Growing up in Los Angeles exposed me to the most air pollution that I have ever experienced, and it was not until I moved to Minnesota that I realized that that should not have been the norm for me. I went from living a block away from a recycling facility, to living in a tree-lined street in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. I could see, hear, and smell differences. What work was being done in Minnesota that was different from my hometown?
When I began my internship with Environmental Initiative, I learned just how much was being done to tackle air quality in Minnesota. A great example of this is their partnership with Tribal governments. A partnership between state agencies and the Tribal government of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe helped install air monitoring systems that helped portray the air quality within these communities. This data was filling in crucial gaps in the air quality story in Minnesota. I recalled an important lesson I learned from my supervisor, Bill Droessler, very early on in my internship. He stated that, “Minnesota is in attainment but we’re not all breathing the same air.” This explained my experiences by Macalester College versus the experiences of those in factory-ridden neighborhoods in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Like in California, the issue of air pollution is disproportionately impacting low-income and communities of color, leaving so much work yet to be done.
With a better understanding of clean air work in Minnesota, I set off to learn about what was being done across the United States to help build capacity and agency for these communities to address air pollution in their area. After months of research, I was blown away by the numbers of grants, projects, research, and programs that were happening in the United States. So much was being done on a small-scale. It was through this research that I learned about two great research projects based out of Imperial County and Los Angeles, California.
Imperial County, Cal., home of a primarily Hispanic/Latino community, experienced increasing rates of asthma in their population tied to the lack of regulatory air monitors and unmet air quality standards. With National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences funding, 40 low-cost air monitors were developed and deployed across Imperial County. A comparison of their monitors versus government provided ones reinforced the efficiency and quality of the monitors they developed. What was unique about their approach was their three-tiered structure. Community members were in charge of deploying the monitors, collecting data, and recommending the sites where said monitors were being installed. This gave them complete control over the data that was representing what they were experiencing every day.
In Los Angeles, the University of Southern California partnered with three different environmental organizations: Communities for a Better Environment, South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, and Promoting Youth Advocacy/Asian and Pacific Island Forward Movement to create the “A Day in my Life” project. From these organizations, 18 youths were equipped with handheld AirBeam devices that helped them track their PM 2.5 exposure throughout their day. Each participant collected 8-10 hours of data a day that was later used to create a story map of their findings. A key component of this project was the level of skill building opportunities that participants had. They learned about air pollution in Los Angeles, how to use air monitoring equipment, and digital skills that helped them create the story map. Although USC processed their data, participants were ultimately the ones to analyze it and share their findings.
These two projects showcase strategies that make for strong community science efforts. Firstly, these projects put communities first. They gave them the agency to pick and choose how the data was being collected and analyzed. The data that was found merely backs up the stories and struggles that these communities have been voicing for a long time. Additionally, in this process, these projects offered compensation in the form of skill building. The outcomes of this work was not merely for the benefit of academic or government institutions. Community members learned valuable tools and knowledge relating to the air pollution problem they deal with on a daily basis.
Creating successful community-oriented efforts always starts in the same place: with the community.