Climate Access hosted an online conversation on May 13 about how United States environmental communicators can build relationships with low-income and minority communities. Insights from Detroit, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, New Orleans, and southeastern coastal states enriched the conversation.

“The folks who are most impacted or most vulnerable are not at the planning table,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. She said low-income minority communities may have poor-quality housing, live in flood plains, lack infrastructure, and have few grocery stores nearby. During weather-related disasters, women become more likely to experience domestic abuse and sexual violence.

When weather-related disasters happen, authorities don’t always communicate with low-income housing residents, Patterson said. She recalled one flood in Mississippi where people returned to homes that “were contaminated with mold and other toxins.”

In Alabama, Patterson said, a black family was turned away by a nearby church during a tornado and returned home. As a result, almost all of the family died.

Environmental organizations can be part of the solution to climate-related social problems by building genuine, sincere relationships with low-income and minority communities. “A relationship takes time and takes investment,” said Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess and head-of-state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in the southeastern United States.

For minority communities, Patterson said, contacts from majority organizations can feel very “transactional.” “There is not enough attention to just building relationships,” she said.

Goodwine offered advice for minority community leaders who want to build connections with environmental organizations. “One of the key elements is being vigilant about seeing what people are working on besides your own circle of people. You can start to reach out to groups that don’t even know you exist.”

Approaching people by speaking about topics that interest them already is also valuable. Community activists may not think the issues they care about are connected to climate change. For example, said Ann Baughman, associate director of Freshwater Future, the Detroit activists she has met care about improving safety, beautifying the city, getting rid of vacant lots, and taking care of trash. Planting rain gardens can beautify Detroit while helping the city adapt to climate change.

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Photo Credit: buckshot.jones via Compfight cc

Freshwater Future’s staff went through a one-day training on environmental justice once they realized they needed to reach out to the urban communities in the Great Lakes region which are likely to be hit hard by global warming’s weather and flooding. The training was led by Judy Hatcher, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

Local low-income and/or minority communities may be very familiar with the signs of global warming in their own backyards – or on their shores. “We literally live in a hurricane zone,” said Goodwine. “We became knowledgeable for how to watch for different changes in the environment.”

Goodwine observed trees falling along the shore and herbs not growing correctly. “It made me be more inquisitive as to erosion,” she said. This motivated her to learn more about sea level rise and climate change.

“I take examples from my daily life and what has happened and utilize it in inter-generational training,” Goodwine explained. Before she began talking about sea level rise with the Gullah/Geechee Nation, she said, her community thought of sea level rise as a problem which affected people in other countries.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation is working to prevent erosion and preserve water quality by planting oyster beds in shoreline areas where people are unlikely to walk. “We have been evaluating areas where oysters grew over the generations,” she said. “Where the shore is more firm, we bag the oyster shells. The more that we have these oyster shells planted into our waterways, the more we have a barrier. There are a number of creatures that feed from the oyster beds. Other sea creatures lay their eggs in the oyster beds so they can have a safe haven.”

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Photo Credit: Basenisa via Compfightcc

Cara Pike, director of Climate Access, said hands-on activities like planting oysters can help bring concepts of climate change, sea level rise, and erosion prevention into perspective for people who are new to these subjects.

Localized messaging matters to Goodwine as well. “We are place-based people. Staying there is always part of people’s ongoing life identity in this region. That’s the thing that galvanizes people who have been there for generations.”

Goodwine said she would like to see scientists share their resources by doing community-based environmental work and hiring staff from underrepresented groups.

Environmental organizations can also partner with local leaders. “We come in mostly as a way to provide some resources,” Baughman said. Freshwater Future links local organizations to small grants, professional expertise, and regional policy activism.

Reaching out to underrepresented communities “can be uncomfortable, it can be a little scary, but you have to do it,” Baughman said. “Start building authentic relationships. That trust has to be built on something real.”

This month, Mother Jones published the results of a surprising investigation into the foul effects of lead in the United States. The article claims leaded gasoline caused a wave of crime in the last century. Crime rates dropped once the lead was removed. The author also says lead causes lower IQs and ADHD.

Journalist George Monbiot was skeptical when he first saw the news. After digging up related academic studies, he published a supportive article in TruthOut. He focused on crime, not on ADHD or IQs.

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism website weighed the evidence and cautions us that other chemicals may be involved and that the connection between lead and violence is not entirely clear. As the article says, there is “no clear biological pathway by which the metallic element lead somehow turns on a violence switch in the human brain.”

A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)
A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)

I’ve been interested in investigating the link between crime and heavy metal pollution ever since I read a publication which said that researchers had tested biological samples from prison inmates and found that the heavy metal concentrations in their bodies were much higher than that of a control group. This article describes that study and other research on the connection between lead and crime.

Race and income may play a role in kids’ lead exposure. For example, lead pollution tends to be concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in New Orleans. The maps in the Mother Jones article show income and lead concentrations in these communities.

Based on this evidence, one can reasonably say: if a young person grows up in a lead-polluted community, experiences hardship due to poverty and/or violence, and is more likely to be arrested and judged guilty based on his race and/or income, his likelihood of entering the prison system could become very high.

It is possible that other chemicals in addition to lead may be affecting youth too. We should address these problems when we talk about environmental issues, equal opportunity, and public policy.


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The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit oicweave.org.

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.


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Like a wet catfish on a dock, the messaging provided by fishing advisories about toxic chemicals flops, flails and fails when it reaches communities of color in some parts of the United States. That’s the implicit conclusion of an article in Scientific American.

Catfish

Much of the article is based on the failure of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fish consumption advisories in Madison, Wisconsin. I lived in Madison for many years, bike-commuted along Lake Monona, and often saw people of color fishing there. During the entire time I saw them fishing, I did not see a single sign about fish consumption posted near the spots where they set up their poles. I didn’t even see any brochures left out for them to read.

View of Lake Monona
Monona Terrace, a spot where fishermen meet in Madison. (Source: Wikipedia)

Local environmentalists such as Maria Powell, who is quoted in the article, have been aware of this problem for years, but it has received relatively little media attention. Powell and I had a conversation about the fishing advisories in 2004 when I told her I wanted to study news coverage of environmental justice.

The DNR, to its credit, has translated its brochures into multiple languages. However, I am not sure how the DNR is putting these brochures into the hands of the people who need them.

As a communications professional, I see multiple issues with the DNR’s approach. These are issues I see frequently in outreach to multicultural populations.

  1. There is no guarantee that the DNR’s audience can read the literature. If Powell has difficulty reading the brochures, it’s unlikely that people without college degrees will be able to make head or tail of them (to use a fishy cliché). Why isn’t the DNR buying advertising on Spanish and Hmong radio and TV shows? Why doesn’t the DNR buy bus ads in minority neighborhoods?
  2. There is something fishy about using science-oriented messaging when one is dealing with a minority culture where subsistence fishing is both culturally sanctioned and economically necessary. Why don’t these brochures address cultural beliefs and economic realities?
  3. Given that the fishermen quoted in the article are very skeptical about the advisories, why doesn’t the DNR enlist respected people from minority communities as messengers? It sounds as if the author of the article was not seen as a credible source herself. Why not engage well-known community members in spreading the message about fish safety?

Environmental justice outreach requires being aware of these basic issues – seeking credible messengers, being culturally aware, using appropriate media, and knowing people’s literacy levels.

If any environmental organization staff happen to read this blog post and are seeking models of culturally appropriate outreach, I’d like to direct them to Population Media Center, which conducts entertainment-based public health education in many nations. In some ways, public health organizations are ahead of environmental organizations when it comes to handling issues of cultural diversity. I’d like to see more environmental groups borrow public health communication and messaging tactics.

Orion Magazine hosted an online meeting, “Bringing Cultural Diversity to the Environmental Movement,” on June 19. The speakers set the stage for the conversation by talking about alienation. They’ve noticed a culture of subtle silencing, unintentional exclusion, and institutionalized discrimination in the environmental movement which shuts down the contributions of people of color.

When environmental professionals of color meet one another, said presenter Marcelo Bonta, they begin telling stories about their innovations which have not been accepted by their employers. They also talk about the social exclusion they experience regularly.

“I always feel like an outsider,” Bonta said. He founded an organization, Environmental Professionals of Color, to provide a structure where environmentalists of color can connect with one another and advise organizations about diversity.

This bleak environment still exists despite a backdrop of increasing diversity in the United States. 2011 was the first year since the country was colonized when more ethnic minority children were born here than white children. This trend is likely to continue and could affect the long-term viability of the environmental movement in the United States. If environmental organizations do not diversify, social justice organizations may end up taking on their responsibilities.

Minority communities do take an interest in environmental issues, careers and activities, Bonta said. Since environmental groups and degree programs are failing to connect with minority communities, social justice organizations have stepped in to fill this role and are engaging in sustainability and environmental justice efforts.

One of the presenters, Ginny McGinn, leads a retreat called Young Leaders Reimagining Conservation where she encourages environmentalists to examine issues of privilege and race. The program is based at the Center for Whole Communities. Half of the attendees at the retreats are environmentalists of color.

Retreat photo

Monica Smiley, executive director of Tualatin Riverkeepers  in Oregon, says the retreat was one of the most profound experiences of her life. “It really lit the fire,” she said. She returned to Oregon determined to diversify her organization’s staff, board and outreach. Tualatin Riverkeepers is in a watershed region with a mostly Latino population; Smiley resolved to reach out to Latinos and include them in environmental programs and decision making.

From Bonta’s perspective, linking sustainability to equity will open the doors of the environmental movement to more diverse points of view – a change which he feels is urgently needed. “That’s the future – not just of the environmental movement, but society in general,” he said.

“Conserving [and] preserving the environment is also about people,” McGinn said. “Van Jones really got it once he began to connect the dots.”

McGinn pointed out that environmentalists understand the value of biodiversity; diversity of background and opinion is just as valuable as biodiversity, from an organizational standpoint. “Diversity is what creates a healthy environment,” she said.

To listen to the audio recording of the event, visit the Orion Magazine multimedia website.

The article below is an edited reprint of a story about worker safety which I wrote last year. I’m posting it in honor of May Day. 

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, 146 garment industry workers – mostly young Jewish and Italian women – died during the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The safety flaws that led to this tragedy – locked stairwells and exits, unsafe fire escapes, and lack of communication systems between floors  – seem nearly unthinkable today.  Yet the employer resistance to health and safety improvements that cost these women their lives 100 years ago sounds disturbingly similar to arguments that we hear today from industry trade groups opposing safer chemicals policies.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

After the fire, New York Governor John Alden Dix created a commission to investigate health and safety in New York factories.  The commission visited over 3000 factories in 20 industries. As a result, the state created its first workplace safety requirements, a set of 25 different laws passed over the objections of business owners and industry representatives. 100 years later, although some companies are adopting responsible practices, industry groups still use very similar objections to obstruct modern health and safety legislation.

Here are quotes from 100 years ago followed by similar statements that industry groups make today.

1911: Obstructing Factory Safety

1: Industry says: The chemicals are safe

Before the Triangle Fire, there were no chemical safety rules for New York factories. After the fire, companies were required to provide hot water so employees could wash after handling chemicals. (Today, we know that this is highly inadequate, but it was a major step forward then.) One manufacturer downplayed the health and safety threat by saying the chemicals his workers used (such as lead) were not dangerous to workers unless they were careless.

“The only tendency toward illness comes to men who are intemperate in their habits.  In every case of poisoning I have heard of, the man was an exceedingly hard drinker….Where the men are temperate in their habits I never found a case…”
– Arthur S. Summers, a dry colors manufacturer

2: Industry says:  Products will not be available

In the days before the fire, employees in cellar bakeries faced unsafe working conditions due to poor ventilation. Despite the cries of bakery owners and the real estate industry that the cost of bread would skyrocket and bakeries would vanish, the legislature prohibited opening new cellar bakeries.

“If you eliminate further bakeshops in the cellar… the poor man is going to suffer, and we are crying now for the high cost of living. If you will wipe out the cellar bakeries, the poor man will get a smaller loaf of bread.”
– Dr. Abraham Korn, president of the United Real Estate Owners’ Association

3:  Industry says: Employers will leave the state

When New York considered legislation after the fire, there was a massive outcry. Business organizations made threats that factories would flee the state if the new workplace safety rules became law.

“The Real Estate Board of New York is informed that thousands of factories are migrating to New Jersey and Connecticut in order to be freed from the oppressive laws of New York State.”
– Op-ed by George W. Olvany, special counsel to the Real Estate Board, “The Fire Hazard in Big Buildings,” New York Times, May 3, 1914.

However, these predictions appeared to be unfounded.

“Notwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.”
– From “Seeks To Simplify Building Inspection,” New York Times, July 27, 1914.

2010: Stalling Chemical Safety Measures

100 years later, industry groups often raise similar warnings and brush aside the need to introduce safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. The following quotes are taken from public testimony by industry representatives fighting the passage of the Safer Alternatives Bill in Massachusetts and the regulation of BPA by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

1: Industry says: The chemicals are safe

Based on industry studies funded by the chemical industry, the FDA still classifies BPA as safe, although it is currently reevaluating that assessment. However, medical evidence of BPA’s toxicity, in particular at low levels, continues to accumulate in independently funded studies. The chemical industry continues to tout the safety of BPA.

“BPA is not a risk to human health, including the health of infants and children, at the very low levels that are present in consumer products.”
– American Chemistry Council statement on Massachusetts BPA regulation

2: Industry says:  Products will not be available

As Massachusetts regulators considered a ban on infant formula bottles containing BPA, industry representatives claimed that baby bottles would not be available despite the already widespread use of BPA-free bottles.

“This action is both unnecessary and not in the interest of Massachusetts infants and caregivers, as it would reduce the availability of infant formula products currently available in the Commonwealth.”
– International Formula Council statement on Massachusetts BPA regulation

3: Industry says:  Employers will leave the state

Despite solid union support for the Safer Alternatives Bill, which will create a program in Massachusetts to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives whenever feasible, industry groups regularly promote the fear that jobs may leave the state if the bill passes.

“We urge you to consider the negative impact of this bill on jobs and investments in your district…”
– Associated Industries of Massachusetts statement on the Safer Alternatives Bill from testimony provided to the Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Environment and Agriculture in 2009

Jobs vs. Safety: We Don’t Have to Choose

When businesses, unions and legislators support safety for customers and workers, they can prevent disasters like the Triangle Fire. The following quote from a worker at the garment factory shows the value of forethought and responsibility.

“If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors from the factories to the streets. But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.”
– Rose Sabran, Triangle Waist Company employee

Today, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO – and many other organizations – support the Safer Alternatives Bill.

“We owe those who work in our state the safest and healthiest workplaces we can possibly provide. Where safer alternatives exist, there is no excuse for putting the health and welfare of workers at risk by making them work with completely avoidable toxic chemicals…. The many workers who will no longer be at risk of chronic disease or workplace injury and [their] families… will be profoundly grateful for your role in passing this legislation.”
– AFL-CIO statement on the Safer Alternatives Bill

The story of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and the changes that came about afterwards gives us hope that when we stand up for the human right to a healthy and safe workplace and community, we can win the protections that we deserve.  It also reminds us of the terrible tragedies that happen when we let age-old myths about regulation being damaging cloud our thinking and prevent us from taking basic steps to protect our health.

Sources:

Tolle Graham of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health and Elizabeth Saunders of The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow also contributed to this article.

Does environmental protection reduce the well-being of low-income people? A new discussion paper from Oxfam says it’s possible to improve the health and income of people living in poverty worldwide while still making environmentally sustainable choices. However, individual environmental policies may or may not help social well-being.

Oxfam uses an infographic to show the zone of sustainability required for global well-being. The graphic is in the shape of a doughnut; the inside ring is the requirements for human health and survival, while the outside ring is the requirements for reducing environmental impact. The paper’s author, Kate Raworth, believes we can live “within the doughnut.”

doughnut
A colorful doughnut. Source: stock.xchng.

Diagrams in the report show how close we are to living within this zone of sustainability today. Raworth recommends reducing food losses, improving transportation efficiency, insulating homes, and expanding women’s reproductive rights.

According to Raworth, environmental policies can be socially sustainable because the resources needed to improve the health and income of the poor, globally speaking, are much less than the resources used by the wealthy. The massive environmental impacts we face today are directly related to global disparities in wealth.

Advocating a reduced standard of living for the upper and middle classes is unlikely to win many allies in the United States. The Oxfam discussion paper has received no press coverage in the United States, according to Google News. I found the link to the paper on George Monbiot’s blog at The Guardian.

It’s reassuring to hear this “yes, we can” message amid the cries of concern over global warming.


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In journalism, there’s a relatively new movement called Hacks/Hackers. I call it a movement because it appears to be more than a trend or isolated group. Journalists who are part of Hacks/Hackers seek to mix tech smarts with journalism savvy.

Is Journalism Marrying Technology?

Because I got an engineering degree before studying mass communication, it’s fascinating for me to watch this movement expand. Infographics, multimedia, Web 2.0 and other techniques of the information revolution combine with journalism’s traditional tools of the trade to create hybrid communication styles. For storytellers with graphic design and video experience, the possibilities are endless.

My first encounter with the idea of technologically advanced storytelling came via mashups. Since then, I’ve seen alternatives proliferate online. For example, Beth Kanter’s blog uses infographics and video on nonprofit communication to amplify her message. I am interested in moving this blog in that direction by adding more multimedia content.

Does Social Media Use Move Writers Closer to Gonzo Journalism?

A recent blog post reflecting on a Hacks/Hackers meetup in Boston brings up the question of how personal storytelling affects objectivity in new media journalism. Telling personal stories is a standby for me on this blog; in the world of Web 2.0, having a personality is an advantage. But this makes it difficult for writers to maintain the professional distance from their stories that many journalism organizations have expected.

While I follow rules about balance – which depend on the project I’m doing and its audience – my blog does have a personality. This doesn’t mean every aspect of my life belongs in my Twitter feed. But it does mean that social media has changed the way I write and has moved my blogging style away from traditional newswriting toward a fusion of the personal and the professional.

As a graduate student, I drew on my personal experience of living in urban communities to develop my research and thesis. That certainly colors my perspective on writing about environmental justice. In the interest of balance, I should say I’ve also worked in electronics factories and research labs which contributed to chemical pollution. I became interested in life cycle analysis while I was working in one of these factories.

There is a tradition called gonzo journalism in which writers go out and state their experiences without claiming objectivity. To the extent that social media makes journalists show their personal experiences, blogging may be bringing us closer to that style of writing. The popularity of reality TV shows that being oneself can appeal to audiences. I’m not suggesting that journalists’ lives should be open books, or that social media should make us all write like Hunter S. Thompson, but it’s interesting to watch how writers merge the personal and professional in their social media work.


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CommonWealth Magazine has reported the controversial funding and service cuts to Boston’s MBTA transit system hinge on an unlikely competition for dollars: snow removal vs. public transit. City leaders are concerned they will lack the resources to respond to a heavy snowfall and are considering cuts to public transit funding.

As far as I know, no one has seen the irony of this problem. Public transit reduces climate change, which is responsible for at least some of our increased snow and rain here in New England. Expanding and improving public transit should be part of our strategy for fighting climate change. In the face of increased weather risks, we should hurry to fund the MBTA and expand its routes and services.

Boston’s strategy for fighting climate change takes transit into account. The transit section of the city climate website doesn’t mention the MBTA, but the report A Climate of Progress mentions it repeatedly. Organizations like the T Riders Union have been struggling for years to improve the quality of services the MBTA provides. This fight would not be necessary if we saw the collective value of building a transit system that will outlast fluctuations in gasoline availability and price.

Nina Mukherji is the Director of Programs at the Real Food Challenge in Boston and is a graduate of the Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mukherji introduced herself and described the origin of her commitment to environmental and social justice.

…I grew up in New York City in the 1980s in a neighborhood that was between a lot of poverty and a lot of wealth. My father’s an immigrant from India. My grandparents had radical political views. I grew up with a strong sense of social consciousness and social justice.

I went to school in the Midwest and started to learn more about the resources that had been supporting me in the city. I started to see that corn was feeding cattle… I started to develop more of an awareness of ecology. It was my first time spending time in the country.

I got excited spending time [on] environmental issues, but my heart was in social issues. The world of environmentalism has been so far from the world of social justice organizing. It’s really hard to find the places where I think the things I really care about are happening and where my interest in social justice is there – where people care about dire poverty in this country and where food is going to come from in 50 years.

Q: What did you study in graduate school?

A: I studied Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development at the Nelson Institute. My advisor was in urban planning. I wrote my master’s thesis on urban agriculture policy. I looked at how zoning and comprehensive planning in cities affect the authority of how people want to grow food can do it. I focused on Boston, Chicago and Portland.

I was doing that thesis while working with the cities of Madison and Milwaukee. There was a zoning group looking at how the zoning in Madison could support more food in the city. I also went to some conversations about comprehensive planning in Milwaukee. It was cool because there was a blending of what I was doing professionally in a practical domain and what I was doing academically.

I found that cities are starting to reexamine their policies. There are many policies, both intentional and unintentional, that inhibit growing in cities. Because of the recession and there being more vacant land… people are seeing urban agriculture as a way to make cities better. I think that’s a trend across the board.

Urban vacant land with weeds
Urban vacant land in front of a construction zone. Source: stock.xchng.

I looked at how cities approach that process… whether it’s more of a grassroots or a top-down way. I’m volunteering for a working group that’s doing this in Boston… Boston has a very strong city government… As opposed to Madison, where the city delegated the task of making the zoning plan to a group of citizens who were interested in urban agriculture. In Boston, it’s driven by the city.

Q. How have your graduate school experiences informed your work since then?

A: I would say a lot of what I do in my professional work I learned through the organizing I did during school… That was an extracurricular activity. I’m not an organizer, but I do a lot of organizing. I train and supervise organizers on campuses.

I also work at the Real Food Challenge, where we work with students on getting more sustainable food on their campuses…I’m working on an assessment tool; I’m familiar with debates about certification and organic certification in general… and cage-free eggs. I use this knowledge as part of coming up with the assessment tool.

In a deeper way, the understanding I developed [about] the relationship between government and people and nonprofits and social movements, and what can be accomplished through the economy and what can be accomplished through policy, those questions about where responsibility should lie… Conversations in grad school have made me feel that the environmental movement has been co-opted by companies… [saying that] if we choose to buy fair trade, these abuses would not be happening. Through having discussions about that in grad school, I came to believe that to stop these really atrocious behaviors, individual choices are not going to be enough. Institutional change can shift the market.

My organization, the Real Food Challenge, we organize college students around the country to shift the purchasing at their schools from conventional industrial agriculture…. We’re having a mass procott. We’re creating institutional markets for responsible farmers, particularly mid-sized farmers. What’s exciting to me is that we’re engaging students who care about food to the point where they’re leaders in their communities….What we’re also doing is training thousands of people who are going to train thousands of more people. That’s what makes me hopeful.

There’s something about organizing that allows for a real level of integrity, because the people who are affected are the ones that are affecting the solution.

So far, we’ve shifted 50 million dollars in institutional food purchasing in the course of about three or four years. It’s through students advocating and organizing each other, working with the dining halls and learning about the food that they’re eating.

We have this Real Food Campus Commitment. We’re trying to get presidents to sign on. Our goal is to really ramp that up. We’re hoping it’s going to become the thing to do…. We want to see whole state systems making a decision to sign onto commitments like that.

The University of Vermont has just signed the Real Food Campus Commitment. The Intervale is an innovative urban agriculture incubator in Vermont. They’ve created a community-supported agriculture commitment in which they aggregate food from small- and medium-sized farms… They know for sure that they have a market. They know they will have someone to sell it to – like a university. That is helping them get the program off the ground. It’s boosting local agriculture in the area and improving the relationship between the university and the community.

Salad plate
The Real Food Challenge encourages colleges to buy locally grown vegetables. Source: stock.xchng.

Q: If you were going to give advice to current environmental studies students, what would you say?

A: I would say… think about the relationship between environmental issues and people. And both the impacts environmental problems have on people now, or will have, and the impact of those possible solutions on people. I think that’s the direction environmental studies is going, is more and more interdisciplinary. If we are actually going to solve environmental problems, we can’t do it justly without thinking about who is going to be affected and who’s in those conversations.

There was a story on the radio where a town that’s close to the ocean is subsiding and the ocean level is rising. Some people are having their houses flooded. The wealthier people are living higher up. The city is trying to think of a way to make wealthy people move within the city as opposed to recognizing the situation is extremely problematic for those who can’t afford to deal with it. I think the way many environmental advocates deal with problems tends to neglect the effect of the solutions on the community.

I am a big believer in public transportation. One of the biggest bus depots in the city of Boston is in Dorchester. The depot is uncovered. The fumes are giving people asthma. In Cambridge, they covered the bus depot so people won’t get sick from the fumes. The Harvard bus depot is well-ventilated. The city hasn’t prioritized the public health of [Dorchester].


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