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EJ Leading the Way

Why communities must initiate environmental research

By Ayanna King

African Americans living in the eastern corridor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have long been concerned about environmental health and justice issues such as transportation, pollution and health problems like asthma. In 2002 and 2003, the Pittsburgh  Transportation Equity Project (PTEP), a community-based  Initiative that seeks to empower African Americans, decided to conduct an air monitoring study near a local public school, Reizenstein Middle School, located a block away from the Port Authority bus garage. To determine local air quality, particularly the concentration of particulate matter, in the community, we sought the help of three groups: East End Neighborhood Forum, Group Against Smog and Air Pollution (GASP), and Chatham College toxicology students. GASP, a nonprofit citizen's group, trained the Chatham students to monitor the air in different sites on different days. The students also collected research on asthma and diesel particulate emissions.

At the end of the study, Chatham students produced a report stating that on the days the air was monitored, particulate matter measured significantly higher than the federal standard for particulates. To amplify these findings, PTEP, along with a Chatham student, conducted a diesel survey to determine factors such as the asthma prevalence among children in the community and their proximity to dieselemitting buses. To date, we've collected about 280 surveys from residents and found that of the 68 percent who filled in the information regarding children, 35 percent had children with asthma or other respiratory illness. We also learned that residents were not familiar with the impacts of diesel. To educate the community, we created a user-friendly diesel fact sheet ( and have planned to host five community forums in different neighborhoods to get feedback on how to proceed.

PTEP does not only do research for evidence of environmental impacts; we also use it to build better relationships in the community and help residents understand how to get resources. Research results have been helpful in introducing issues—such as civic engagement, economic issues and bus ridership—and building coalitions. Data is also beneficial in talking to legislators so that they can have a better understanding of the problems facing their constituencies.

It's essential for the environmental justice community to build our research capacity and lead in using science to protect communities. Where low income and people of color are being treated unfairly and not represented in decision-making about transportation, health care, education or land use, we have to make certain that our evidence of disproportionate impact is rigorous, statistical and able to capture cumulative factors as well as historical context. Armed with these facts, we can more powerfully demonstrate the need to protect low-income groups who have historically been used as dumping grounds.

If we don’t lead in doing our own research, industry and government entities will continue to control science and how it is interpreted and used. Today, the foundation of environmental justice is being attacked from every angle, so we must become
more strategic in terms of research in order to avoid losing further ground in the struggle for equity and justice.

Ayanna King is chief executive officer and president of Ayanna’s Consulting & Concepts, which provides clients with expertise on community development, strategic plans, and nonprofit/corporate management. She was founder and executive director of the Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project for three years.
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