Public Lab Research note


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Interview series with Grassroots Community Organizers

by stevie |

Lead image from taken during a mapping session at the Chicago Barnraising with @Olga and the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke. Image is of the Petcoke Piles that plagued the Calumet River and surrounding community.

Back in 2016, I had an oporutnity to interview @OLGA about her work community organizing in Chicago, and ask her about how that work relates to Public Lab. In this first interview we set the intention that: "if we're seeking Public Lab to become a space for people to collaborate on and publicize their environmental projects, on-the-ground people are the people we should be thinking of and creating both our in person and our online spaces for. I want to start learning more deliberately from some of these community organizers about what is working, what could be better, and how can we amplify the things that they want to be heard."

With this intention, between January and May this year, we did five more interviews of grassroots and environmental justice community organizers. We explored the work they do, the things they look for, the resources they find helpful, and how they seek to engage with others. It has been amazing, and thank you so much to those who have contributed your thoughts, ideas, and insights. I can't wait to explore how Public Lab can further work towards some of the important things that have been brought up.

@gilbert Rochon, Public Lab's Advocacy Manager, put together a report with some of the overarching takeaways from these conversations highlighted below. In the weeks to come, I'll be posting some of the longer form interviews to the blog. I look forward to hearing from people in comments and feedback here. Please don't hesitate to write in below, or draft a post your own ideas, your answers to the questions, or feedback your experiences.

About this interview series

Between January and May 2017, Public Lab staff conducted interviews of agency representatives from a geographically distributed sample of organizations dedicated to Environmental Justice. The purpose of such interviews was to ascertain both commonalities and uniqueness, with respect to optimal resources required for institutional advancement, external resources that have been most helpful, perceived benefits of networking, communication methods utilized and obstacles encountered, inter alia. In each of the five interviews summarized below, one Public Staff member served as the Interviewer and another served as Note-Taker.

Full Interviews:

The questions we asked:

  1. What kind of support do you look for your community organizing activities?
  2. 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?

  3. What were the strengths of these resources?

  4. What do you think these resources could have done for you, but didn't?

  5. When you, or your group, is learning something new, what is the best way for you to receive information?

  6. What is your preferred method of sharing information?

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

  8. 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?

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

  10. Who would be important people for you to be able to engage with?
  11. What would be important values or practices for the networking space to hold? If not, why not?

What we found

Major common themes include the need for

  • More fiscal resources to support operations and program initiatives
  • Further engagement of scientists and researchers with expertise to support community priorities
  • Organizational assistance that is "willing to listen," "respects community leadership," has appropriate "bedside manner," and able to "meet face-to-face" with the communities.

Other Takeaways:

Outside of the interest in more funding, interviewees also responded that they were looking for more equitable relationships with bigger environmental groups, with scientific and academic expertise, as well as access to monitoring resources. They commented that resources that have been helpful to them in their work include relationships with scientists and academic institutions, having access to regularly published and easy to understand data and larger network connections that build their capacity.

Interviewees also spoke on ways in which they found it easiest to share and learn within their networks. Overall, people preferred to have in-person learning opportunities and to be walked through processes step by step or with presentations. Interviewees mentioned challenges they had included technology barriers within their groups and were struggling to digest heavily academic or scientific texts. When it came to sharing out information in their networks, interviewees prefer to use social media, door to door contact and conference calls when necessary.

Finally we shared conversations about environmental collaboration networks. All interviewees found environmental networks to be a useful, at least in their conceptual framework of what an example of a good network would be. In their ideal network, interviewees mentioned they would want to see and have access to lawyers, scientists, community leaders, those who share their same struggles, and people from a broad array of expertise. The things they would be most interested in doing in a network include increasing their ability to collaborate, finding connections and having access to resources such as lab analysis. Finally, in referencing this collaborative work space, we asked about the values that would be important for a network to uphold or maintain. Almost all interviewees mentioned respect, and some referenced specific things such as having a good facilitator, participants upholding patience for each other and tolerance.

Looking forward:

We're looking forward to continuing these conversations and hope to hear from you about your experiences. Copy and past the interview question in a research note, or just follow along on the tag "blog" or "community-organizing" to read the interviews as they're posted.



interview chicago environmental-justice community-organizing interview-series


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