URBAANE: An urban environmental conference for communities of color

This post contributed by Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, University of Illinois-Chicago, NSF-IGERT LEAP Fellow and 2011 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner.

As an active member of the Ecological Society of America and its Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program and environmental justice (EJ) section, I understand and support the Society’s vested interest in accomplishing meaningful broader impacts. As a member of the steering committee of “Urban Resolutions for Bridging African Americans to Natural Environments” (URBAANE) 2011, I am pleased to have connected the philosophies of the EJ section of ESA to the scope of the overall conference. I share with the ESA community a powerful grassroots conference that surely will resonate within the Society. It represents the potential for us as scientists to connect with communities of color in a way that advances the Society’s goals, as well as moves forward resolutions that are beneficial to diverse audiences.

On Saturday June 4, 2011, professionals, students and community members gathered in a historic meeting of the minds to discuss resolutions to urban environmental issues in the Chicago metro area. Chicago State University, together with Fuller Park Community Development and a host of generous sponsors, put together a stellar event titled “Urban Resolutions for Bridging African Americans to Natural Environments” (URBAANE). The conference theme was “Connecting the Lots: Minorities and Urban Land Issues.” Speakers and presenters discussed their work as it related to land issues, including the uses of vacant lots, the spatial distribution of natural resources or the quality of spaces for various greenspace uses.

URBAANE 2011’s mission was to develop a conference that discussed perspectives, research and solutions related to environmental justice, environmental education, green jobs, green development/industry and urban agriculture. Designed as a community conference, attendees varied in age, education levels and professions. The goal was to engage a diverse audience, foster networking between community groups and academia as well as student populations and government agencies. The findings and action plans resulting from URBAANE 2011 will contribute to establishing an agenda for African Americans and people of color on urban socio-ecological issues in the Chicago metro area. As exciting as it was to plan the conference, it was a true delight for me that one hundred percent of URBAANE speakers and panelists were people of color. All too often the voices of communities of color are whispers in environmental conversations amongst the booming voices of those in the scientific community.  Held in the New Academic Library on the campus of Chicago State University, the venue could not have been more ideal. Along with its strong environmental program—including biological sciences, geography and chemistry—the campus houses an award-winning prairie garden, an aquaponics facility that raises tilapia and a community garden. Attendees had the opportunity to tour the campus to see how Chicago State is making a positive contribution to the community. The university is located on the south side of Chicago and has a diverse population of students of color.

Michael Howard, CEO of Fuller Park Community Development and lead organizer of the conference, welcomed participants with enthusiasm and shared the vision and purpose of URBAANE; however, he also discussed the reality of why communities of color within Chicago and other segregated cities must bridge multiple divides to economically and environmentally revitalize our communities. Following the impassioned welcome, keynote speaker Ken Page, Environmental Justice Officer of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, spoke fervently about the responsibility of community members to protect themselves against environmental injustices but acknowledged the barriers to doing so.

“It’s organized dumping,” he said. “It isn’t by chance one morning you wake up and there are 200 tires in your community.”

It was apparent that the audience concurred with Page’s comments: The auditorium was full of attentiveness and energy. Listening to environmental justice issues at times is hurtful and discouraging. But, we were not gathered to vent. We gathered to celebrate, share our successes and next steps to revitalize, engage and advance our community’s economic, educational and ecological goals. As the opening plenary came to a close, people enthusiastically adjourned for the day’s sessions, sure of, if anything, that the events to come would be a remarkable experience for all.

During the conference—which, according to Toni Anderson a speaker and director of Chicago’s Camp Butterfly, was “inspiring and right on time”—attendees were able to visit with numerous vendors including minority owned and operated green businesses as well as city and state officials. The conference culminated in the commemoration of the late Hazel Johnson, who has been spoken of as the mother of environmental justice. As the founder of People for Community Recovery, her work on the southeast side of Chicago in Altgeld Gardens was and still remains an instrumental grassroots organization. The Hazel Johnson Environmental Excellence Award was given to a long time environmental and community activist, Carolyn Thomas from God’s Gang. The award honors individuals or organizations that have exhibited excellence in providing resolutions, through legislation, research, community outreach or education, as related to communities of color.

Partners Chicago State and Fuller Park Community Development created an experience that surpassed expectations. With over 150 attendees through the course of the day, the overall message was received loud and clear. Communities of color do contribute to the discourse of urban ecological issues, and it is time that a bridging of social networks occurs between scientists, policy makers, government agencies and community organizations to accomplish future goals and resolve lingering problems.

Urban environmental and ecological issues are increasingly being highlighted as concerns for people of color and low-income communities. If we as members of ESA believe that our work can benefit diverse communities, it is in our best interest to engage and network in a meaningful way. Attending and or facilitating conferences such as URBAANE will allow our membership as well as other professional organizations to better connect with communities of color. Then we can determine the best ways in which our partnerships benefit the dissemination of ecological findings for real world applications.

Photo Credit: Terence Faircloth