PITTSBURGH (May 22, 2019) — For the past 40 years, research
proven that people of color, low-income communities and ethnic minorities
suffer the effects of environmental contamination more than other communities.
The Flint, Mich., water crisis and the Dakota Pipeline protests serve as national
examples of environmental injustices, but similar issues affect communities
across the country.
New research from the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson
School of Engineering Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, in partnership with the Kingsley Association
and funded by the Heinz Endowments examined the impact that bottom-up,
community-level initiatives have in addressing environmental justice issues.
They found that the best way to address a community’s environmental injustices
is to meet them where they are, integrating into the community and building
trust over a long-term partnership.
Pittsburgh has long struggled with air quality since its
early industrial days, and the effects of environmental pollution on health are
well-known. Residents in the Greater Pittsburgh region are at twice the cancer
risk of surrounding counties, and disadvantaged communities see the worst of
it. The East End of Pittsburgh is among the city’s most underserved boroughs,
struggling with crumbling infrastructure, community disinvestment, and high
traffic density. These factors all contribute to the poor air quality affecting
citizens’ health and wellness, which is what their program, the Environmental
Justice Community Action Matrix (EJCAM), is designed to address.
“When your house is in need of repairs, it can’t effectively
keep the outdoor air out. Since Americans spend nearly 90 percent of their time
indoors, the concentration of pollution inside the house could be a significant
contributor to poor health,” says Melissa Bilec, PhD, the Roberta A. Luxbacher
Faculty Fellow and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.
“I visited one community member’s home and noticed that she was using an oxygen
tank, and it struck me just how much these environmental issues are impacting
people’s health inside their own homes.”
Dr. Bilec and her team, with PhD student, Harold
Rickenbacker as a lead, have partnered with the Kingsley Association, a community
organization in Larimer, since 2007 on environmental justice initiatives. EJCAM,
their most recent collaboration, went through four stages, using the Theory of
Change paradigm: outreach, involvement, participatory research and consultation.
It culminated in in-house air quality testing that Dr. Bilec says wouldn’t have
been possible without the trust that their partnership built, especially
Harold’s commitment and time spent in working with the community.
EJCAM created Community Action Teams (CATs), which trained
community members to become leaders who would train others and advocate for
environmental issues; the Urban Transition Cities Movement (UTCM) brought
together unlikely stakeholders community members, non-profit leaders, small
businesses, universities, governmental agencies, youth and public officials. Because
of these initiatives, community members have become more involved and aware of
environmental issues, knowledgeable about green materials, infrastructure and
land use practices. They’re active in the management of forthcoming landscape
features in housing developments and pollution control schemes.
The most important thing Dr. Bilec learned through this
process was that in order to be effective, the first step must be building
trust. And the way to build trust is to be visible in the community over time.
Harold Rickenbacker, a PhD candidate working with Dr. Bilec
on the initiative and lead author of the paper, dedicated himself to
integrating with the community to truly understand its needs and the best way
to fill them. He attended community meetings, church gatherings and other
events. A mobile air quality monitoring bicycle campaign took researchers and
community members to the streets, riding bikes mounted with air particulate counters
that give a real-time map of air quality in the area. More than that, it gave
the researchers a way to be visible and connect with the community, who would
often stop them to ask what they were doing.
“We found the most important thing we could do was to be
present, to listen to the citizens and figure out how our research can help
them,” says Mr. Rickenbacker. “Community-based initiatives are effective, but
they have to be a sustained partnership, not a one-off event.”
The team is currently performing indoor air quality
assessments with the community members, counseling them on measures they can
take to improve it and the supplies they’ll need to do so. They hope that their
program model will be replicable in other communities in the Pittsburgh area
The project recently won the Senior Vice Chancellor for
Engagement’s Partnerships of Distinction Award, and Mr. Rickenbacker won the
Carnegie Science Award in the College/University Student category this year for
his work on EJCAM.
The paper, “Creating Environmental Consciousness in
Underserved Communities: Implementation and Outcomes of Community-Based Environmental
Justice and Air Pollution Research,” was published in Sustainable Cities and Society (DOI10.1016/j.scs.2019.101473)
and was coauthored by Dr. Bilec and Fred Brown of the Forbes Fund.
Maggie Pavlick, 5/22/2019
Contact: Maggie Pavlick