The environmental justice movement started in Warren County, North Carolina in the 1980s, and the state has a long legacy of grassroots activism. Unfortunately, it also has a reputation as being a hotbed of environmental injustice, as issues around race, indigenous rights, pollution, farming, climate, and food justice intersect. Because these issues are rooted in and best addressed alongside local communities, there are many rural, community-based initiatives and organizations working on the multi-faceted and myriad issues around environmental justice in Central and Eastern North Carolina.

“The environmental justice landscape in North Carolina is a really rich network of people who are on the ground who have been doing work for a long time, though they sometimes don’t get recognized for that effort,” said Rebecca Vidra, an Associate Dean at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “The term environmental justice is flashy and there is a lot of buzz around making a big impact, but the reality is that environmental justice work is already taking place in communities all over the state all.”

Connecting the dots between environmental justice issues and initiatives is a project unto itself. Resourceful Communities, based in Chapel Hill, has stepped into this role. Resourceful Communities, works with a network of 500 grassroots and community organizations – such as the Waccamaw Siouan tribe, Episcopal Farm Worker Ministry, and Men and Women United for Youth and Families — to create opportunities that preserve the rural landscape, lift people out of poverty, and celebrate partner communities’ unique cultures. Resourceful Communities believes an integrated approach will produce more sustainable change in ways that benefit local communities economically, environmentally, and through social justice.

The Haw River Assembly, a watershed based non-profit in central NC that was founded in 1982 to protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake, is also doing work toward telling a more integrated story of environmental justice issues through their community mapping project.

“We believe environmental justice, diversity and equity to be an important part of our work.  In 2020 we created a new environmental justice mapping tool for our watershed to see where pollution was located and what communities are most affected by it,” said Elaine Chioso, Executive Director of the Haw River Assembly. For many years, the Haw River Assembly has worked with communities fighting disproportionate burdens of pollution based on demographic factors such as race and income. The Story Map they are creating, which combines demographic data pulled from sources such as census and tax records with mapping of potential and existing sources of pollution, such as landfill and sludge application sites, enables the Haw River Assembly to better articulate the burdens placed on particular communities and advocate for just solutions that are healthier for the natural environment as well as people.

DukeEngage student Quinn Beckham is working virtually with the Haw River Assembly this summer to add new layers and data to the Story Map. She is one of 8 students participating in a new DukeEngage program focused on environmental justice in North Carolina. The program is involved with 9 community partners.

“We decided that our umbrella for environmental justice was going to be super broad,” said Vidra, who is the faculty lead for the DukeEngage program. “We were basically going to show up and see where people needed help and then plug in.”

As students learn the rich history of environmental justice work in North Carolina, enter into the good work already happening, and discuss the projects with other students on their DukeEngage team, their stories join the intricate web of this work.

The interesting thing about these partners is that they are already connected to each other in some ways,” Vidra said. “Every week, our group meets with 2 of our partners, who share their leadership journeys and what inspires them. Usually, as they talk about their organizations, they recognize the other partners, and find new connections with them.

Erin Collazo Miller works on Virtues & Vocations, an initiative to consider how to cultivate character in professional education. She earned a BA in English at Duke University and studied theology at Regent College.

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