psychologists, scientists, and others who start working in their community—particularly when it hits the news due to a traumatic event—without building relationships first.
Seeing this happen over and over makes communities feel used and taken advantage of. The best way to bring science to communities is to start with building relationships and trust by finding organizations that are already working there.
To find those organizations, start being present in the community. Is there a community association meeting coming up? See if you can attend just to listen and learn about what’s happening in the neighborhood. Have you heard about a campaign to address problems that residents face? Follow the news, see who is leading those efforts, and get in touch. Finally, if you are connected with any fellow scientists working on Community-Based Participatory Research or other community efforts, ask them how they got started.
This collaboration was an excellent experience because it helped us develop an understanding of how these core principles directly correlate to science: just as scientists must maintain an open mind, exhaust every possibility, and follow data where it leads, organizers and others pursuing social change must work to invite and involve everyone in a community, practice the skills of listening before leaping to conclusions, attack all angles of injustice, and commit to continuous self-transformation as we change both our society and ourselves.