stories from the Public Lab community
A version of this story by @stevie is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 15.
This year, many in the nation have turned an observant eye toward Africatown, a small community on the north side of Mobile, Alabama---first for excitement over the discovery of a sunken cargo ship that was thought to be the historic slave ship the Clotilda, and second for the publication of Zora Neale Hurston's national bestseller, Barracoon, which portrays a story of the people on that ship. But there are many other reasons to follow the happenings in Africatown.
Many of the modern residents of Africatown are descendants of those brought to America on the Clotilda. American businessmen tried to smuggle in enslaved Africans, even though the transatlantic slave trade had already been abolished for decades in the United States. The end of the Civil War effectively freed those who had just arrived on the Clotilda, and many of those people settled on the delta shores just north of Mobile, Alabama, developing a self-sustaining and self-governing community that continues on today. The roots of community realization run deep, in spite of the many trials residents face, including institutionalized marginalization and exploitation.
For those versed in environmental history, it's not hard to imagine what came next. In the years following the founding of Africatown, it became an industrial backstop for Mobile. The area had its first industrial development with paper mills. Then in 1928, a paper plant owned by International Paper opened an operation that poisoned the air, land, and water for many years. While this plant is now closed, there are others that followed suit, setting up shop in Africatown, and draining the community of the healthy natural resources on which it depends.
In 2016, the community developed a neighborhood plan with the City of Mobile that outlines their vision for the community. Ramsey Sprague, president of the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition, highlights this document as the driver for future development in the Africatown community.
"When we started looking at that neighborhood plan, it was clear that residents didn't want any further industrialization of the land surrounding the community," says Ramsey. "Many people wanted access to the water. There were already several places where people fish and launch boats. People were already using the water, but they don't have the infrastructure there to support much of this type of access."
The Mobile County Training School Alumni Association took this as a cue, and applied for technical assistance from the National Park Service. Together, they decided that a water-based trail would not only highlight some of the interest points along historic Africatown, but also connect the community to the isolated Africatown USA State Park in Prichard.
"We wanted more green space, and fewer industrial real estate development activities happening along the waterfront," says Ramsey. "We wanted some type of process that would establish that the residents and surrounding neighborhoods utilize the water, and that they want more access, not less. The Blueway seemed to be a positive way forward to show decision makers that the community was serious about pushing back on the dead industrial real estate along the water, and that they wanted to see more activities that generated healthier outcomes."
Once the group received technical assistance, they started reaching out to potential project partners. With two years of work on the Blueway, project partners span all sides: from local nonprofits such as the Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) and Clean Healthy Educated Safe & Sustainable (CHESS), to the Alliance Institute, based out of New Orleans. There are foundation partners such as the Alabama Coastal Foundation, and larger organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy's GulfCorps program and the Mobile County NAACP. They have also brought in local government partners, such as the City of Prichard and County of Mobile. From a resilience building standpoint, this project stands on tall pillars through the support garnered by partners across many spectrums. Ramsey remarks, "It's an exhaustive list because we recognize we have so few resources. We don't want to neglect acknowledging any of the resources that have come to assist. Most organizations and individuals in this process have contributed no money, but they did contribute ideas, relationships, and networking, and those types of things go a long way."
Partners at Mississippi State University helped to design plans for a boat launch site at one of the interest points along the Blueway under the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge. It's access points like these that MEJAC sees as a clear way to protecting and highlighting how people use the water. Ramsey affirms, "Sometimes there's an idea that the best or highest use possible for a piece of land is an industrial use. We wanted to push back on that notion, and say there are other uses of this land, and the community wants those uses established and built upon."
Alongside the vision for a less industrialized waterway, the community is focused on other healthy outcomes highlighted in some of the fourteen interest points along the Blueway. "We're interested in learning as much as we can about the water that's surrounding us, and the soil, and the air," Ramsey shares. Part of the reasoning for the Blueway "is to highlight the area, so future research can further establish if there is peril over use of the waterfront, or danger in consumption of wildlife from water. It will help us begin that conversation in earnest. It's not an abstract thing. The community uses the waterfront and the water resources. They deserve to know, and they have a right to know, of dangers that lie in the water." These concerns are well founded in Africatown. Not only has the community faced massive industrialization, but industry have been notoriously bad actors there, to the point of litigation over chemical spills and cleanup.
Through all the trials and hard work, Ramsey shares, "I look forward to exploring more with people doing similar types of work, so we can learn best practices and get ideas." But it's easy to see that from community mappings and ceremonies celebrating the waterway, to the multitudes of partners engaged, and the two years of organizing, there's a lot to learn from the Africatown that has surfaced on the national radar this year. This work signals the future the Africatown community wishes to see, and they're building a Blueway for others to follow.
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A version of this story by Hilairie Schackai is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 15. Photos courtesy of Hilairie Schackai. She is pictured to the left in the photo above.
Twenty-five years ago I was preparing to be a farmer. Never did it occur to me that my career would one day turn to a crusade for rain barrels. But here I find myself in post-Katrina New Orleans offering build-it-yourself rain barrel workshops to promote a low-cost, low-tech green infrastructure approach to localized flooding and stormwater management.
The first step in this direction took place in 2011, when I came up with the idea for the Gentilly Rainwater Harvesting Program. While working with a group called the Pontilly Disaster Collaborative, we commissioned an engineering study that found that if 15 percent of households in the Gentilly area were each to capture 100 gallons of rainwater from a storm, this could potentially alleviate "downstream" flooding at the Dwyer Canal in Pontilly. This finding sparked a realization that we can all take small measures, such as installing rain barrels, that collectively have a large impact.
The idea of capturing rainwater to prevent flooding kind of turns the rain barrel on its head, so to speak. Most people think that captured rainwater is used mainly for watering gardens. But it can also be used to counter subsidence. By emptying the barrel after each rain event, rainwater is returned to the soil. Using rain barrels for flood control in this way offers a new view of the municipal drainage system, allowing people to take some ownership in how we manage rainwater.
With a goal to eventually deploy 5,000 barrels in Gentilly to capture rain from storms, I developed strategies for promoting rain barrels. These included giveaways, presentations at neighborhood meetings, distribution events at strategic locations, demonstrations at area festivals and events, and group painting activities to decorate barrels. But the finest strategy of all was the backyard workshops---hosted by residents in the target area who would invite their neighbors. Building rain barrels together is surprisingly fun, even at the height of summer, as neighbors of all generations come together, swap stories, and occasionally exchange a few homegrown vegetables.
In 2014, I joined with Water Wise NOLA, an umbrella organization comprised of Global Green, landscape architect Dana Brown, and myself. Specializing in green infrastructure, Water Wise is an education and outreach organization offering a variety of workshops and demonstration projects, as well as a program nurturing residents to take on leadership roles in their neighborhoods. Water Wise is currently focused on the Tremé and 7th Ward neighborhoods, with around 30 rain barrels installed there. We are also involved in other types of green infrastructure interventions, including rain gardens, bioswales, concrete removal, tree plantings, and more.
Enter Recharge NOLA, a community benefit L3C social enterprise, named in part for the practice of returning rainwater to the ground to counter subsidence. Originally conceived in 2014 and ramping up in 2018, my Recharge model intensifies promotion of neighborhood-based solutions. While continuing to offer rain barrel workshops and demonstrations, Recharge will officially partner with neighborhood groups with the intention of increasing their capacity to proliferate the program. Essentially these partner groups---associated with targeted-area schools, churches, or nonprofits---will be operating Recharge Satellite Stations, where workshops can be offered, rain barrels can be purchased, and installations and routine maintenance can be scheduled for interested area residents. Opportunities for workforce training as well as entrepreneurial activities are available for those involved. All funds raised will be reinvested in the program and shared with the satellite locations.
I am currently rigging a trailer, a Recharge Mobile Unit, to be used in materials delivery and, more importantly, as a pop-up educational display for school events and neighborhood festivals. A Tulane University graduate student (working through the Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design) and I will be designing the interactive and illustrative components.
As I have come to believe, the humble-but-mighty rain barrel is not just a gateway into green infrastructure and stormwater management. It is much more, as rain barrel programs provide a strong platform for social action and community engagement. For isn't it all about is building stronger communities through shared experiences with a common goal? The power of collective action for positive social change can be a beautiful thing.
You can read Hilairie's 2015 manual, A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Simple Rainwater Harvesting: New Orleans, at bit.ly/NOLARAIN. You can follow Recharge on social media via Facebook at FB.me/rechargenola and learn more about Recharge with Water Wise at waterwisegulfsouth.org.
At one time an avid gardener, Hilairie Schackai majored in plant science in college and has worked on several farms. In 2010, she was awarded an Audubon Society TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellowship, which allowed her to launch her first (and New Orleans' first) rain barrel program. In 2017, Schackai received a Mayor's Community Excellence Award for her contributions to Welcome Table New Orleans, an initiative of Mayor Mitch Landrieu on race, equity, and community building.__
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Public Lab is an open community supported by a 501(c)3 nonprofit - the work, resources, and space within Public Lab are available for anyone to use and to collaborate on. This space is protected by the Code of Conduct, and supported by all those who engage here.
Beyond the online resources, the community supported by the Public Lab nonprofit is also working to take on some of the world’s most significant local and global challenges, including industrial pollution and climate change. These challenges will not be faced or solved by individuals or institutions alone. They require the collective power of those who work in these spaces, those who are most affected by these issues, and those who have yet to arrive to these efforts. We are inextricably connected, and strive to move forward as a unified and supportive front.
To this end, over the past few months, the nonprofit staff been reading and thinking about the nature of healthy organizational partnerships. Modeling off the work of our peers, reflecting on good and hard lessons, this practice has brought us to a partnership statement we’re developing and working to solidify.
In sharing our draft “Public Lab Nonprofit Partnership Statement” we invite feedback, ideas, and resources to strengthen the practices detailed within. As we recognize formal collaborative efforts as a major part of this work, we urge you to share and build on this process with Public Lab by commenting on this post, or joining one of our open calls. We look forward to sharing these conversations.
At the Public Lab nonprofit, we see partnership as a process by which we work to build alliances, strengthen mutual capacites, develop opportunities, and work in healthy relationships with other groups and institutions.
In our partnerships, we value mutual trust, respect, and transparency.
Through partnerships we seek to:
We recognize healthy partnerships have:
In partnerships, we commit ourselves, and call on our partners to:
The Public Lab nonprofit reserves the right to withdraw from relationships that violate our code of conduct, go against our values, are tangential to our mission, or do not adhere to the above statements.
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Public Lab is excited to work with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Gulf Research Program to build the scientific capacity of the next generation. As one of nine projects selected, Public Lab will be working alongside other inspiring organizations to provide a variety of innovative learning opportunities for children and youth in coastal states including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, and Texas on a broad range of topics pertaining to community resilience and environmental health.
From the press release: "U.S. Gulf Coast communities face a convergence of environmental concerns with distinct social, cultural, economic, political, and regulatory factors that create complex situations many of these communities find themselves challenged to address. For this reason, the Gulf region is both a fitting and important place to foster youth to become civically-minded, scientifically literate members of society engaged in building more resilient communities."
The challenges facing the Gulf Coast will be inherited by youth of today and tomorrow. Inspiring environmentally impassioned youth is essential. In order to do so, we must build and harness students' ability to think about and address environmental stressors.
Our project engages youth in hands-on science learning and practice relevant to their lived experiences, with a community citizen science learning model that positions young people as knowledge producers rather than knowledge consumers. With teacher support, 12- to 18-year-old youth "will lead research projects through all research stages on local environmental topics they have identified as important. Materials developed and refined through the pilot effort will be made available for use by other educators throughout the region."
We've already seen how community citizen science programming can both educate and engage youth to identify environmental concerns, articulate complexities, develop research questions, and implement authentic and multi-faceted approaches engaging such challenges. We are excited by this, and the opportunity to work with educators and the Gulf Research Program to build out programming, and a community of practitioners ready to engage the students of today, and leaders of tomorrow.
To learn more or get involved, please visit https://publiclab.org/wiki/education.
"The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln."
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Go out into the wetlands. Find a quiet, secluded area. Be very quiet. Be still. After about a minute of silence, you'll start to hear birds. You'll hear the wind in the trees. You'll hear the water trickling. You'll see nature coming back to life.
This is how Howard Page helped share nature with a group of youths from the Forest Heights Boys and Girls Club in North Gulfport, Mississippi. "The kids really were amazed. It was remarkable that it could be one of the first times where some of these kids took the time to be truly quiet---an observer in nature, and not just stumbling through it," he says.
The children meet up after school at a center that backs up to the Turkey Creek Watershed, a popular waterway for canoeing and fishing, where Howard helped organize a series of workshops with students ages 10-15. "The idea was to have a series of experiences where the kids, in a very hands-on fashion, learned about the wetlands, but also learned about ways to do science, to do research, to document things, record, and report things," he shares. "We wanted to take them into their backyards, the wetlands, and give them fun, interesting ways to embrace and own the wetlands."
A Gulfport native, Howard grew up hunting and fishing in the area, with a love of the local coastal wetlands. Now as a community organizer with the North Gulfport Community Land Trust and Sierra Club, he's working with partners like Public Lab and the Gulf Restoration Network to teach kids to explore the wetlands through activities like balloon mapping, water testing, trekking, and photography.
"Everything was designed to be aspirational," says Howard. "I wanted the kids to not just learn science and how to fly balloons, but teach them that they can be educators too---and teaching them the jobs they can get by learning biology and chemistry. And that when they read these books about nature, they can write the books and take the photographs. We didn't want them to just meet professionals but wanted to make sure they knew they could become those professionals, and teach them what it would take to do that."
As a preservationist, taking science out of the classroom and into the field is important to Howard. "As a young person grows up in this community and gains an understanding of the wetlands, the goal is that in a few years, they'll be great voices for protecting them," he says. And the area can use all the advocates it can get. Development in Gulfport has led to a loss of wetlands, meaning a loss of vital flood protection. Stormwater control often fails to work properly, resulting in sewer and septic systems spilling untreated waste into the streets. "If there's untreated water rising up around your house, it may be out there where kids are walking and playing." He adds, "And aside from the obvious health related issues, there are psychological effects of constantly wondering 'Is my house going to flood and am I safe?'"
Howard has been closely involved with recent success with community efforts to protect local wetlands. "Because of community engagement, we've been able to identify areas where sewer systems leak into the wetlands, leading to better management practices," he shares. "One day, we hope to get these areas into conservation."
For now, Howard is helping to create a new generation of conservationists. "I asked the kids to go home and research what things live in the wetlands," he retells. "They came back the next week with answers. We talked about birds and snakes and cypress trees. And even moose! But there's one thing you're forgetting, I told them. You are one of the creatures that live in the wetlands. They really got a kick out of that."
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Have you heard of the Coquí? They are sonorous frogs from Puerto Rico, and the subject of an awesome Menudo video from the 1980s.
The Coquí is a Puerto Rican frog that makes a "CO" and then a "KEE" sound at night
The Coquí frogs (and sort of the Menudo video) were our inspiration for naming the Public Lab Coquí, an easy, do-it-yourself circuit that makes a buzz-buzzing sound when you dip it in water.
Illustration by Akshaya Sawant
The Coquí circuit measures conductivity, a key water quality parameter. Conductivity is a measure of how "conductive" water is of electricity. If water is very pure H2O then the conductivity will be low because electricity doesn't pass well through water. But if there is a lot of stuff other than water in the water -- like mud, chlorine, or salt -- then water conductivity will be higher. High conductivity is not always a "bad" thing -- lots of rivers carry organic material, for example. And likewise, low conductivity doesn't always correlate to good water quality. Water with a ton of sugar in it would show up as low conductivity because sugar also doesn't conduct electricity very well. That said, water conductivity is a generally interesting indicator for how much "not water" is in your water and can help you ask questions about what that "not water" might be.
The Coquí was developed by Don Blair and Jeff Warren along with the Open Water Project based at the Public Lab. It's designed to be used in educational settings, and it doesn't measure precise values for water conductivity. Rather, it outputs a conductivity measure as a sound. You dip the Coquí's probe into water and it makes a high-pitched sound for higher conductivity and a low-pitched sound for lower conductivity.
Video from Chelsea Tremblay's sensor journalism research note
So while it's not a tool for collecting precise scientific measurements (if you want that you might want to check out the Riffle or some of the data loggers available from KAPtery), the Coquí is a great tool for introducing newcomers to building circuits, water conductivity, and civic science. Here are the benefits:
I teach data journalism and I have used the Coquí with my undergraduate journalism students to collect water samples from the community, test their conductivity, and then reflect on the role of journalists in regards to "sensors". Below is a map the students made of water conductivity in the Greater Boston area.
Water conductivity map made from samples the students collected around the Boston area
After running this module several times, I worked with graduate student Akshaya Sawant to create a free, illustrated guide to running a sensor journalism workshop. You can use this to help you get started using the Coquí inside or outside the classroom.
The Sensor Journalism Guide for Educators uses the Coquí to walk journalists and storytellers through an exercise in sensor journalism.
The Coquí kit is available from the public lab store. If you use it in the classroom or workshops, we want to hear about it! Post your research notes or ask a question and use the tags "Coquí" and "water-quality".
Catherine D'Ignazio is an organizer with Public Lab and an assistant professor of Civic Media and Data Visualization in the Journalism Department at Emerson College. Learn more about her work at www.kanarinka.com.
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