Recently I took a trip to Franklinton, North Carolina, approximately 45 miles outside of Rocky Mount, to visit the Social Justice Center there. The center has such an interesting but ironic history.

It was originally a plantation, then it was turned into one of the first post-slavery citizen schools designed to educate Negroes.

Fast forward to 2018, and the building is now a center that focuses on bringing people together to collaborate and discuss how to push past many social justice ills of the day.

It was important for us to convene in Franklinton because, contrary to popular belief or knowledge, our communities of color are still facing a number of environmental injustices.

They are scattered across newspaper headlines every day, from coal ash contamination to wastewater discharges from manufacturing and agricultural production facilities. The forests we all grew up and played in are not being well managed. Rather, they’re being taken down for biomass used to make wood pellets, among other things.

These are but a few of the environmental issues that continue to plague neighborhoods and communities of color.

My colleagues and I came together in Franklinton to present a unique program that has shown to positively impact environmental and climate injustices in disproportionately affected communities of color. We firmly believe that these communities affected by environmental stresses need to have the opportunity to mitigate those stresses via science and technology or via other related strategies. With that, we set out to help empower our leaders around the southeastern United States to push back on air pollution, water pollution, bad land use and other major contributors of environmental contamination.

Dubbed the Forest Summit, the event focused on land use with respect to forests. However, the discussions also focused on entrepreneurship research. Bringing these educators and community leaders together provided a unique opportunity for us to empower them with scientific tools and strategies that would strengthen them as environmental justice advocates. We created a session that implemented what we call “citizen science.”

This training empowered educators with scientific rhetoric and awareness-building. It also fostered collaborative problem solving with practical instruments that would help them acquire quantifiable evidence to support any claims of environmental injustice. To do that effectively, appropriate data is essential. Scientific observations, collections, and measurements empowered these leaders to be more accurate in their descriptions of environmental challenges. These tools also helped them have solid, scientific, data-driven grounds for environmental and climate challenges.

This was probably one of the first times ever that a citizen science training has been done.

With a toolkit supported with resources from the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program (GLOBE) a, 44 nation collaborative, sponsored by NSF,NASA, NOAA, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and the US State Department),and the EPA’s Environmental Justice Academy, we were able to teach these environmental justice leaders and advocates how to use citizen science in their challenges and push-backs against polluters. We taught them accurate protocols for evaluating air quality, water quality, appropriate land, and forest use, and so much more. It was inspiring!

It was also inspiring for us to see these lay leaders — not scientists — equipped to use science in their collaborative problem-solving methodologies and have a scientific basis for their push back on polluters. Now, not only can these community citizens claim that Company X is polluting a local water system, but they can also take water or air samples themselves, gather data, take measurements and do analyses and evaluations to back up those claims. The scientific evidence collected and analyzed will further provide strength to the argument.

The goal now is to present the Citizen Scientist project throughout the southeastern United States to tour venues and empower people with science.

We’re excited about arming communities with tools to collect data and make the right decisions about their environments. We have done a number of things in the development of policy and advocacy in the environmental justice community: we worked with the National Environmental Justice and Policy and Technology Council, US EPA’s Office of Sustainability and Environmental Justice, formulation of Environmental Justice policy for the Atlanta Beltline Project ( one of the country’s most acclaimed redevelopment projects) and we also collaborated with the Department of Energy to ensure nuclear waste sites invoke proper environmental justice principles.

We wholeheartedly believe that Citizen Science engagement will allow us to continue to work with and for communities of color, to ensure they have the highest levels of protection.

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