Faculty members create Environmental Health Research to Action initiative
Through this UM-Dearborn-led program, partners from across the state show local youth how to collect and present research when advocating for cleaner air, healthier communities.
Karima Alwishah sees billowing smokestacks when she looks past the trees in her Dearborn neighborhood. As a youth, she didn't notice them while she waited at the bus stop.
But today, through her public health courses, Alwishah has learned about the industrial pollution that exists blocks from her middle school. And, more importantly, she’s learned that she has the power to create change.
“On an environmental health tour for one of my public health classes, I noticed that we were near Salina Intermediate. At first I thought, ‘Why are we here? This is where I live.’ Then we went by AK Steel and learned about dumping slag and the air pollution,” she said. “It’s not something I really paid attention to before. But now that I know, I want to help inform others.”
With UM-Dearborn faculty members Natalie Sampson and Carmel Price, Alwishah assisted in the creation of the Environmental Health Research to Action (EHRA), a summer academy to educate Dearborn youth about what is happening in their backyards and how to produce effective policy advocacy strategies.
And the response from the community showed the support behind the endeavor: The City of Dearborn, the Healthy Dearborn coalition and Dearborn Public Schools all promoted the program, which had 73 youth applicants.
The six-session program started with an environmental health and justice introduction through an educational bus tour to local industrial areas led by Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition Coordinator Michelle Martinez and Dearborn’s Sustainability Director David Norwood. Additional speakers in the following sessions included experts from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Clinic, Detroit’s Green Door Initiative and University of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s School of Public Health and Library’s Shapiro Design Lab.
“We worked to connect what the students learned as the sessions progressed,” said Sampson, public health assistant professor. “For example, in the second session, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center’s Nick Leonard explained MDEQ’s air monitoring and its limitations that can cause gaps in air pollution data. Then in the fourth session, Justin Schell, an expert in citizen science from the Shapiro Design Lab, talked about how we can use handheld air sensors that send data to our phones to understand patterns of air pollution. These tools cannot be calibrated with expensive and sophisticated MDEQ monitors, but you can use them to learn about local air pollution and advocate accordingly for increased monitoring in hotspots, for instance.”
Price and Sampson also showed the high school students how to find Dearborn-specific data and how to put that information in plain language so a larger population could more easily understand.
Price, sociology assistant professor, said the program allowed for 20 students, chosen through strong essays expressing interest in environmental justice and an emphasis was placed on equal distribution of Dearborn neighborhood representation. Because of the large number of applicants, they hope to have future EHRA academy sessions.
“We surveyed the participating students before and after the EHRA academy to assess their knowledge and how likely they were to participate in community environmental justice work. The results showed a large increase in knowledge and in advocacy activities,” Price said. “In addition to running this academy again, we also plan to follow up with these 20 participants in subsequent years to see if there’s a lasting effect.”
Alwishah said she may be disappointed at the lack of pollution regulation, but the youth enthusiasm and community support gives her hope for change. And she will continue to be an advocate for public health and education.
“I previously thought, ‘We are in the U.S. and the government is taking care of us and the environment.’ I just assumed that we are safe from things like this,” Alwishah said. “Now that I see that we are not, we need to become educated — and teach young people who have high energy and strong spirit — how to best advocate for our community’s health and safety. I am very proud of my neighborhood and will continue to work to help the people who live here."
The EHRA Steering Committee partners included members from ACCESS, American Moslem Society, Authority Health, City of Dearborn, Dearborn Public Schools, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Healthy Dearborn, University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the Yemen American Benevolent Association, as well as many community members at large. Future EHRA endeavors also include preparation of a local air quality report.