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Interview: Yvette Arellano

by stevie | 5 days ago | 0 | 2

Lead Image from YES! Magazine

It seems fitting that the last interview we did in this series was with Yvette Arellano of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). TEJAS is a Houston based organization. They are a small, but extremely mighty Environmental Justice group. With just five staff, they’re one of the most well known and respected organizations in the field. In their work, TEJAS is “dedicated to providing community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable, environmentally healthy communities by educating individuals on health concerns and implications arising from environmental pollution, empowering individuals with an understanding of applicable environmental laws and regulations and promoting their enforcement, and offering community building skills and resources for effective community action and greater public participation” (http://tejasbarrios.org/about-us/).

This interview was conducted in May, well before the tragic and terrible events of Hurricane Harvey. There is no doubt the events of Hurricane Harvey have stretched this group thin, and strained their many community constituents. TEJAS- Yvette and Deyadira Arellano, Juan, Ana and Bryan Parras, you and your community are in our thoughts. In solidarity.

Yvette Arellano interview below:


What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?

When it comes to community organizing, anything from individual walking into the office, to funds to help us get the work done. We’re hoping there are young people looking to come in and help us with capacity for things like social media, and keeping the website up to date. We’re also looking for capacity through collaborations with schools, scientists, academics. We’re ultimately hoping to get more information out at a faster pace.

Also funding is a big one right now-- everyone’s crunched under this administration. Before we could count on federal funding, but now our organizations are trying to go after scraps that are left. Bigger organizations can see people laying down funds to support their work because they see what’s happening, but that’s not always the case on the grassroots level.

Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?

We just got done working over past year with project with the Union of Concerned Scientists -- it’s a massive network with nothing but capacity. Together we got out the Double Jeopardy in Houston report.

The beginning of year was tough. We checked EJ Screen for missing information and the site went down for a solid week. It was a huge concern. We reached out to USC friends, they called up the ladder to ask why there was so much missing information. We also reached out to our friends in EJ community who gathered together and helped us download information from EJScreen and the Toxics Release Inventory so that we had it.

What were the strengths of these resources?

National Air Toxics Assessment is the most comprehensive source of information on cancerous toxins and amount of cancer on different parts of the country. It comes out once every three years, but it just released information in January regarding results from 2011. We went before NEJAC (The National Envioromntal Justice Advisory Council) and asked the EPA to have a more solid schedule for the data release for NATAData because we need it.

Different databases give us information that help us with our work. The TRI data (The Toxics Release Invintory) is the one that comes out the most frequently- annually. The National Emissions Inventory comes out every three years. Where TRI tracks what’s reported to come out of the stack, the NEI tracks fugitive and stack emissions. If there’s an accident - stuff that’s not supposed to come out NATAData grabs that all and pumps out numbers. ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) is a solid basis for grassroots groups to know what has been done and help community members. Finally, EJ Screen helps translate this all into graphs, and common language.

What do you these resources could have done for you, but didn’t?

They’re technical. EPA has addressed this by telling grassroots groups, or anyone, that there are technical assistance grants to help people. So you have to apply for a grant to get someone to translate it out of the technical jargon - and this is for a public database. It’s unfair.

When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?

Just like anybody else - social media, email, news, and conferences. We also get together and share from our communities through regional meetings and phone calls. We also get out and do the old school block walking.

What methods of sharing or learning do you or your group find challenging?

Navigating datasets and databases with older people who aren’t used to it is challenging. Also translating from English to any other language is something that’s a barrier as well.

Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?

Yes, 100%. I think working with different organizations from different backgrounds and populations is important. We need to be able to communicate with their groups, and they with ours. We have more experience with these issues when we work together so we need to make a vast network of people to deal with these issues.

What would you want to be able to do, find, offer, or receive through interacting with this network?

Ideally, I would want to be able to piece the puzzle together faster. Pipelines through Illinois are going to connect to Texas and to Louisiana refineries. That’s very similar to so many parts of the country. Across region or nation we have these joint issues. We could work together. We could reach a solution together and create mass momentum across a nation.

Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?

I see the space being populated with scientists -- that’s new, we’re not used to scientists and academics opening their eyes and seeing challenges our communities face. Opening that space and really uplifting that message against the administration. We need legitimacy as grassroots organizers. We’re not seen as having the most legitimacy, but when scientists come in and support our message with data it’s really helpful. It’s also really important for young environmental justice organizers to connect with elders. We live in age of technology. If we can’t share those skills, we’ve already lost.

What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?

You’ve probably already heard this. Jemez principles of engagement. Environmental Justice principles are about being open and inclusive. Letting people -- community -- speak for themselves. Committing to self-transformation. At the end of day, we’re struggling, and we should be aiming at a joint approach. There is power in numbers.

End of inteview


Thank you Yvette!

It has been a wonderful journey learning from amazing grassroots and environmental justice organizers over the past several months, but that learning doesn’t stop with the end of this series. I’m wondering for those who have read and followed along:

  • What questions are you left with?
  • What surprised you?
  • Where do you see steps forward?
  • Who else should be brought into this conversation?

Comment below!

Note on Harvey Recovery: You can support TEJAS in response to Hurricane Harvey by donating to A Just Harvey Recovery Fund here.

Other avenues to share and help on Public Lab:

  • Support Gulf Restoration Network’s efforts to capture and report pollution events from Hurricane Harvey by sorting through aerial images in this activity.
  • Public Lab has organized Harvey related material on this page where you can ask questions and offer support.

**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.

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interview blog grassroots texas


Interview: Jim Gurley

by stevie | 19 days ago | 0 | 1

Lead image from the StarTribune, photo credit Brian Peterson. An uncovered frack-sand stockpile (“Mount Frack”) in downtown Winona, 2013. In the background is the historic Winona County Courthouse. (After large demonstrations and direct action at Winona’s City Hall, the city finally reacted to the citizen’s demands and required the carcinogenic frack sand to be removed.)

The frack sand industry (sometimes spelled frac sand - sometimes considered the industry’s spelling) is one of the lesser known dirty supply lines of the oil and gas industry. “With the massive adoption of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the U.S., round silica sand is needed as a ‘proppant,’ a material used to prop open oil and gas-bearing fissures while also allowing gas and oil to escape.” (read more on the history on the Frac Sand wiki). For many years Wisconsin and Minnesota, among other midwest states, have been the victim to the oil and gas industry’s long and vicious assault on natural resources through the frack sand mining industry. Think of the lands where Aldo Leopold wrote the famous Sand County Almanac. These are the beautiful places that have been pillaged. Hills have been flattened, rivers have been silted, farmland have been destroyed, livelihoods have been threatened, and human health impacts have been disregarded.

But out of this chaos and injustice, again we find incredible people who are working together to bring light, and fight back. The interview below is with Jim Gurley, one of many we have to thank for their hard work against the oil and gas industry on the Midwest front.

image description

Jim Gurley Interview Below:


What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?

I split my time between two issues: frack-sand mining, since 2011 with CASM, (Citizens Against Silica Mining) and exploding oil trains, since 2014 with CARS-Midwest, (Citizens Acting for Rail Safety). I’m also active with LSP (Land Stewardship Project). I also plan to help as an organizer with Our Revolution-Minnesota. The groups I’m a part of have not done much fund-raising. We’re all volunteers, except for a staff member or two at LSP. So financial support is not something we have focussed upon.

For rural issues in our county, we lobby for support from our county board of commissioners. The only way we were able to secure a ban in our county on frack sand mining operations (the first and only such ban in the U.S.) was because we spent a lot of time, energy and money (we did fund-raise for that campaign) to get one of our CASM members elected to the board. She won and replaced a pro-sand person, who was a lifelong resident of Winona, and was a TV and radio news anchor with virtually 100% name recognition. Her win was extremely important -- it helped us get the ban (flipped the majority on the board from 3-2 pro-sand to 3-2 against) but also provided the first and only “referendum” of sorts on the frack-sand issue, so we had something tangible to point to when discussing public opposition to the mining. Frack sand is a dangerous carcinogen, so we are interested in low cost monitoring of dust, and ways we can measure particulate matter around the seven frack-sand operations in the city of Winona.

In CARS, we seek and get support from public officials at all levels, and we have networked with other groups who are fighting oil trains throughout country. Those sorts of connections are important. Perhaps the most important support we look for is from local citizens who write Letters to the Editors, come (and sometimes speak) at hearings, attend our meetings, march in direct action, etc. “People power” is our most effective and valuable resource.

Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?

Several CARS members attended the Oil Train Response conference in Pittsburgh, and that was very informative and good for networking. The human capital of good researchers in our own groups, as a resource, is key for us. Working with the staffs of senators and congressmen has been somewhat helpful. The Crude Awakening network holds a national conference call every few weeks, and that allows us to get good and timely information about victories and bad things around the country. We need to bolster ourselves and each other and take time to celebrate and integrate the victories that we do have. Connection with others is a reward.

When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?

In our frack sand group, some members are not on Facebook, and a few don’t have email. So we use phone calls and emails. Short emails are good, but group email discussions (which can easily devolve into what I call “e-maelstroms”) are challenging. Emailing information prior to meetings allows informed comments at the meeting. In-person contact is paramount.

Someone with expertise willing to visit and address our group is a great way to learn. We’ve also sent a representative to workshops and seminars. One important thing to me — as both a listener and a presenter -- is to be able to clearly hear and understand the person speaking (particularly considering that many volunteers are elderly and hard of hearing). Testing acoustics and microphone ahead of time, and asking at the beginning of the presentation if folks can hear, can make all the difference. It also helps in getting good audio when we are video-recording an event.

What methods of sharing or learning do you or your group find challenging?

New social media platforms are challenging. I and others find Facebook to be useful, but not all of us are on Facebook. We've found language barriers. Reading something that is above our skill level containing technical jargon is difficult; e.g., reading an industry journal is sometimes hard to “translate" into vernacular English in order to report about it to the group. This also happens when working with scientists, or people who have a specific expertise. Articulating scientific ideas in layman's language is a skill and talent that should be cultivated by those who wish their knowledge to be widely understood.

Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?

Working with a diverse group of people (geographical, gender, racial, ethnic, education, political party, age, etc.) gives us complementary skill sets and perspectives. We need to have folks who like to make phone calls, others who like to do on-line research, others to write op-eds, etc. Bringing people together from different political backgrounds is challenging, but important and potentially rewarding in the long-term, if we are sincere and honest and open-minded. Having a wider group or network of people who could be resources to each other and develop a broader expertise would be great.

Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?

I would like to engage with (and educate) elected officials about environmental issues. They often are well-versed in how to create jobs, but they need to be at the table to learn about environmental issues and the consequences of the job-growth they advocate. It would also be useful to have academic folks there, but so far, few academic leaders at public universities have been willing to help us in a public way due in part to pressure from the state. Last, scientists and activists sharing a space where they could share with each other what they’ve learned could be really useful as well.

What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?

Tolerance, patience, and focussed listening are important values. Sometimes people new to activism may be turned off if someone is impatient with them or they don’t feel welcome, so having a welcoming culture is paramount. Follow-through is also key, and it’s healthy for a group to respectively hold members accountable for what they have promised to do. On a mechanical level, ground rules and an outline of shared expectations can help protect these spaces.

In physical shared spaces, welcomers at the door are helpful. Also, we need to be intentional about celebrating our victories, and to avoid getting too intense at meetings. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves and be lighthearted at times. Otherwise, stress and the resulting burnout can hurt our efforts.

End of interview


Thanks again Jim! Hearing about your work is truly inspiring.

**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.

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What questions will you bring to the Barnraising?

by warren | about 1 month ago | 0 | 2

At the past two Barnraisings, in Morgantown, West Virginia ( #west-virginia ) and in Cocodrie in November 2016, I was able to interview and video folks who came, and ask them what questions they brought with them.

I like asking this question because many people come with a specific need in mind, hoping to find someone from the diverse Public Lab community that may be able to help, and some come with knowledge, skills, and capacity -- and I’d wager that most people come with both of these! But finding ways to exchange knowledge, and support one another, is one of the keys to making an event like this work.

With this in mind, I’ll be sharing these every week or so in batches, here and on Instagram and Twitter with the tag #barnraisingQuestions. And please reach out with your own questions as you draw up your plans for this November 3-5 -- we hope to see you in Cocodrie, Louisiana!

Mirijana Beram

My name is Mirijana Beram and I live in Doddridge County West Virginia, and my question is: how can rural communities fight the Man and win?

Carla Green

One question that I've brought to this year's barnraising is: How can we help the West Virginia community develop more green infrastructure and deal with the contaminants they deal with here, as far as air quality and water quality.

Laura Chipley

Hi, I'm Laura, and I came here today wanting to know more strategies for how to use aerial photography and drone imagery to chronicle infractions in mountaintop removal and to tell stories.

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west-virginia barnraising blog videos


Wrapping up Google Summer of Code 2017 at Public Lab

by warren | about 1 month ago | 1 | 3

Hi, everyone! This past week we wrapped up our fourth year of Google Summer of Code (see #gsoc), a Google-funded summer program for students to get paid to work on open source projects. I'll be posting more thoughts as we go, but I first wanted to thank the amazing team we had. We had -- counting mentors, coaches, etc -- 17 people involved in this summer's work. (We're also wrapping up a Rails Girls Summer of Code soon -- many thanks to that team as well!)

From @stella's Email Notification Overhaul:

From @Ashan's Wiki Discussion:

From @mridulnagpal's Map of Projects:

From @ryzokuken's Bot for Publiclab:

From @ccpandhare's Developing Image Sequencer as a Library:

Our mentors were: @david-days, @icarito, @stevie, @liz, and thanks especially to our past GSoC students who were mentors this year, @Ujitha and @ananyo2012! We really could not have had this amount of success without you.


I just wanted to say that, although we've has some amazing summers in the past, this summer was once again our most successful summer yet. I think our continuous refinement of the planning process and how we run our unique Summer of Code process has really grown and allowed us to have:

  • More projects succeeding
  • More and better documentation
  • Clearer onramps for new contributors written by students who can build out their own contributor mini-communities over the summer
  • Better constant communication and inter-student collaboration
  • More modular, easy-to-integrate projects
  • More tests
  • Better work plans
  • An earlier, faster start to the summer

You can read more of the specific highlights of our projects on the most recent Web Working Group update. But I wanted to share some of the reflections, advice, thoughts, and ideas I've had over the course of this unique summer. I wrote some of this into each of your evals, but without sharing feedback specific to a given student, I wanted to share my notes. Apologies to non-coders if they're very software-oriented, but I think some of these apply to non-coding projects too!


1. Turn your remaining work into well-documented onramps for new contributors

To students who are approaching the end of their projects, an important step is re-assessing what's left, and what they can finish up in the remaining time. But rather than considering any unfinished pieces "missing", it's great to take them as an opportunity to invite others into your projects, by turning them into well-documented issues on your project repositories.

If you offer enough context, you should be able to recruit people to take up the remaining tasks once the summer ends, and whether or not you continue work afterwards, folks will be able to carry your work forward. This may mean writing a first-timers-only issue, for example, to welcome a new coder into the project.

Mentors: I think it's great to encourage students to document their work (and what's left to do) as issues that are up for grabs. It's better for morale to plan ahead for other people to pick up where you left off, and to think about your project living on, than to focus on asking them what they didn't do! And it's better for the project overall anyways!

2. Write issues for yourself, but as if written for others

Ask students to write one new issue per week **for someone else**, which helps them think in terms of how others read their work, and encourages them to break up projects into smaller parts that newcomers can tackle. Good code is modular, not a spaghetti -- and looking at it from the outside is a powerful way to improve your planning and style.

3. Learn how to develop a small community of contributors around your work

Over the course of your work, you've all become leaders in this community through your work, your collaboration, and your major contribution to the platforms we use at Public Lab. Take a look at this page for some ideas on how you can ensure your projects live on: https://github.com/publiclab/plots2/projects/4

4. Write onboarding or "first-timers-only" issues

I think asking or even requiring projects to have "onboarding" or "first-timers-only" tasks during the recruitment phase can help improve the overall success of the project and ensure project teams are giving students the support they need early on. This also helps ensure that students have installed everything and gone through the "PR merging" process before they even begin work!

5. Learn how to write a good, step-by-step first-timer issue

Start your summer by thinking about building a team by inviting others into your work. It's a key skill for any software developer, and it's never too early to think about documentation, or about designing for reuse and for other coders to read your work. As someone who's probably just gotten the project installed and set up, you're also uniquely equipped to guide others through that process! And it's a good habit both for yourself (to break down and articulate problems in writing) and for future coders. Here's a guide to writing issues for newcomers:

https://publiclab.org/notes/warren/10-31-2016/create-a-welcoming-first-timers-only-issue-to-invite-new-software-contributors

6. See your own work through others' eyes

Towards the end of the summer, begin to consider how other people (who program) will use your work. Will they understand how to install it? How to adapt it to their own uses? Will they have trouble setting it up, or be confused at how things are named or organized? What can you do to make it easier for others to pick up your work and use it? A good demo? More clear documentation or examples? One great way to know if your work is readable is to ask one another to read it over and provide feedback.

7. Break your work into small parts!

Students love to make giant projects that are all intertwined, and it takes discipline to break things into small, testable parts. But be hard on the students early on -- resist the temptation to just say "code the whole thing up as fast as you can!" since it can really be worth the time to work with them to plan out and break down their work. It's much easier to build on smaller self-contained modules that are clearly tested than to sift through huge amounts of less structured code, whether it's the students themselves doing it or you taking over at the end of the summer. It's also just good coding practice!

8. Write a planning checklist that you can work on chunk by chunk

Write a planning issue early on, based on your proposal. Take the overall goals and break them into parts small enough that you can merge them (with tests) into the trunk branch one at a time. Before a user-facing feature goes live, you can merge in a whole set of back-end functions which underpin it, and ensure they are all working in production before making the UI that exposes it to the public.

Break things into a checklist with "phases" and really modularize down into distinct steps as much as possible, like in this example:

https://github.com/publiclab/leaflet-blurred-location/issues/1

It's a really great way to visualize your progress over the course of the summer, and a good first step to developing a milestones.

9. Publish "hidden betas" to test your work in production

When students want to publish a public-facing interface (a new feature) but you're not sure it's perfect yet, allow them to publish it in a way that's hidden, so you can see how it does "in the wild." For web projects, only enable it if people add a ?beta=true parameter to the URL. For desktop projects, hide it behind a flag, like --enable features. That way, they can break up the work into smaller parts, and can get feedback from the real community as they refine their work. Just be sure the flags are clearly marked and can be removed by another contributor later.

Do you have more to suggest? I'd love to hear your tips -- leave them below in the comments.

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Interview: Nayamin Martinez and Gustavo Aguirre Jr.

by stevie | about 1 month ago | 0 | 0

The Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) is a group with member organizations across the Central Valley whose mission is “to preserve our natural resources now and in the future, by seeking better ways to minimize or eliminate environmental degradation in Central Valley communities. This is crucial because rural communities in California’s Central Valley suffer a disproportionate amount of negative health, social and financial impacts.”

In 2016, Public Lab hosted the Regional Barnraising in Val Verde, CA where I met Nayamin Martinez, Director of the CCEJN. Nayamin’s work and the work of CCEJN was an inspiration to those who attended the event for both their the deep community organizing (highlighted in this interview below), and for the power and productivity their network has been able to exercise on hard local environmental issues. CCEJN works on everything from assisting community environmental reporting, to health impact studies, environmental monitoring, and efforts on anti-fracking campaigns. It was CCEJN’s efforts to educate on EPA visual monitoring techniques that inspired others across Public Lab to learn and take on visual monitoring methods around industrial and mining sites.

I was so grateful to loop back in with Nayamin and meet Gustavo Aguirre Jr who works as CCEJN’s Kern County Coordinator.

Nayamin and Gustavo’s interview below:


What kind of support do you look for for your community organizing activities?

Gustavo: We often look for support from bigger organizations or entities and the communication power they have. It’s a good support system to communicate with others outside of our immediate reach. Aside from outreach, we also look for community groups and leaders that need additional assistance or guidance on issues they are advocating for, such as identifying pollution hotspots and monitoring these locations.

Nayamin: Everytime we go to do some type of monitoring, we rely on the expertise of scientists. Having access to researchers is key for us but sometimes limited. Some curriculum can strengthen our work, for example, building the environmental literacy among our community members. Also, the makeup of the San Juan Valley where we are based, has a huge latino population who don’t read english, so we often need translated resources.

Are there any resources for your environmental work that you’ve found to be helpful? Such as guides, monitoring resources, websites, trainings, network, or otherwise?

Nayamin: Might sound ironic, but when we have had the access to researchers it has been very valuable. Having legitimization of a research institue behind our work is helpful. I also think we have done a good job of collaborating with a lot of the enforcement agencies.

Gustavo: Researchers, academics, regulatory agencies are our main focus. Useful information provided by these organizations is very valuable. Different groups bring different specialities to the table. But our specialist if you will are the residents that live and work in our communities that are often fence-line to major industries.

What do you these resources could have done for you, but didn’t?

Gustavo: Larger NGOs and state agencies with more funding and resources need to actually fund the work. We need community organizers who are part time or full time with these groups, so we end up with more dollars and resources on the ground. Lots of people have ideas about how organizations could work better, but to me, it always comes down to how their organizers work. There’s a lot of great work that institutions do, but very little of that work has been shared, little of the the information trickles down.

When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information? What is your preferred method of sharing information?

Nayamin: I prefer being in person for learning. Here in California, we have large distances. Even within our region, lots of rural communities and it’s not easy for them to travel. Access to webinars has been very helpful so far, and the internet has become a very powerful tool for gaining information. In terms of sharing out, we have a robust listserve that we use strategically to distribute our projects, activities, and events. It has a combination of environmental justice advocates, grassroots groups, and regulatory agencies.

What methods of sharing or learning do you or your group find challenging?

Nayamin: We have been using the listserv a lot. It has been more challenging to keep up with the websites to make it a resource tool. We haven’t had the time or manpower. Sometimes expertise to use the website and the social media in a more strategic way is helpful, but when the target audience is the community we serve, those methods are not the needed dissemination tools. For example, they may not speak the language, so we are always mindful of who we are trying to communicate with. We rely a lot on oral presentations at community meetings. Not powerpoint, nothing sophisticated. We know an oral presentation with clear and simple information will go a long way.

Gustavo: Our strength is our access to the community. We know the community groups and the community leaders. That’s the main way we put out and get back information. It’s a weakness in that there’s no one channel, we have a network, and we talk to community folks in an daily, weekly, monthly basis which makes us strong.

Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? If so, in what ways?

Nayamin: I think it would. My background public health. Gustavo has more expertise on environmental sciences; our skills complement each other. It’s not always the technical information that’s important, bringing in public health and sociology -- other skills and perspectives to understand the problems of the community where we are working is really important.

Gustavo: Yes, networking! People flourish and get reenergized through networking.

What would you want to be able to do, find, offer, or receive through interacting with this network?

Nayamin: We have had our share of mistakes, so why not help others who are starting their work to not start from zero, but use our experiences as a platform to build upon for their own work. For example, right now, there’s an organization in Southwest Fresno, one of most polluted areas. They have done work with youth, but never focused on environmental issues. They met with us before they submitted a proposal to USEPA and they wanted to know what to do with the youth, so we started talking about how you do community monitoring.

Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?

Nayamin: People from academia, scientists that have skills to analyse / interpret data of air and water pollution, whatever we are monitoring.

Gustavo: Decision-makers, assemblymen, having personal time with them one on one, and having them coming down to the community, that’s something we need more of. We need access to them. Researchers forget that community leaders are there, and are people who have flourished on positive change. We need to give community leaders more tools and access to helpful resources.

What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold?

Nayamin: Sounds simple and common, but respecting everyone’s opinions and knowledge. As Gustavo was saying, a lot of time we don’t invite or value knowledge that community members have, but they are really the experts. Who is more knowledgeable than them? At the same time, I have been inside a regulatory agency doing a presentation and the agency people get frustrated because community members are asking so many questions, and talking for too long, so I go back to the need for being respectful.

End of interview


Thanks again Nayamin and Gustavo! So excited to follow CCEJN and the amazing work being done across the Central Valley.

**This post is part of a series with Grassroots and Environmental Justice Community Organizers. Read more on the series here or follow the blog tag to get updates on new posts.

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Personal Reflections from Appalachia Barnraising 2017

by nanocaj | about 1 month ago | 1 | 3

A full five days before the Appalachia Barnraising, out of work for only three days, and I get an email from Stevie through the Public Lab listserv -- registration has been extended! I had no idea what a "Barnraising" or an "un-conference" was in this context, but after doing a little research on the website I make a quick decision that I should definitely get in my car and drive from western MA to Morgantown, WV for this event. Since I had lived in the Appalachians of southwest VA and had done some research on contaminated mine drainage, the theme of extreme resource extraction (such as mountaintop removal coal mining and natural gas fracking) really drew me in. Even more so was the opportunity to hear the personal stories of those directly affected by the dusty and cancer-causing air, flammable and polluted water, and who live in towns manipulated by out-of-town greed and a desperate need for local jobs. As best I could I prepared myself to not be an obvious out-of-touch academic and went forth with as little expectations as possible, with an open mind and ready to learn.

The Barnraising event was held in a fantastic space for having collaborative interactions such as this, at the Media Innovation Center at West Virginia University. Being used to huge academic conferences where you have to be approved to give a presentation months in advance, I was initially confused as to why there was no schedule. But oh! This was an "un-conference." So after setting up a few ground rules and explaining the ethics policy (an interesting and definitely important idea), we set about creating a schedule of sessions in a democratic-type way. First, each person wrote an idea for a discussion topic that most interested them, shared it with the group and stuck it to the wall. Not being at all prepared for this, I wrote something like "water quality monitoring -- what we have and what we need." With a wall full of very diverse ideas, we grouped them and put them on the whiteboard schedule. I found this to be a fascinating exercise in how complete strangers had to interact, balance competing personal interests, and without any obvious overtones of elevating anyone's expertise above another. (Sidenote: having nametags with just names and introductions without listing off the resume is a great way to level the playing field!)

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Photo credit: Carol Johnson

Throughout the day, I participated in many interesting discussions: youth outreach with art and data integration using Public Lab resources, how to create sustainable economies in WV, how to assemble Kaptery dataloggers for obtaining environmental data (e.g. temperature and barometric pressure), and how communities can monitor air quality. Without naming the specific sessions, I would like to share some observations I had about what worked and what didn't in terms of achieving a useful outcome. These thoughts could be helpful in any gathering of diverse groups of people who are trying to come together to solve a critical problem.

What worked fairly well:

Having a clear goal

In one session, the moderator had a specific goal in mind. While that goal was not achieved through consensus, it was helpful to have a specific issue to discuss, and it appeared that many useful ideas were generated that were likely to be quickly implemented.

In the water quality / data logger session that I moderated, after some uncertainty as to the goal of the session, I just had everyone break into smaller groups to assemble and test out the two data loggers. This ended up working fairly well because there were enough people who were comfortable enough to take the lead and could show the others (like me) who had no experience assembling small electronics. Two groups managed to get the Kaptery Nano ($29) up and running and collecting data, which was uploaded to Excel and graphed. The other group practiced soldering the components of the Kaptery Mini Pearl ($19) and learned that shorting out a circuit board is not too scary. So while we didn't get to do any particularly useful experiments with the data loggers, we learned how easy they were to put together (a big step for those of us who are not DIY technologists!).

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Photo credit: Public Lab (Twitter feed)

Asking questions first rather than jumping to answers

In one particularly well-moderated session, everyone in the group was there to learn and no-one was an expert on the topic. At first, we questioned what we could really accomplish with our discussion. But our excellent moderator facilitated a brainstorming session in the following way:

  • Identify some important scenarios
  • Identify short and long term goals
  • Make a list of questions needed to answer to achieve those goals

Even if we didn't come up with solutions to problems, we all learned a great way to facilitate discussions when planning community campaigns! Being able to ask good questions is a valuable skill we all need to practice more.

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Photo credit: Carol Johnson

What needed improvement:

Prioritizing community needs

Most people in Public Lab are familiar with the concept of experts "helicoptering in" to solve a community-level problem, but end up focusing on their own goals instead of the community's. This occurs with academics, government officials and nonprofits alike, and with experts and non-experts alike. In the discussions I participated in during this Barnraising event, I was disappointed to see the members of affected communities grossly outnumbered by outsiders like me, and moreover in discussions where community members weren't present, to me their voices were painfully absent. Some people tended to focus on their own agenda without visible attempts to incorporate affected community members' perspectives. I don't think this was intentional, but it was disconcerting how out of practice we are at critically thinking about someone else's needs outside our own bubble, and we are conceivably people who want to be compassionate and create an equitable society. This is where asking questions rather than jumping to answers, especially with regards to long-term visions, really helps. Questions regarding economic, social, and environmental pros and cons from community perspectives, and ways to humanize collaboration and cooperation, could be really useful for centering community need in our discussions and actions.

Overall, it was a great experience for me to get out of my academic bubble, and observe and participate in the democratic exchange of knowledge to address critical problems. I think we can do better in centering community need rather than ideology or tangential agendas, and we can do so by asking critical stakeholders questions to generate and discern clear goals. A big thanks to the folks at Public Lab who organized the event and invited me to share my thoughts on this blog!


About the author: Carol Johnson has a Ph.D. in Geosciences from Virginia Tech, and researches a wide variety of environmental pollutants ranging from metals in mine drainage, mercury in estuary sediments to quantum dot nanoparticles in TVs that end up in landfills. While at Virginia Tech, she spent a lot of time rock climbing and hiking in the Appalachians, and really misses the mountains when she's not there! You can follow her on Twitter @nanoCAJ.

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community barnraising event blog