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Wrapping up Google Summer of Code 2017 at Public Lab

by warren | 3 months 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 | 3 months 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 | 3 months 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!)

IMG_1772.JPG

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!).

datalogger_assembly.png

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.

IMG_1779.JPG

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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Interview: Karen Savage

by stevie | 3 months 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.

**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: Ramsey Sprague

by stevie | 3 months ago | 0 | 1

The lead image is of Ramsey and taken by Weenta Girmay and was from a publication Medium by 350.org called "@350/from-the-bayou-to-the-bay-voices-from-the-gulf-f6707c7ecff3">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 meantime, 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--


Notes:

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.

**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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Exploring New Stormwater Monitoring Methods

by stevie | 4 months ago | 0 | 4

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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Reflections

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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