Author: Kaleigh Swift

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

A virtual panel discussion of best practices, approaches and principles for collaboration between environmental sciences and communities that have not historically shaped the research priorities of academic institutions featuring: 

Queen Quet; Chieftess and Head of State of the Gullah/Geechee Nation & UMN CLA Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks; Spelman College & West Atlanta Watershed Alliance 

Dan Rizza; Climate Central

Kurt Kipfmueller; University of Minnesota

Moderated by Kate Derickson

Getting up to speed

Getting up to speed

Reflecting on a year and half of collaboration with Gullah/Geechee Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins

In January 2018, at the start of my senior year of undergrad, I was invited to participate in a “research sprint” where I, and a group of others were to spend three days, eight hours per day combing archives and online databases for information on a topic I knew almost nothing about. I was invited because I had shown interest in completing a senior project with Dr. Kate Derickson after taking a course with her the semester prior. I had no idea what a research sprint was, but when I expressed concern about my lack of knowledge to Dr. Derickson, she said  “don’t worry about it too much – I’d say come as you are – we’ll get you up to speed”. I did not know at the time that this research sprint would be the beginning of my participation in an ongoing collaborative community-engaged research partnership with Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.

Since then, I’ve spent two semesters worth of undergraduate research, and now many hours in my capacity as a staff person for the CREATE Initiative doing a deep dive into the history and present reality of Gullah/Geechee residents of Nassau County Florida under Dr. Derickson’s direction. I have taken two different trips to the area to further our work through interviews and engagement. From this partnership, we’ve developed a story map that highlights the experiences of legacy residents and their families. In particular, we’ve considered the relationship that legacy families have to their land and environment, the work and economy of the county, and the mainstream narrative of the county (which often excludes its Gullah/Geechee residents historically and presently).

Retention pond used to support activities of Sandhill “Recycling center” (landfill) located within a Gullah/Geechee community in Nassau County, FL. Image dated 7/13/19

The process of creating the storymap has  been an iterative process. We did not know what our final work product would look like or what information it would contain at the start. However, we have always had an end goal of creating a product that was beneficial to our partner, Rep. Jenkins, and her community. This prioritization of our community partner is what gave the work its meaning in my eyes. It meant that we needed to stay accountable to her in a partnership built on trust that was non-exploitative. Because of this understanding, we also recognized that every step of the process had meaning, and contributed to the overall partnership, even if it didn’t necessarily generate a tangible “thing”.

I have found so much value in my time working with Rep. Jenkins and the community of Nassau County. That value was mostly created because of the project’s centering of the needs of community-based collaborators. After our most recent trip to Nassau County, Rep. Jenkins also provided a reflection on our work, and how this process has played out. She wrote:

Dear Dr. Derickson:

We convened an outstanding community project reveal and reception, due to the thorough research, excellent work and preparation by you and the CREATE Scholars.

There was an enthusiastic and impassioned response from the attendees, all of whom contributed to the project with first-person testimony of their experience as Gullah/Geechee landowners in Nassau County, Fla. They offered vigorous confirmation and validation of the data collected and displayed, further reiterating their endorsement of the research.

I am grateful to each team member: to Kaleigh for her organization and leadership; to Nfamara for his world view, cultural perspective and creation of the economic model; and to Emma for using her geolocating skills to help the team navigate and document data points. (We also joked that she willingly put her whiteness to work in obtaining public records.) This list of what each contributed is only a small sample of the in depth role they played in making the work thus far a success.

In the end the community will benefit immensely from the depth and breadth of this project in ways that cannot be measured or predicted. The participants have indicated a willingness to strategize regarding next steps related to the protection of Gullah/Geechee burial grounds here in Nassau County.

Your leadership in laying the foundation for this research, and in equipping your team with the skills to execute it to this point, cannot be overstated. Thank you for building a community engaged framework that empowers and elevates those it serves.Respectfully,

Rep. Glenda Simmons Jenkins (FL)

Gullah/Geechee Nation

Assembly of Representatives

I am greatly looking forward to continuing to build this partnership, expand the work that has already been completed, and resource the community of Nassau County, through my work with CREATE, and the CREATE Graduate Scholars Program.

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