Collaborating for Environmental Justice: A Report on an Educational Experiment

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 2 : May 2001  [Partnerships]

By Franklin A. Kalinowski and Godwin E. Mbamalu

No scientific or social analysis of environmental problems can any longer be considered complete unless it includes an inquiry into the issue of environmental justice. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as, “The fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”1Since demonstrations surrounding the siting of a toxic burial facility in the predominately Black community of Warren County, North Carolina brought environmental justice to national prominence in 1982, numerous studies, reports, and academic publications have emerged to define, interpret, and remediate concerns surrounding the distribution of environmental risks.2 On February 11, 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” This order requires that “[E]ach federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations ….”3

Two factors are essential to understanding the issue of environmental justice and establishing programs to mitigate the effects of environmental injustice. They are education and citizen participation. Environmental justice programs must effectively combine work both in the classroom and on the street. With regard to an academic understanding, however, environmental justice issues are often difficult to fit within the standard university setting with its strict disciplinary boundaries since environmental justice issues often entail combinations of chemical and biological analysis, economics, environmental policy and law, as well as philosophical concerns regarding equity, intent, and the meaning of “fairness.” As scholar and author Evan Ringquist has cogently expressed it, environmental justice presents the interface of empirical evidence and normative concerns.4 An effective classroom program on environmental justice would have to be broadly interdisciplinary in its methods and subject matter. With regard to correcting past acts of environmental injustice and protecting poor and minorities from future avoidable risks, public participation would have to come from both White and minority communities. The efforts would have to be multiracial, multicultural, and collaborative. In other words, education aimed at the issue of environmental justice needs to train students who are both intellectually sophisticated and socially concerned. The surest path to success would appear to be an interdisciplinary effort that would join the classroom and the street, urban and rural perspectives, as well as White and minority college students who would work together in both scientific research and public policy analysis.

This need for a joint, interdisciplinary effort is heightened by the lack of attention given to these issues in the past. For example, African-Americans have traditionally not been involved in environmental concerns that seem to deal more with wilderness preservation and endangered species than with problems that affect their immediate concerns. White college students, particularly those interested in outdoor education or resource conservation, often lack the urban perspective and historical context necessary to appreciate the problems of poverty, apathy, and a low sense of political efficacy facing minority Americans. It was with these concerns in mind that an effort was begun in 1997 to create and implement a joint program on “Environmental Justice and Environmental Policy” at Johnson C. Smith University and Warren Wilson College. What follows is a report on what we attempted, what we achieved, and the lessons that we learned.

A Collaborative Project

Johnson C. Smith University is an historically Black institution located within metropolitan Charlotte, North Carolina. The student enrollment is 2,300 with approximately 98% of that number being African-American. Warren Wilson College is a small (700 students), liberal-arts school situated in a rural setting 120 miles west of Charlotte near Asheville. Beyond some multiracial students from foreign countries, the overwhelming number of American students at Warren Wilson are Caucasian. Over the years, the two schools have instituted several initiatives aimed at coordinating projects, programs, and activities. The presidents of the two schools, for example, serve on each other’s board of trustees. Since Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) has an established reputation for training leaders of the African-American community, and since Warren Wilson College (WWC) in noted for its commitment to environmental issues, a collaborative effort between the two schools built around the issue of environmental justice seemed a worthwhile and promising endeavor.

In the fall of 1997, initial contacts were made with the goal of exploring the possibility for a joint project on environmental justice. At JCSU, the effort was headed by Dr. Godwin E. Mbamalu, the O’Herron distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who has an impressive record of creating innovative, independent, student-based projects. At Warren Wilson, the possibility attracted the attention of Dr. Franklin Kalinowski, who holds a joint appointment in the departments of Political Science and Environmental Studies. By March of 1998, the first joint project was under way. Fourteen undergraduates at Warren Wilson enrolled in a two-credit course, “Environmental Justice and Environmental Policy.” They studied the history of the environmental justice movement, relevant federal and local policies that affect problems such as toxic waste, noise, water quality, and land use; and explored the various interpretations that have been offered to account for the existence of environmental injustice. At Johnson C. Smith, students enroll in “Introduction to Environmental Studies” and a select number of advanced science majors undertook field research. The collaborative project was funded through the Washington-based Council of Independent Colleges, while the scientific research at JCSU was supported by the Program for Environmental Justice, Education, and Research (PEJER). PEJER is administered by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Activities that grew out of the class included student presentations to other classes on the topic of environmental justice, and student exchanges between the two schools where joint ventures such as campus clean-ups and work projects were performed. Small-group discussions and social gatherings on the topic of environmental justice were organized to build team spirit and reward students for their enthusiastic participation.

Research on Water Quality

The central research project in the Spring of 1998 involved testing water-quality inside homes in a minority neighborhood near Johnson C. Smith University. Mbamalu’s students selected forty-nine homes in three Charlotte neighborhoods. All of the private residences were owned by African-Americans. Throughout the Spring and early Summer, JCSU students first gained the trust of the residents (a task that sometimes proved formidable), and then acquired samples of the household water supply at various times during the day. These samples were returned to the chemistry laboratory at JCSU where these same students conducted a series of chemical tests to measure the amount of lead in the drinking supply. While the chemical data was being collected, further information surrounding the issues was obtained. In addition to their chemical findings, JCSU students put together a brief, accessible, but accurate pamphlet on the health risks involved with lead ingestion. The pamphlet, containing suggestions for minimizing the risks associated with lead contamination (e.g., flushing the tap water before drawing morning coffee or cooking water), was distributed to the neighborhood residents. Here was an excellent example of combining scientific research and social concern.

When the preliminary chemical results were tabulated, it was discovered that although most of the homes had lead concentrations below the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion, the concentrations were often high enough to cause concern. This was particularly true if one takes into consideration the long-term and cumulative effects of lead on the human body. Why did these African-American households have relatively high levels of lead in their water? In order to answer this question, JCSU students acquired data on the quality of water coming into the homes from the Charlotte municipal water system. This water was virtually lead free. The proper inference seems to be that the existence of lead in the water supply of these homes was a result of older construction that employed lead pipes and solder rather than any deliberate attempt to discriminate against minority citizens. Poverty, rather than racism, was the cause of the environmental risk these homeowners were experiencing.5

Back at Warren Wilson, students considered these findings and joined with their colleagues at JCSU in discussing possible remedies. The long-term solution, retrofitting the piping in these older homes, was not economically feasible. Remediation through public policy similarly held out little promise since the City of Charlotte was in full compliance with all local, state, and Federal water quality regulations. What was needed was a low-cost, private initiative that could make an immediate impact on the neighborhood residents and increase the communities’ awareness of the lead issue. The “Environmental Justice” class at Warren Wilson decided to use part of its Council of Independent Colleges funds, and with additional support from the Environmental Leadership Center at WWC, purchased several water filter systems that could be attached to the faucets in selected homes. These filters would correct the problem in some homes, highlight the issue of lead in the drinking water, and provide a model for the other citizens on how they could reduce the risk to their health. Under the direction of the JCSU students, the filters were installed, and the chemical monitoring of the forty-nine homes continues. Both groups of students ended the semester having learned valuable lessons on chemical analysis, environmental field research, the economic sources of health risks, and the need for community action to address local issues. More might possibly have been done (it would have been interesting to compare the lead in the homes of White residents of Charlotte with similar economic status), but both the JCSU and WWC participants judged the initial effort at “Environmental Justice and Environmental Policy” to be a success worth replicating.

The Fall of 1998 was spent evaluating the previous endeavors and preparing for the next joint project to be conducted in the Spring. Mbamalu and Kalinowski met on a regular basis. At JCSU, Mbamalu’s chemistry students continued their lead study. At WWC, Kalinowski reviewed the student evaluations from his spring class. The three most important recommendations that emerged from those student surveys were (1) the class should be made longer (WWC operates on both a term and a semester system), (2) more frequent contact and interaction between the two schools was necessary, and (3) the research at JCSU and WWC needed to be more closely coordinated. Action on the last of these goals was facilitated when Mbamalu and his chemistry majors significantly expanded the scope of their research. In addition to the lead in residential-water project, Johnson C. Smith students began targeting a number of surface water locations throughout Charlotte and Mecklenberg County. The design was to regularly test these streams, rivers, and ponds and record the levels of a range of pollutants including lead, chromium, nitrates, and chlorine. Dissolved oxygen and pH levels would also be recorded. The areas to be tested included parks in affluent neighborhoods and streams that flowed though lower-income minority communities. This offered a better opportunity to empirically test some of the environmental justice hypotheses regarding the relationship between race, income, and risk. It also provided a stronger link between the scientific study and the public policy analysis, for while the JCSU students were conducting the field research, WWC students could explore the various policies directed at both environmental justice and the quality of surface water.

The Second Year

As the spring semester approached, a fortuitous event occurred that provided a stage upon which to demonstrate our collaborative project on environmental justice. The Southeastern chapter of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) selected Warren Wilson as the site of its Spring conference. Students from colleges throughout the region would gather at the Asheville campus for two days of meetings centered on the topic of environmental activism. This seemed a perfect opportunity to publicize our environmental justice project and our surface water study.

The second time around, “Environmental Justice and Environmental Policy” had a much sharper focus. The initial topics included an introduction to the issue (the class read Robert Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie) and an analysis of various interpretations of environmental injustice (our source here was Evan Ringquist’s “Environmental Justice: Normative Concerns and Empirical Evidence”). Then, with the SEAC conference in mind, the Warren Wilson students broke into five teams to do research and prepare presentations on: (1) the history of the environmental justice movement, (2) interpretations and explanations of environmental injustice, (3) Executive Order 12898 and its impact, (4) the Clean Water Act with special attention given to surface water quality, and (5) local environmental quality regulations and land-use issues within Mecklenberg County and the city of Charlotte. Efforts were made to keep close contact between the JCSU and WWC students through phone and e-mail. Unfortunately, these proved to be less than completely successful due to the number of minor, correctable, yet irritating obstructions such as confusion over addresses, uneven computer skills, and conflicting schedules. The most important interaction came when the classes traveled to each other’s campuses for face-to-face exchanges.

On the weekend of April 16 – 18, 1998, the Johnson C. Smith chemical research team came to Warren Wilson for the SEAC conference. The members of the collaborative effort attended various panel sessions and met to finalize their presentations. Then, with students from other colleges in attendance, the five Warren Wilson teams and the group of researchers from Johnson C. Smith delivered their reports on surface water quality and environmental justice. The WWC team on local zoning and the JCSU students agreed that interesting future research needed to be done correlating water quality with housing patterns, racial demographics, and income distribution. One unexpected finding was that the preliminary data seemed to show that surface water near, or immediately downstream from, major industrial sites tended to be relatively clean, while water that one might expect to be fairly “pure” (i.e., streams and ponds near city parks or residential areas) showed disturbingly high levels of pollutants. The tentative explanation was that public policy aimed at rectifying “point source” pollution was being reasonably successful, with “non-point” surface run-off pollution being an under-appreciated problem in urban (and rural?) areas.

The end of the SEAC conference, the continuing research at JCSU, and the final examination for academic credit at WWC concluded the second year of the joint project on environmental justice. Once again, the student evaluations were positive. Comments included, “I learned a lot; good discussions. Made me think about wanting to do this as a job.” “[I appreciated] the opportunity to experience real life problems (through Dr. Mbamalu at JCSU) and figure out possible solutions, and to work to educate the public.” “I thought the idea of a collaborative effort between two colleges was great,” “A great combination of science and social issues that is often overlooked,” and “I think this class was a wonderful combination of theory and practice. We were taking what we learned in class and applying it to tangible issues in Charlotte. Students were intimately involved in directing and participating in their own education.”

The Third Year

The 1999-2000 academic year proved to be the high water mark of the project. In the fall, Mbamalu and Kalinowski submitted a paper and presentation proposal to the Greening the Campus Conference at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. This nationally recognized gathering is held every-other year and brings together leading academics, university staff, administrators, students and professionals to discuss continuing trends in environmental studies and to consider innovative attempts at building principles of sustainability into campus life. Kalinowski had attended the Ball State Conference in 1997 and felt this was an excellent venue for showcasing the collaborative program on environmental justice. The two professors co-authored a report on the work that had been accomplished to that time (this essay is an expanded version of that account).6 Most significantly, seven students (four from JCSU and three from WWC) worked together to create and present a slide show, Power Point, and oral presentation. Again with funding from CIC and PEJER, the nine traveled to Muncie for three days. From all points of view, our efforts were well received, with several attendees acknowledging that this collaborative program was probably unique in higher education.

That spring, the courses were repeated for the third time. Warren Wilson students used Andrew Szasz Ecopopulism as a text; joint meetings with the JCSU classes and chemical research team were held; and policy research teams built on the work of the previous SEAC conference.7

Despite the obvious successes of these first three years, Mbamalu and Kalinowski recognized that there was still considerable room for improvement. The academic portion of the course needed to be “tightened” with more specific readings, lectures, and discussions spelled out in detail in a course syllabus.8 Logistics involved in travel between schools and arranging time-off from other classes needed to be more carefully planned before the semester began. Students were eager to design future research on demographics and income in order to empirically test the various environmental justice and “ecoracism” theses. Most of all, students at both JCSU and WWC wanted more opportunity to actually meet with each other, exchange ideas and perspectives, and jointly pursue a common research interest and social action. If it is generally true that a new course offering takes two or three tries before most of the problems have been identified and corrected, then an inter-disciplinary, collaborative effort such as this between two schools at some distance probably requires at least four or five efforts before all the pedagogical wrinkles are ironed out.

Lessons Learned

Acknowledging these challenges, and prepared to continue making improvements, it was disappointing to everyone involved when we were unable to procure funding for a fourth year and, as a result, the Johnson C. Smith / Warren Wilson collaborative project on environmental justice came to at least a temporary end and was not offered in academic year 2000-2001. Mbamalu still had his PEJER funds (although they could only be used for minority students). Kalinowski’s sole source of funding, however, was the Council of Independent Colleges grant, and that was for start-up projects only. After three years, Warren Wilson College was unable to find further financial assistance.9 We believed (and still believe) that what we did was a significant undertaking and may be the only one of its kind in environmental education. We were combining the best of two institutions and, as a result, achieving a blending of racial diversity, urban and rural settings, scientific analysis and social policy, and demonstrating the interface of academic and field research. In both substance and pedagogy, we have every reason to be proud of our accomplishments.

Valuable lessons were learned that could possibly serve as a starting point for other efforts along these lines. We came to appreciate the enormous rewards that are part of such a project as well as the frustrations involved. We gained insights that we were not expecting when we began. For example, the significance of non-point pollution as a contributor to surface water degradation (as compared to pollution from point sources), was a surprising and unexpected finding. It was also interesting to note the differences in the perceptions of the students regarding the issue. White Warren Wilson students, when asked to evaluate the five explanations for environmental injustice described by Ringquist, consistently favored the “ecoracism” thesis.10 For these students, incidents of unequal environmental risk were seen as the deliberate targeting of minority groups. African-American students from Johnson C. Smith, on the other hand, saw the events not as examples of conscious racism, but the tendency of all negative policy decisions to be implemented where the least resistance exists. These students favored Ringquist “power thesis” which argues that locally undesirable land uses (LULUs) will be cited where community opposition fails to become organized. Perhaps not surprisingly, each group of college students interpreted the situation in terms that left them in charge of the solution. White students saw the problem as White racism (hence the solution is to change White attitudes). African-American students saw the problem as a lack of Black power (hence the solution is to empower Black communities). Although there are obvious similarities and subtle differences between the two interpretations, the rather uniform adoption of alternative explanations was both unforeseen and worthy of note.

As is no doubt the case with many efforts in environmental education, we came to recognize the difficulties involved in attempting genuine interdisciplinary education. The sad fact is that Ph.D.s in most colleges and universities acquired their education in a process of ever-increasing specialization. When confronted with problems that cross-disciplinary lines (as do most environmental issues), the tendency is to fragment the subject, address the portion that fits the parameters of your training, and pass the remainder off to colleagues, hoping that the sum of the individual solutions will be equal to the whole of the crisis. This, alas, is very seldom the case. Mbamalu is a chemist and Kalinowski is a political scientist. We struggled with the incorporation of both disciplines into a unified effort, but too often, real interdisciplinary education was abandoned in favor of much safer, and more convenient, multidisciplinary approaches.

These misgivings notwithstanding, we reiterate the excitement and promise of collaborative efforts such as this and encourage other institutions to attempt similar undertakings. In the field of environmental justice and collaborative education, much is left to be done. The final version of this project has yet to be established. We are convinced, however, that this joint project on Environmental Justice and Environmental Policy has had an important impact on the education of many students who have shared a positive experience focused on building social awareness, environmental health, and racial harmony.


  1. “Environmental Justice Strategy: Executive Order 12898,” United States Environmental Protection Agency publication, EPA/200-R-95-002, April 1995.
  2. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994).
  3. “Environmental Justice Strategy: Executive Order 12898,” op. cit…
  4. Evan J. Ringquist, “Environmental Justice: Normative Concerns and Empirical Evidence,” in Norman J. Vig and Michael E. Kraft, Environmental Policy (4th ed.), (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2000), pp. 232-256.
  5. For academic evidence that supports this thesis see James P. Lester and David W. Allen, “Environmental Justice in the U.S.: Myths and Realities,” a paper presented at the 1999 Western Political Science Association meeting, Seattle, Washington, March 25-27, 1999.
  6. See the conference proceedings, “Greening the Campus III,” Ball State University, Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 1999, pp. 65 – 70.
  7. Andrew Szasz, Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
  8. Other sources might include Christopher Foreman, The Promise and Peril of
    Environmental Justice (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1999); or Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai (eds.). Race and the Incidence or Environmental Hazards (Boulder, CO: Westview Publishers, 1992).
  9. The actual cost of the project was modest. Total Warren Wilson expenditures for travel, supplies, meals while away from campus, and faculty compensation for teaching an overload were $2,800 per year.
  10. Evan Ringquist, “Environmental Justice: Normative Concerns and Empirical Evidence,” op.cit., pp. 243 – 247.

Franklin A. Kalinowski is a professor of Environmental Studies and Political Science at Warren Wilson College.

Godwin E. Mbamalu is distinguished professor of Chemistry in the Department of Natural Science at Johnson C. Smith University.

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