By Brandon Hunter, Ph.D. Candidate in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University

On October 19th and 20th, Ms. Catherine Flowers from Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) and members of the ACRE-Duke Bass Connections team traveled to Whitakers, NC for the 20thAnnual North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit. The Summit brought people together from across North Carolina and the greater southeast region to discuss the historical context for and the current state of Environmental Justice (EJ) efforts. The summit was organized and facilitated by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) who defines themselves as “a coalition of community organizations and their supporters who work with low income communities and people of color to promote health and environmental equity, clean industry, safe workplaces, and fair access to all human and natural resources…”. The goals of the summit were to share unifying strategies and tactics to induce change, learn about previous and current community-led research efforts, and engage with local, state, and regional representatives.

Community engagement was one of the larger running themes of the conference. A multi-part video was shown throughout the summit which featured pioneers in the environmental justice movement talking about their experiences and the importance of educating communities about their rights. Speakers emphasized that not only do community members have the right to attend public hearings, they also have the right to make comments, the right to know the status of environmental issues, and the right to access public records. Some community members spoke about the importance of education because many environmental justice communities do not even know that they are environmental justice communities, and for many that do, not everyone is aware of their individual and collective rights or that they have the power and authority to exercise those rights.

Many different universities, organizations, and communities conducted research on a diverse range of environmental justice issues and shared their findings and lessons. Presentation topics were generated from groups within and outside of North Carolina. There were presentations on tools like the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) EJSCREEN which helps identify and map EJ communities and combines environmental and demographic parameters into maps and analysis reports. Presentations also showcased how concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and air pollution can affect sleep and cause asthma-related symptoms. The North Carolina wood pellet industry’s disproportionate negative effects on communities of color were brought to light. Presentations after the social, economic, and environmental effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Florence were also discussed.

Summit presenters also encouraged participants to run for local office. Elected officials make important decisions about resource allocation and prioritization of community issues. Case examples were presented in which some elected city officials won with only 45 votes and others ran unopposed. They stressed that even if you don’t win an elected position, running for office is still important. By simply running, people are given a platform to discuss issues which are of importance to them and have a unique opportunity to elevate those issues to the forefront of the community in a way they could not have been otherwise.

The summit also included a community-wide event in which community EJ leaders and citizens from around NC and the greater United States were able to ask questions to administrative, legal, and political figures in the environmental arena. Some of the participating authorities were the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) (divisions of air quality and waste management), NC DEQ EJ and Title VI Coordinator, Town Planners, City Council members, Policy advisors, and the EPA’s Region 4 Office of Environmental Justice and Sustainability.

The community raised many kinds of human health and safety concerns and frustrations related to environmental issues including but not limited to: (i) state-level mapping of residential and commercial structure resiliency, (ii) equitable access to natural disaster shelters, (iii) development about the Eastern Carolina pipeline, (iv) Duke Energy’s involvement with the possible integration of the pipeline and concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) biogas, (v) coal ash waste disposal and conflicting sampling results in Goldsboro, (vi) EJ training for interdisciplinary training (including academic research institutions), and (vii) in the context of the hurricane evacuation of low-income housing, the fear of those units being rebuilt as unaffordable housing after the storm. It was a very interactive event where community members had the opportunity to share and demonstrate their personal accounts, concerns, frustrations, and passions with those who are in positions to affect positive change.

I currently serve as one of the graduate teaching assistants for the ACRE-Duke Bass Connections affiliated course where I help facilitate the learning of environmental justice and environmental racism related topics to our undergraduate students. I also help oversee the engineering aspects of our project and lead our laboratory research efforts. After the summit, I reflected on the nature of the relationship between academia and EJ community efforts. I think it is vital for researchers and the broader academic community to truly understand that we are not saviors in these spaces, but instead, we should be working with(really for) these affected communities. The role of academics and all other supporting parties should be to become and remain allies by using our privileged access to resources and our capacity to conduct credible research to expose and weaken the political, legal, economic, and racial structures of oppression. Though academia’s involvement with these efforts may result in published works, we should never fail to acknowledge all the efforts which have previously been made and pioneered by the EJ communities long before our involvement. I believe that we should not take credit for total advancement and should communicate clearly that we only serve as a marginal aid in their perpetual fights for justice. It is my hope that we all share this perspective as we engage with EJ communities. Attending the summit only reinforced my commitment to this type of work, whether within or outside the context of academia.

The 20thAnnual North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit proved to be an energizing space of congregation and community-building. There was a strong sense of unity and shared purpose as all conference attendees are collectively striving to do work to help improve the environmental and human health conditions of those who have been most marginalized. The Duke team came back to Durham eager and inspired to use the invaluable experience and lessons learned from the summit to engage in more efficient and effective work with ACRE through our partnership.

To learn more about the ACRE-Duke University Bass Connections project, please visithttps://bassconnections.duke.edu/project-teams/acre-duke-partnership-improve-sanitation-access-lowndes-county-alabama-2018-2019 for more information. Also, please visit www.ncejn.org for more information on environmental justice and environmental racism, previous efforts and current efforts being made, and how you can become involved in the collective fight for justice.

Photographs were taken by Walker Grimshaw and Brandon Hunter