Collaborating for Sustainable Environmental and Social Change

From the EPA Environmental Justice in Action blog – an excellent article by Dr. Mildren McClain, MFN participant, about Harambee House.

By Dr. Mildred McClain
Residents living in the Hudson Hill neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia, had long complained about damage to their health and homes due to emissions from the paper mill located within this west side community.  In 2004, Harambee House Inc.-Citizens for Environmental Justice (HH/CFEJ) was awarded one of the first EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJ CPS) cooperative agreements.  This award put HH/CFEJ and the Savannah Hudson Hill residents on the road towards community capacity building, citizen engagement, and sustainable environmental change.
For decades, residents of this largely African American community, originally settled in the late 1860s by freed African slaves, described a range of health effects they associated with exposure to air pollution, including respiratory problems (e.g., asthma, bronchitis), gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g., nausea, vomiting), skin rashes, attention deficit disorders, lung cancer, and headaches. In addition, many residents living near the mill’s fence line complained about unpleasant odors, such as the smell of rotten eggs (sulphur) and burning tires, as well as other peculiar odors.  In developing its health consultation report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) gave careful consideration to these concerns and the extent to which they might be associated with air pollutants released from the paper mill facility and other local pollution sources.  TheATSDR’s key findings confirmed some of the residents’ complaints and stated that additional research was needed to confirm public health hazards.  ATSDR also approached the community from a collaborative approach, working closely with environmental justice representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
HH/CFEJ was born out of the tremendous need for African-Americans to develop collective strategies for the effective engagement of citizens in local decision-making.  Our philosophy of change is grounded in the following simple equation:
Community Building + Capacity Building +
Citizen Engagement in Policymaking + Government Actions =
Sustainable Environmental and Social Change
The EJ CPS cooperative agreement supported HH/CFEJ’s efforts to make this idea come to life by focusing on collaborating with partners in community empowerment, documenting community history and health concerns, and creating a comprehensive action plan for addressing community health and environmental concerns associated with pollution from the nearby paper plant.  Most importantly, the EJ CPS funds helped create the Savannah Community Environmental Collaborative Partnership.
Harambee, Swahili for “let’s work together,” embodies the collaborative approach essential for affecting positive change in our community.  The Savannah project witnessed increases in social capital as the community overcame the challenges of working with business partners.  Through a series of community partnership meetings, educational trainings, planning charrettes, and health fairs, Hudson Hill residents began working closely with their academic, government, and industry partners.  In this impacted community where 97 % are African-American and 30% live below the poverty line, there have been many years of struggle and challenges toward progress addressing environmental and health concerns in collaboration with 17 local industrial facilities.  The collaborative process supported through the EJ CPS project set the stage for great things to come –  a permanent mechanism that will lead to healthy, safe, and clean neighborhoods, as well as the advancement toward environmental justice.
By leveraging additional funding and technical support from the City of Savannah, other federal agencies, and academia, HH/CFEJ expanded and sustained our community partnership work, to include the Woodville Community and to later focus on risk assessment, priority setting, and environmental risk reductions.  In the 10 years since receiving the EJ CPS funds, HH/CFEJ created its Business Roundtable to serve as a neutral zone for healthy dialogue between communities and industry, developed a city-wide task force to address community concerns, incorporated their comprehensive action plan into the City of Savannah’s 5 to 10-year Master Plan, worked in partnership with the City of Savannah to develop and implement the first citywide standards for community gardens, redirected 80% of industrial truck traffic away from community residents, and partnered with local industry in voluntary risk reduction actions to reduce volatile organic compounds impacting local health.
An underlying purpose of the EJ CPS program is not just to create collaborative change in one community, but to replicate lessons learned so that the model can be utilized by other communities seeking to address similar concerns.  HH/CFEJ also created a partnership with theReGenesis Project, taking community leaders to Spartanburg, South Carolina and bringing the Spartanburg Team to Savannah.  Today, we are planning on additional collaboration between our community and the ReGenesis so that we can continue to learn, share, and work for community sustainability and improvement.

Dr McClain, center, received an EJ Achievement Award for EJ CPS Grant work in 2008
The EJ CPS program has created living legacies of collaborative change for the residents of Hudson Hill and Woodville, and its benefits continue to grow within our community and spread to others.  The project became a stepping stone for the HH/CFEJ and these two Savannah communities to continue to push forward and face our challenges.  It allowed us to put our motto — Harambee! Let’s work together — into real action and prove that when a community can organize, bring all sectors (both public and private) to the table, and collaborate in good faith to solve its problems, environmental justice is achieved for all.
About the author: Dr. Mildred McClain is founder and executive director for Harambee House Inc./Citizens for Environmental Justice (HH/CFEJ). Dr. McClain served as a co-chair of Congressman James Clyburn’s National Environmental Policy Commission for four years. She is also a Bannerman Fellow and received the Keystone Award for Leadership in the Environmental Justice field of work.  Under Dr. McClain’s leadership for the past 20 years, the Black Youth Leadership Development Institute has trained more than 1,500 young people to serve as leaders in their communities.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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