No Sacrifice Zones in Research Either!
Lessons from A Community Science Research Partnership in South-East Queens
Our research collaboration began with a brief query: ‘We are having problems with waste transfer stations in our neighborhood. Can I call you?’ This short message was a private chat from Southeast Queens community leader Andrea Scarborough to CUNY Law Professor Rebecca Bratspies during the Eastern Queens Alliance’s Environmental Justice Unwrapped event in the summer of 2020.
Andrea was referring to Jamaica, Queens, where two waste transfer stations are located directly adjacent to a Black residential neighborhood and across the street from the neighborhood’s primary greenspace, the Detective Keith L. Williams Park. Across the country there are too many communities like this one in Jamaica, historically redlined Black neighborhoods that continue to experience disproportionate social, economic, and environmental injustices driven by structural racism and entrenched social inequality.
Establishing Equitable & Just Relationships to Address the Problem
Andrea’s chat message morphed into lengthy phone calls, and then a series of Zoom meetings. Ultimately her message launched a collaborative research project between local residents fed up with odor, noise, and pollution, and a team of technical experts including Andrea Scarborough of the Queens Solid Waste Advisory Board, Luz Guel and Dr. Maida Galvez, Directors of Community Engagement at Mt. Sinai’s Transdisciplinary Center for Early Environmental Exposures, Professor Rebecca Bratspies at CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform, Dr. Dawn Roberts-Semple, environmental science professor at CUNY York College, and Danielle Dubno-Hammer, New York City public school teacher at the Institute for Health Professions at Cambria Heights High School.
Collaborations like this one can be fraught. Too often academic research functions as an extractive industry — mining already overburdened communities for data that can be used to create value elsewhere. Researchers solicit community assistance for their studies, often without providing compensation. The data they collect anchors publications that advance academic careers. Community members are perhaps acknowledged in a footnote, but the researchers retain ownership of the data. The resulting publications are frequently hidden behind expensive paywalls and written using inaccessible language. Communities are left with no tangible benefits — no way to use the research to build a path for change, and often without access to the information itself. This kind of research re-exploits already overburdened communities. Some researchers and community advocates have worked hard to point out the flaws in this approach.
Responding to this critique, our work intentionally uses the knowledge and methods of science to support the ongoing struggle for social and environmental justice in New York City. In short, we aspire to do liberation science. Using the Building Equitable Partnerships for Environmental Justice curriculum, we set out to build a meaningful, mutual-learning collaboration that is both interdisciplinary and intergenerational, between researchers and community residents. We began with the definition of community-based participatory research (CBPR) and identified the shared values that would animate our collaboration. As a group, we collectively defined the research practices that would meet our identified, agreed upon needs and abilities/expertise.
Organizing Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) for Environmental Justice
Even well-meaning academics too often view themselves as the main actors in their social justice research. Academic credentials make them feel best qualified to define the problems that should be investigated, to interpret the resulting data, and to develop solutions. At best, these solutions are then provided to affected communities. Frontline communities are reduced to something to be researched, and possibly something to be informed and “saved”. But as the Jemez Principles make clear, these communities are actors with their own agency. They can speak for themselves.
Instead of assuming that researchers are there to provide power or to “save” residents facing environmental injustices, we are committed to INpowerment — an equitable research process designed to recognize and amplify the power that frontline communities already possess. Inpowerment amplifies community agency as residents engage in the process of creating safe and healthy living conditions. It grows out of the Jemez Democratic Organizing Principle that communities speak for themselves and have the right to self-determination. Because we believe that communities are expert in their own situation, we worked collaboratively to define the problems our research should address, and are now engaging in that research together, tailoring our inquiry to community-identified priorities and needs.
To ensure that the community’s lived experiences drove the research priorities, an array of neighborhood leaders were invited to join the process, most of whom were long-time advocates already involved in the neighborhood’s existing community organizations, while others were business or religious leaders. The authors asked these community leaders to list all the environmental concerns associated with the waste transfer stations. Luz then facilitated a process for prioritizing these concerns based upon criteria that community leaders collectively identified — the importance of the problem to the community; its severity; the likelihood of long-term impacts to health and quality of life; and whether solutions could impact multiple problems. All of us ranked the identified concerns. Two separate average scores were created (Community) & (Partners). Using Training for Change methods, community leaders led a discussion to decide where to focus our research efforts. Working collaboratively, we identified research priorities, and developed methodologies to document the frequency and severity of permit violations involving odor, noise, leachate, and particulates (PM2.5). The research partners were consultants to this process, NOT the main experts. Community leaders had the floor, and community concerns guided the prioritization process using Training for Change’s online Spectogram. Partner scores were consulted only when community members requested additional guidance.
Each of our participants brings special expertise to the collaboration.
The community residents bring the textured knowledge of the neighborhood assets that need to be protected, as well as the burdens that accrue from living with odor, noise, and particulate pollution from the waste transfer stations. They also ground our research in the historical relationship between the community and the waste transfer stations. The academics bring legal and environmental science expertise. The High School students, overwhelmingly students of color, bring youthful energy and creativity, as well as an eagerness to use their skills in a real-world context.
As facilitator, Luz used the Training for Change “Direct Education” organizing strategies, as well as their work with the Leadership Council in the People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature and Environment to validate that wisdom from lived-experience is expertise. Their facilitation challenged us to envision a world that centers, values, uplifts, and empowers those most impacted by environmental harm and climate change. Using the techniques of liberation science, they are designing a research process that surfaces and challenges the systems of oppression embedded in our current environmental justice struggle. To that end, Luz will be including “root work” in our community building workshop. Together we will use The Oppression Tree to map the root causes of waste inequities in SE Queens. We often focus solely on individual issues and forget that systems of oppression are at the root of the problem. To build a path toward environmental justice and collective liberation, we must name and interrogate these systems that we participate in (knowingly and unknowingly) that contribute to environmental injustices. Using facilitation tools like The Oppression Tree will help us directly address the root causes of environmental injustices and envision alternative systems rooted in liberation.
Collaborations like this are hard work under the best of circumstances. It takes time to build solidarity and trust. The global COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult because we could not physically be together. To build trust virtually we utilized Training for Change’s “Leading Groups Online” guide. As the main facilitator, Luz ensured that every meeting included authentic human interactions. The first 30–45 minutes of every meeting was devoted to icebreakers and community check-ins that allowed us to gauge how people were showing up to the space. This set the tone for our meeting and fostered a supportive space during the ongoing pandemic.
When folks expressed that they were exhausted, Luz would vocalize that they could participate in whatever capacity felt comfortable. Multiple participation pathways were offered — participants were welcome to use the chat, dial in, speak with or without video. This allowed for more engagement from everyone without overextending anyone. By opening space for partners to participate while acknowledging the burdens they were carrying, this facilitation strategy built a collective trust, affirming that our research partnership is a genuine partnership that values everyone’s voice. This time spent fostering our relationships is essential for building coalitions that can get us closer to actualizing our visions for environmental justice.
The Power of Partnership
COVID slowed things down, but the group nevertheless managed to meet in-person a few times in Detective Keith L Williams Park — directly across the street from the waste transfer stations. Holding our meetings there was important. The in-community location reinforced the place-based nature of this research and the centrality of the community participants. It also ensured that the non-resident collaborators had their own lived experience with the noise, smell, and particulate pollution generated by the waste transfer stations, giving them a more concrete sense of the environmental burdens that residents navigate daily.
Together, we pitched and obtained funding for a community-based participatory research project documenting the environmental impacts from the waste transfer stations. Taking a page from the late Dr. Stephen Wing and from Dr. Sacoby Wilson, the grant proposal embraces a commitment to recognize the academics, advocates, and community members as equal partners and full collaborators (co-PIs). Over the coming year, as our team collects and analyzes data, community members will have a central role in every step of this process — one as important as that of the technical experts. We intend to publish our results under all of our names.
This research is only the beginning. Our findings will support resident-led advocacy for proper management and transformation of the waste facilities. Together we have already testified before City Council, attended meetings with government officials, and begun building a wider coalition for change. We are collaborating with a parallel effort to sue the waste transfer stations in federal court under the Clean Water Act. That ongoing lawsuit alleges that these facilities lacked required stormwater discharge permits and are therefore operating unlawfully. This lawsuit includes a pendant state law nuisance claim alleging many of the same quality of life concerns that animate our collaborative research.
Our foray into liberation science is a step toward abolishing the traditional institutionalization of scientific research that denies communities facing environmental injustice the right to self-determination. Community members will lead all aspects of the work as we build, shape, and define innovative approaches to eradicate environmental racism. Together we are creating research initiatives that inform environmental justice in action.
Rebecca Bratspies is a professor at CUNY School of Law where she runs the Center for Urban Environmental Reform. She is as an appointed member of New York City’s Environmental Justice Advisory Panel, and of EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. Her most recent book is Environmental Justice: Law Policy and Regulation, and her environmental justice comic books Mayah’s Lot and Bina’s Plant build environmental literacy in a new generation of environmental leaders.
Dr. Dawn Roberts-Semple, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at CUNY-York College specializes in human-environment interactions, primarily urban air pollution and its public health effects. She utilizes low-cost technologies through citizen science and community based participatory research in collaboration with interdisciplinary groups.
Luz Guel is an educator, facilitator, and scientist that organizes with frontline communities to lead community science initiatives that address local environmental injustices. Luz is the Director of Community Engagement and Environmental Justice at the Department of Environmental Medicine & Public Health (DEMPH) at the Icahn School of Medicine and Co-Chairs the DEMPH Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, Diversity & Equity Committee. Twitter: @_luzguel
Andrea Scarborough is a community activist and the Former President Addisleigh Park Civic Organization
Maida Galvez, MD, MPH is a pediatrician whose clinical, research, and advocacy work is dedicated to promoting healthy environments for all children. She co-directs the Region 2 Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) and the Coordinating Center for the New York State Children’s Environmental Health Centers (NYSCHECK and translates research to action through her work together with partners in Community Engagement for the Mount Sinai Clinical & Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program and Mount Sinai Transdisciplinary Center on Early Environmental Exposures. Twitter: @mgalvez_md
Oster Bryan is the President of St Albans Civic Organization
Walter Dogan is the President of Brinkerhoff Action Association
Danielle Dubno-Hammer has been teaching science in small, progressive, New York City public schools for the past 16 years, where she has developed inquiry-based curriculum for biology, physics, neuroscience, and environmental science courses. She lives on Long Island and in the Adirondacks with her husband, two young daughters, and dog.
Lauretta Humphrey is the President of The Greater Triangle Association
Michael Scotland is the Former President of Addisleigh Park Civic Organization