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Interview: Karen Savage

by stevie | about 14 hours ago | 0 | 0

Photo by Kayana Szymczak

When I started working in New Orleans, one of the first, and most valuable resources I was connected to was Karen Savage’s Gulf Coast Fund. Karen volunteers her time to collect and organize a daily email about the Gulf Region’s community events, activities, and resources. It has been a vital way for me to connect with others working in the Gulf, and stay informed on what’s going on. Then in 2014, I met Karen at a Bridge the Gulf event. I had long thought of her as my “information angel” and it was so nice to meet her in person. I soon learned Karen’s work extends well beyond her daily email updates. Her community work, research, and journalism to expose companies who bring harm to communities and families across the Gulf Coast has brought much needed attention to disturbing injustices.

For example, In 2013 Cherri Foytlin and Karen published an article in the Huffington Post that exposed, among other things, the company ChemRisk. The article went on to explain that ChemRisk “released an “independent” study concluding that off-shore workers who cleaned up BP’s oil between April and October 2010 were not exposed to harmful levels of certain airborne chemical compounds” (quote from the Huffington Post article). The article goes on to call out ChemRisk’s “long, and on at least one occasion fraudulent, history of defending big polluters, using questionable ethics to help their clients avoid legal responsibility for their actions.” In response ChemRisk filed suit against Cherri and Karen saying that “Ms. Foytlin and Ms. Savage had intended to write a “hit piece,” and as long as the article remained online, its “falsehoods will continue to do substantial harm to ChemRisk’s reputation.” (New York Times article by Barry Meier published October 2015 “Science Consultant Pushes Back Against Unlikely Opponents”) The New York cort dismissed the claims and Cherri and Karen “shot back with a motion to dismiss the Massachusetts suit under the anti-SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, statute. They had a reasonable factual basis for their statements and, in writing the post, they had merely exercised their right to petition...The appeals court agreed.” (from a Law360 update “Enviros Cleared Of Defamation For Huffington Post BP Blog” written by Kat Sieniuc)

Karen’s interview below

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

The obvious, funding! Goes without saying but it’s a reality. It’s also really important that whatever resources there are, and whatever groups they go to, that there are folks that are there to help to listen to community and follow their lead, as well as offer expertise.

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?

People, connections and relationships have been really helpful with work on the ground. Individual communities are fairly small voices, but once those voices are amplified and pushed out they can be connected to others in similar struggles. We all try to get better at this, but also look to allies with a larger organizations with more resources for getting the word out.

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?

It’s one of those things that you have to kind of need. That’s been the best way for me to learn. If I learn something that I might use two months from now, it’s not going to stick as much as if I’m desperate to find something.

Would being in a network of people from different backgrounds discussing environmental questions and collaborating on how to address them be useful to you? And what would you be interested in doing there?

It’s always useful, but it also depends on the level of discourse. The facilitators need to come from a really informed and connected place. I’m interested in effective ways to research corporations and what their company history is, who their people are, what their plans are. I’m looking for the nuts and bolts of the business for watchdogging them. I’m interested in knowing these things and getting ahead of the game. We’re always reacting. Someone has decided to build a pipeline, now we have to react. We need to get ahead of this curve. Every strategy for fighting these folks is valuable, and we have different ways of going about it. We and we need to go toe to toe against these companies.

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

I think we need scientists. I think it’s incredibly important the whole science debate that goes on by the “industry of doubt”. All their tricks and secrets need to be brought out. Scientists, policy people, lawyers, people with local detailed environmental management knowledge are all important stakeholders to be able to engage with.

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

A framework of respect. Everyone is in a different place. Generally folks who do this work have the same goal. People have different ways to go about this, and we have to respect them because we need all the ways. We need people who might not be standing next to us on the front lines, to value their work and incorporate it. Keep doing what you’re doing, we need to all be together in the next 4 years.

--End of Interview--

To Karen, Cherri, and others who expose those responsible for environmental injustices in the Gulf Coast, and lift the stories of those who struggle at their hand. In solidarity.

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Interview: Ramsey Sprague

by stevie | 6 days ago | 0 | 1

The lead image is of Ramsey and taken by Weenta Girmay and was from a publication Medium by called "From the Bayou to the Bay: Voices of Gulf Resistance"

On February 22nd of this year, I had a chance to interview Ramsey Sprague of Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition with @jywarren for the series we're exploring talking to grassroots and environmental justice community organizers (read more on the series here). Ramsey is an amazing community organizer, and since this interview happened in February, we're excited to share that MEJAC is a community partner we'll be working with under the new NAS grant. So stay tuned for projects, ideas and questions coming from MEJAC and collaborators in Africatown, Alabama on Public Lab!

In the mean time, below is our interview with Ramsey:

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

Generally, the basics - someone willing to contribute financial resources to support effort, willing to actually go out and meet people, and be trained on what the issues are that a community is interested in.

We look for people that have a bedside manner about their politics, a willingness to listen and hear where concerns are coming from and how to meet them collaboratively. When groups are looking to work with us, I ask for them to review our strategic plan and to ensure they feel alignment with what is there and what is not. If they represent an organization, I look for their willingness to sign an MOU to avoid confusion about the work we’ll do together and on each others’ behalf. I hate that it’s necessary to have personal relationship documentation spelled out on paper but have found that it’s sometimes necessary. It’s dangerous to a project that’s fragile to have new partners come on that don’t respect that their input is contingent on the community wanting them there. Also, when people come here, I like to hear what you’re not able to do. I appreciate the honesty.

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?

For the community I’m most focused upon, the most useful tools are ones ready out of the box. I look for power-point presentations that can be customized for our community about a specific issue, so they have a frame. The vast majority of community aren’t digitally savvy, so websites or online monitoring resources or guides aren’t as useful as they may be elsewhere. There is too much front-end training for this and only a small handful are willing to submit to that kind of intensive computer literacy 101 stuff. Something immersive and engaging and conversational like a power point has been really useful.

There’s a strong need for 101 orientation about environmental sciences generally. These are important frames to give and see who has propensity or capacity to move into doing things like testing or monitoring. We need that kind of talent. Local monitoring must move into the gap that undone or underdeveloped federal work has left.

Ultimately, a perfect scenario would be an organization able to build literacy for frontline communities, bring in monitoring orientation resources, train people to do it, and open the door for people to do it themselves, perpetual support of questions, troubleshooting -- legal support, perhaps. No doubt that once we’re monitoring, we’ll find things where legal action must be taken. Even small stipends for work that needs to be done to give an incentive for younger people to involve themselves.

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

Well, the community here has repeatedly expressed concerns over the perception of disparate advocacy by larger regional or national organizations advocating for white communities strongly and less so for black communities like this one. People have asked me: “Are you getting support from local environmental organizations?” No, by and large. We’ve been around for 3 years, and individually, socially, I’ll talk to people with paid positions in larger groups. They know how to find me, and members of my group have asked for assistance, but only a few regional environmental groups have ever sat down with me to unpack what MEJAC is working on and how they could assist. I think some of this may be that the political terrain is hyper-racial, so folks just avoid confrontation. Many white professionals are uncomfortable directly assisting untrained black leadership. But before MEJAC’s work, local monitoring from independent agencies fell almost exclusively into the hands of folks who didn’t meet the community at the table and seemed to be resistant to the idea of directing resources to the environmental justice communities in and around Mobile. I know there’s a fair two-way street argument here, but work ought to be done to meet a variety of black leadership to work around any potential anti-environmental gatekeepers. The environmental community is adept at recognizing potential concerns but less so at affording patience and resources for working a long-term community engagement plan. If there is a need and a concern, keep knocking on doors. If you think there will eventually be a need to know folks from a part of your service area that’s underrepresented, keep knocking on doors.

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-person face-to-face is best. We can do teleconferences, but sometimes the internet works and sometimes it doesn’t. But even for in-person meetings, our local community centers are expensive to rent. We need plenty of advance notice to work around the ridiculous fees. As I mentioned earlier, a huge swath of the community with the leisure time to learn new things have very limited computer and technological fluency.

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?

Definitely. Networking is the gold standard, but the ability to marshal access is challenging. To belong to something of the larger networks is expensive, and we can’t afford that. People are willing to contribute to things that are useful, but any network is going to seem like any old network until it doesn't. It’s hard to convince people to shell out money for something that doesn't have an obvious great utility. What I would hope for is some table of expertise of science and monitoring with low cost effective techniques, subsidised lab work - things like that.

What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold? If not, why not?

Emphasize what the network doesn't or cannot currently do and how the network makes these decisions. It just as important to emphasize what cannot be done as what can be done. Also, a lot of scientists don’t have easiest manner of interacting with folks. It would take a unique kind of field organizer to turn science into a how-to that’s not alienating, so for larger organizations or professional societies, implicit bias and anti-white supremacy training might go a long way. Even with strong cultural cleavage between those serving and those being served, honest recognition of shared values steeped in the history of the organizing terrain can ease tensions within power dynamics enough to move forward with challenging work. Expressing where one is coming from is a constant requirement that only gets easier with practice.

--End of interview--


Thanks Ramsey! We're so excited to loop in with you here shortly on projects in Africatown! Anyone interested in following? We'll be using the tags MEJAC and Africatown. Stay tuned for the next interview in the series, I'll post it next week.

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Exploring New Stormwater Monitoring Methods

by stevie | about 1 month ago | 0 | 3

Here in New Orleans, we've been involved in the larger conversation with the Public Lab community about water quality monitoring. Over the past few years we've hosted builds, and discussions, we've explored water monitoring methods, and worked out in the field. One thing we started to notice was that the tools and monitoring methods themselves were in the driver's seat on a lot of these activities. We wanted to flip our attention, and refocus on the local issue to driving our exploration. So in March, we along with I See Change, Grounwork New Orleans and Water Works started a new workshop series and looked explicitly to our backyard, and to our own unique questions, to drive our exploration forward. We also want to thank New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, Ripple Effect, and Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans for their support of the workshop series.

Our local context

In New Orleans, we're constantly dealing with issues of street flooding. The infrastructure of the city is taxed with pumping out all the rain that falls on it. Otherwise, it stays standing in our streets. Read more about our previous water workshops in New Orleans and about the stormwater issue here

In this series we started by picking locations of stormwater interest and thinking specifically about those locations. Within three blocks of our workshop location, we found three site of diverse stormwater interest. The first site was Groundwork's Earth Lab which includes a bioswale and groundwater storage tank that captures stormwater off of nearby warehouse sized roofs. The second site was a street that has an incoming green development project with proposed construction beginning in September to deal specifically with stormwater issues. The third site was a flooding hot-spot just outside an elementary school.

The Stormwater Series

The series we ran included six events in total, with a month of monitoring in the middle. Below is a summary of each workshop with links to larger writeups about them.

The first workshop: An Introduction to Stormwater

In the first event we got together with the goals of both learning about stormwater, and identifying the questions we wanted to to carry through the series. We spent time discussing what we know about stormwater on a personal level, and we heard from our friends at the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board about the stormwater system in the city.

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After some learning, we went outside and did a visual survey of each of the sites.

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For a final activity, we went back inside with all the knowledge we acquired and the site surveys in mind, and we brainstormed all the different questions we had about stormwater at the sites. Through a process of culling out what we deemed as the most important and the most achievable scientific questions, (we used this post to help us with this activity), we decide on the research questions we wanted to take forward. Those were:

  • How long does water stay standing in an area?
  • How much rain does it take to flood?

This was closely followed by: How can we tell what contaminants are in the stormwater?

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The second workshop: Community Mapping

Tried and true, our second workshop was about capturing the bigger picture of what was going on on the ground at our project sites. We used the Public Lab balloon and poles mapping techniques for this, as well as ground photos to gather a better understanding of our project sites.

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The third workshop: Designing a Stormwater Study

In workshop three, we annotated our maps from the second workshop with information and photos from around our sites. This helped us ground our knowledge of the sites. We then broke into groups and brainstormed all the resources, tools, and activities we could think of to help us answer our two research questions for each site. Those were "How long does water stay standing in an area?" and "How much rain does it take to flood?"

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We checked out methods people had used on Public Lab, and compiled all of our ideas for how to answer our questions on one big sheet of paper. Then we talked about the list together and picked the best and simplest combination that would help us get to the bottom of our research questions for each site. With our ideas in place, we pulled out what we would need to do, and how we wanted to do it so that in our next workshop, we had the resources and ability to set up our study.

The fourth workshop: Implementing a Stormwater Study

One of the things that came out of the last workshop was our interest in using different resource to see how we could best get to the bottom of our questions rather than picking one method for all three sites. We had gauge boards, rain gauges, and trail cameras to learn about and put up. We had site surveys to create, a photo repositories to build out and I See Change accounts to make! This workshop was all about getting us ready to start monitoring.

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The fifth workshop: A dry run on monitoring and our month of data

The fifth workshop was actually added on last minute. We realized that because we were interested in different methods for monitoring the sites, we needed to be on the same page about how to get this done. In this workshop, we did a dry run of data collection, and over the course of the three weeks to follow, that's what we did every week day.

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The sixth workshop: Lessons Learned and Next Steps

In this last workshop, we celebrated with a Pizza Party. There was so much we had learned about monitoring, our questions, the sites, and about how to walk through this process from beginning to end. Going through all the data we had gathered, we spent time talking about what worked, and what was hard. Reflecting on the original research questions, it really felt like methods we developed help us answer the questions we asked different ways. With some tweaks, and some new ideas we have a few methods for monitoring stormwater built out. Finally, we explored new ideas and next steps. We'd be excited to continue on any of them given the opportunity.

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This workshop series was great. It embodied our local issues and questions, utilized the resources of the broader Public Lab community and beyond, and emphasised exploration, learning, and sharing. I was so encouraged by everything we pulled together, everything we were able to test out, and all the people who came to the table.

Now, thanks to the work of everyone on this series, we have a wealth of knowledge to add about methods for monitoring stormwater. In true Public Lab form, our challenge back out to you is two fold. First, engage in our work: check out our activities and research notes, give us feedback and post questions for us to move forward with. Second, help us all learn more about what monitoring and exploration looks like in your backyard. We'd like to explore your new methods and ideas too.

Partners in this project include:

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Support for this series comes from Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans and Ripple Effect

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Stories of balloon and kite mapping in education

by warren | about 1 month ago | 0 | 1

As part of our series on all the amazing work that's been done with kite and balloon mapping over the years -- work that's led to our new Mini Balloon and Kite kits, today we'd like to highlight a number of educational projects from our community and partners over the years.

Pictured above: Launching a Mini Kite Kit at Parts & Crafts' Girls Invention Week

Parts & Crafts

To start with, this morning we ran an activity with Parts & Crafts in Somerville, Massachusetts, who have been a great partner over the years. Parts & Crafts is a makerspace for kids and their friends, and an alternative school program and DIY-centric camp. They've done a lot of Public Lab projects since the very start, and this week was Girls Invention Week -- so we took the Mini Kite Kite out for a spin with some amazing girl inventors!

We've kite-mapped with Parts & Crafts before, too -- read more about their work at:

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Pictured: balloons on Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, NY -- image CC-BY-SA Nicholas Johnson

Public Mapping Mission - Newtown Creek

The Public Mapping Mission was a combination online/offline course and a collaboration between Public Lab, GovLab Academy, the Center for Urban Science and Progress and the MIT Media Lab. The second part of the course was a public event in which participants mapped Newtown Creek on December 7th. This is their story...

After a rainy and cold Friday night, the forecast for Saturday afternoon was looking much better. High of 41ºF with 10-15mph winds from the west, and indeed it was a clear, cold and windy day. Our group of dedicated mappers met at Newtown Creek at the Plank Road site in the afternoon. We were carrying two kites, two Public Lab balloon kits, an 80cf tank of helium and other miscellaneous supplies.

Shortly after our arrival on foot, an armada of canoes from the North Brooklyn Boating Club arrived, reinforcing our efforts and providing naval support...

Read more about their work at:

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Students building Soda Bottle Rigs for their cameras - photo CC-BY-SA Meghan Jain

A Balloon Mapping Curriculum in Chicago

In 2014, Meghan Jain spent about a month creating a Balloon Mapping Curriculum, which you can download from her post:

She and Benjamin Sugar worked at Civic Lab in Chicago with 12-15 students to build rigs and fly cameras using the Balloon Mapping Kit. The curriculum notes that:

When members of a community are faced with a problem, generally they need evidence. Most people rely on labs to produce these studies. Through using balloons and kites to produces areal image data, citizens can increase the amount of power they have. Using a balloon is inexpensive and accessible, which helps members of the community engage in their civic communities. The more they know, they more they can do.

Read more about their work at:

Send us your stories!

We're looking for more stories -- and great images -- to highlight, so please tweet out a picture and tell your story -- and mention @PublicLab!

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Challenges, questions and problem-solving together: choosing cameras for Mini Balloon and Kite Kits

by warren | about 1 month ago | 0 | 0

Thanks for a terrific first week of our Kickstarter! 47% in our first seven days is awesome -- thanks for your support.

We often talk about how Public Lab is dedicated to collaborative work, and we've mentioned that the new Mini Balloon and Kite Kits are "prototyping kits" -- but we want to get the ball rolling on what exactly we're hoping to collaboratively prototype.

So we'll be announcing "challenges" or "unknowns" that we're inviting folks to chip in their thoughts on -- and if you're already a mapper, to try out yourself.

We'd also love it if people would post their questions, ideas, and challenges, so we can collect them and help get this collaboration going. That's how Public Lab works -- and I wanted to mention that we've been doing this in person as well; at the Appalachia Barnraising (read more about these Public Lab events here) this past weekend, we spent a morning testing out these new kits in Morgantown, West Virginia (lead image).

Online, we've already begun collecting basic information about the kits at these pages on the Public Lab site:

Each has a "Questions" area where you can post your questions, and we've started things off with a few already.

First challenge: choosing cameras!

For today, we want to break the ice with a discussion of weight -- these balloons can lift over 60 grams each, which means that on a perfectly calm day, you can lift one of these GoPro alternatives. But what are the best options?

Have you tried these cameras out? Know of something cheaper, lighter, or better resolution? Of course we've done some preliminary testing, but we're also on the lookout for more lightweight cameras. Tell us what you know!image description

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Balloon and Kite Mapping Stories, Part 1

by warren | about 1 month ago | 0 | 1

This is a series on #balloon-mapping, as part of our month-long Kickstarter campaign to launch Mini Balloon and Kite Kits:

Wow, we'd first like to thank everyone for our first 2 days -- it's very exciting to be at 33% of our goal so early in the campaign! Special thanks to everyone who's helped with outreach -- as a community project, we depend on your help.

Many people have posted #balloonselfies, which is a fun way to show support, as well as a great way to help spread the word about the amazing work our community has done with balloons and kites over the past 7 years.

In that vein, we're going to be highlighting the stories and work of dozens of people using Public Lab tools around the world as the campaign progresses.

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Flood Mapping in Jakarta

Jakarta is flooding and it happens every year.

Willie Shubert (@Willie) works with a network of environmental journalists and they make maps:

We sourced flooding data from local disaster response agency. The flood looks like this.

So we knew where to go and headed out with a kite and a gopro hero 3 to try and make a map. We ended up with some cool pictures.

Read more at:

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All the Shingle Ladies

This group of students at the Thacher School in California used aerial mapping to look at roof conditions:

There's no place like home right? If that's the case, then it's important to make sure that our homes are working and functioning properly; which is why we wanted to use aerial mapping techniques to find out if there was something wrong with the rooftops of the dorms at the Thacher School. After living at Thacher for three years, we are all aware of general information regarding each dorm, and we have lived in three out of the six dorms. Before starting this experiment, we suspected that the older dorms were potentially more vulnerable to water leakage and/or other complications.

Read more about Clare, Helena, Pria and Zoe's AP environmental science project here:

Community stormwater research

This group in New Orleans (also lead image, both by @stevie) made maps of areas affected by stormwater runoff, as part of an ongoing series of community workshops on stormwater. image description

The goal of this event was to both learn about mapping and also capture aerial and ground survey images of the study sites. We will use these in the next workshop where we'll be working on a study design for our questions. We started the event by revisiting the research questions from the first workshop. Those are:

1. How long does water stay standing in an area?

2. How much rain does it take to flood?

Read more about their work at:

Send us your stories!

We're looking for more stories -- and great images -- to highlight, so please tweet out a picture and tell your story -- and mention @PublicLab!

Read more »

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