Tag: West Atlanta Watershed Alliance

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

Turning Inward: the politics of knowledge production and figuring out what we have to offer

Turning Inward: the politics of knowledge production and figuring out what we have to offer

Seasonal transitions are a good time for reflection. For CREATE, this reflection was kicked into gear a week after the fall solstice through a green gentrification learning exchange. 

The trip brought together all the geographically-disparate members of our Policy Think Tank from Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Nassau County, Florida. The purpose of the gathering was to share experiences and build relationships through the lens of greening and displacement. With interpersonal exchange as a foundation, the secondary goal was to discuss a recently-completed full draft of Sharing the Benefits of a Greening City, CREATE’s anti-green gentrification policy toolkit which has been in development for the past year. 

This document, some of which can already be found in digital form online, is a container for all of the research and wisdom our partners have shared over months of collaboration. It is an attempt to build a collective and context-aware understanding of green gentrification across a multitude of audiences: community organizers, environmental organizations, public agency staff, and municipal policymakers. In doing so, our goals are twofold: to validate the environmental and housing justice concerns that communities of color, working class, and indigenous communities have long expressed, and to provide an actionable resource based on existing strategies that can help shift some of the fundamental social and economic relations that produce such deep injustices in the first place. 

In true academic form, these ambitious goals led to a document that ballooned to a cool 75 pages (prompting some joking complaints from Policy Think Tank members). But the length and density of this toolkit led to one of the most important questions raised during the learning exchange: how does your body feel when you read this?

It was a pointed challenge, and a creative one. How does one understand academic reports – no matter how accessible the language is – through somatic experience?

In the spirit of this challenge, I have spent the week and a half since reflecting on the learning exchange as an embodied experience itself. 

Learning Exchange participants listen to Erica Holloman with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance share stories about Black and indigenous histories in southwest Atlanta. We gathered at Grandfather Beech, a tree who’s birth dates just two months before Union General William Sherman ordered “the Burning of Atlanta” during the Civil War. Interacting with this place-based history and its contemporary ramifications offered a somatic grounding for the workshop that followed.

During the feedback process, our partners were able to surface some of the deepest tensions in work with amazing precision. 

These tensions include between process and product, ideological commitment and inclusive collaboration, and harm reduction and harm eradication. How do we build authentic research partnerships with collaborators who hold a variety of positionalities and strategies? How do we maintain our central commitment to knowledge redistribution while leveraging our resources to do work in the world? 

These questions are not new – to CREATE or engaged-research in general – but they still forced a timely turn inward to reflect. 

Community-engaged research inherently recognizes the fluidity between how people and knowledge shape one another. In that recognition, there are deep pedagogical lessons for academics to learn from how community organizations approach the people-knowledge dialectic – and reasons to question the traditional academic approach to this relationship. 

At the same time, community-engaged research must recognize that there are distinct strategies that academia and community organizing use. Community-engaged research does not magically turn academics into community organizers. This means taking the lead from organizers, identifying where to develop new skills and where to set limitations, and holding humility when those boundaries are inevitably crossed. 

It also means that merging community-based and academic strategies into a singular approach is not necessarily effective nor desirable. Rather, using a diversity of tactics asserts that groups with different strengths, backgrounds, and positionalities can leverage distinct assets through differentiated yet aligned strategies. 

CREATE’s job is not as a social justice trainer. We are not experts in somatics or interpersonal mediation or trauma-healing. We are academics and researchers, so what do we have to offer?

The learning exchange was the pull I needed away from squinting at my computer in my windowless cubicle. It brought me eye-level with people around me who are researching the same questions I meticulously catalog through Google Scholar with their day-to-day movement through the world. 

These are two strategies that, under racial capitalism, are characterized by vastly different amounts of power and prestige. This relationship reflects that, as CREATE co-PI Kate Derickson said, “the politics of knowledge production lies in a bundle of social relations.” 

This tension, among all the others that the learning exchange raised, is one that I necessarily hold in my body as I navigate this work. It is embodied. Increasing my own awareness of its embodied form will hopefully plant a greater personal stake that will help me relate its content to others in more meaningful ways. I have no idea how to do this. 

CREATE’s attempt to answer the “what do we have to offer question” is located in the primary goal of doing knowledge production differently. Doing it differently for us means in a way that is cognizant of and accountable to context and power. The learning exchange was an important reminder that we need to constantly face and re-face this messiness head on. And remind ourselves of the parts we don’t know how to do yet. 

CREATE-ive Transformation towards a Just Green Future

CREATE-ive Transformation towards a Just Green Future

When I came as an International student to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, I was determined to learn about development issues of the Global South. The inherent assumption was that because the USA is a ‘developed’ country it wouldn’t have as many challenging issues. Being part of the CREATE initiative allowed me to challenge this myth. Rising inequality and climate change are universal phenomenon that adversely impact vulnerable communities across the globe. Building solidarities – across geographies, academic disciplines and scholar- practitioner binaries – is critical for amplifying our efforts to address this enormous challenge.

Much of this understanding was built as I explored issues of green gentrification as part of the CREATE initiative. Green gentrification refers to the displacement of vulnerable and poor communities as a result of increased availability of green amenities in a neighborhood such as parks. Though this is a common phenomenon in urban India (where I am from), it has not been taken up as an issue of advocacy by local civil society organizations in India.  

Last semester, I undertook a qualitative research project to explore development professional’s perspectives on park investment and gentrification. With support from CREATE staff, I conducted two interviews with development professionals engaged on this issue and a focus group discussion with families and youths who have been displaced. 

Insights from the study raised many uncomfortable questions: Who decides what is development? Development for whom? Are policy makers and technocrats aware of the social hierarchies while providing solutions? How are community voices captured? 

[ At left: Pictorial representation of causes of Green Gentrification – there seem to be no consensus of various stakeholders on this causal relationship! From Focused Group Discussion on 30th March 2019 at HOPE Community’s office in meeting with non-profits and family members displaced due to green gentrification]

Framed from an environmental justice perspective, park investment is a most relevant intervention. In addition to aesthetics, it positively impacts public health indicators and has significant impact on education outcomes of students (Wolcha, Byrne, Newell 2014). However, when examining the impacts of park investment from the lens of equity and racial justice, the disproportionate displacement of low-income and communities of color becomes glaringly evident. It shook me to the core when a displaced 15 years old girl said, “I am heart-broken…people are being pushed out beyond the suburbs…this is so shameful that the city can’t protect the most vulnerable….”. 

Completing this study within the span of a semester has been an intense experience. The practicum course offered for CREATE scholars proved pivotal in this regard. Several topics that were deliberated, including modalities of interdisciplinary collaborative research, racial justice, cultural competency, and limitations of scientific research were very helpful in shaping my own project. 

This summer, I am working with my colleagues to develop an anti-green gentrification toolkit for the city of Atlanta,Georgia. It is a collaborative project undertaken with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), an Atlanta based non-profit. Drawing on the expertise of Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks and Dr. Erica Holloman from WAWA, we are developing resources to build an online platform that brings together community, academic and policy makers perspectives on green gentrification. 

One resource that we are presently working on are Story Maps. Through visual representations we weave together narratives from displaced communities alongside research data around section 8 and affordable housing. This project reflects CREATE’s core mission: “Engage to Change”. It seeks to reimagine the role of the University in society as learning from and with communities and democratizing the process of knowledge production. 

It has been an immensely rewarding experience to learn about the systematic efforts by academics and activists in the US to research, and subsequently generate public awareness about green gentrification. As concerns about climate change gain traction, it is important that the voices of low income and communities of color are foregrounded. Academics, development professionals and policy makers with the help of community collectives facilitate such collaboration to articulate a vision of a better planet that is green, beautiful, and just for all.

Realizing Action, Together

Realizing Action, Together

Just months before we started our summer externship, CREATE staffers Fayola Jacobs and Mira Klein flew down to Atlanta to meet with Think Tank partners on the details of CREATE’s Anti-green Gentrification Toolkit. A critical question that emerged from these discussions was: How do we make information about green gentrification actionable

Over the past four weeks, our group has worked with Na’Taki Osborne Jelks and Erica Holloman with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) to expand this question – how can we make information about green gentrification actionable in Atlanta? and how can we make this information accessible to a variety of audiences? 

Atlanta sees the continued construction of the Beltline, a 22-mile park, trail, and streetcar system in the heart of the city, as a major step towards improving the resilience and sustainability of their communities. With the development and restoration of new and old parks, neighborhood revitalization is inevitable. But who is supported by these new surges of investment? Who gets to take advantage of the new parks and the plethora of benefits associated with different green amenities? As Atlanta strives to become a “top-tier” sustainable city, they continue to ignore the impacts of green development on low-income communities and communities of color. 

This summer, we are creating an actionable, education platform that grounds information on green-gentrification in Atlanta and provides steps on how to get involved. We are designing this platform so that it can be used by anyone, whether you make policies, build parks, or lead your community. It will be hosted on a free and public platform that can be accessed anywhere, anytime – at the library on a computer, or on your phone at a community meeting. 

Developing a platform that reaches a variety of audiences can be challenging, but by incorporating important concepts and vocabulary, elevating community voices, visualizing data to tell stories, and highlighting power dynamics in Atlanta, we hope to initiate conversation and action between and among the groups involved in or affected by green-gentrification in the city. 

As a Conservation Sciences student, learning how to work alongside communities is of utter importance given the complex challenges associated with preserving biodiversity without compensating human well-being. While I knew of the interactions between sustainability and social and environmental justice prior to participating in this program, CREATE has given me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of incorporating a just lens in conservation work and the role of the academy in addressing the pressing problems that communities face. Pursuing research questions with this critical perspective transcends any one city, research program, or discipline. 

If there is one thing I have taken away from this summer so far, it is the power of bringing together people with drastically different backgrounds to achieve something as a group. Individually, we may not have the resources, insight, or skills to fully realize a shared goal, but when we put our heads together, it’s a different story.

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