Working together for urban environmental health

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When we think of grassroots environmental activism, figures like Erin Brockovich or Lois Gibbs tend to spring first to our minds.

Both women became unlikely heroes because they fought mightily with few resources, winning staggering victories over far more powerful interests.

Each secured big payouts from corporate polluters who were initially unwilling to take responsibility for, or even acknowledge, the damage they had done—Brockovich against Pacific Gas and Electric and Gibbs against a host of parties that had left a toxic stew bubbling under her neighborhood, the Love Canal tract in Niagara Falls.

A housewife when she began her crusade, Gibbs was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has been awarded a fistful of honorary degrees. Brockovich shot to fame after Julia Roberts played her in the eponymous, Oscar-nominated movie. 

But there is another strain of grassroots environmental activism that, though less dramatic and less heralded, might arguably yield a bigger bang for the buck. An example sits right in our own backyard—the region’s successful program to reduce lead levels.  

The program began after Ralph Spezio, a city elementary school principal, connected students’ physical ills and poor performance to high levels of lead in their blood. The alarm Spezio sounded pushed various actors including Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, now called Common Ground; local government; and area lawyers, scientists and educators to action. 

Organized as the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, the coordinated efforts of those individuals and agencies led the city to pass a lead law that since its 2005 enactment has seen a 90 percent drop in children’s lead levels.

Such coordinated efforts connecting various local actors to achieve a well-defined goal are vital to bringing lasting positive environmental change and should be nurtured, argues Katrina Korfmacher in her book, “Bridging Silos: Collaborating for Environmental Health and Justice in Urban Communities.” 

Published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Press, “Bridging Silos” is one of the academic publisher’s Urban and Industrial Environment series.

Aimed at an audience of public health professionals, government officials and environmental activists, “Bridging Silos” is unlikely be optioned for movie rights any time soon. For its target audience, it is nevertheless “an important and much-needed book by a scholar who has worked on the front lines of urban environmental health for more than two decades,” writes Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College’s Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, in the book’s preface.

Katrina Korfmacher

Korfmacher is an associate professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Environmental Medicine and director of URMC’s Environmental Health Sciences Center’s Community Engagement Core. She has been actively involved in the Rochester lead coalition’s work for more than a decade. But her book is not a paean to the local effort. Rather, it is a manual of sorts or a guide to forming similar efforts, and not just for the purpose of lead abatement.

While the book features a section on the local coalition, detailing how it formed and what made the collaborative effort work, it also highlights efforts in Duluth, Minn., by a group that worked to see a collection of seemingly disparate goals—equitable transportation, brownfield redevelopment, walking trails, and better area health-system planning—enshrined in the city’s strategic plan. A third case study looks at the Impact Project, a successful collaboration among disparate actors to improve the air quality at the ports of Los Angeles’s and Long Beach. 

The commonality Korfmacher sees among those exemplars does not lie in their widely differing aims. As her book’s title suggests, it lies in their method. The key to success in environmental activism as she sees it lies in patiently building bridges between forces that would not otherwise connect. Though they might have similar aims, agencies, governments and individual activists functioning in disconnected silos could be working at cross purposes or duplicating efforts. Working together in a coordinated fashion, they can amplify each other’s efforts.

“Bridging Silos” does not offer a magic bullet, propose a single plan or lay out a series of guaranteed-to-succeed steps. 

“Each of the local environmental health initiatives described in this book used different resources, structures, and approaches to change diverse systems that managed environmental and public health in its community,” Korfmacher writes. 

The city of Benton Harbor, Mich. adopted a similar lead law to Rochester’s but failed to achieve similar results. Adoption of a nearly identical law was not in itself enough. The city did not have the infrastructure to make the law work. Shortly after the law passed, the cash-strapped Benton Harbor was taken over by the state and the law was never enforced.

Rochester’s success in reducing its children’s lead levels attracted national attention. A number of cities sought advice from Rochester’s CPLP members. 

“Instead of recommending replication of the Rochester code, they advised building a community coalition to determine the best approach for each city and developing broad-based support for its implementation,” the book notes. 

To be clear, “Bridging Silos” does not contrast or claim superiority for the methods it espouses over the fight-the-power brand of activism that brought fame to Erin Brockovich or Lois Gibbs. One might argue that both approaches bring results. Gibbs’ efforts led to the adoption of the federal Superfund Law. It does suggest a less confrontational approach. 

Wider state or federal regulatory frameworks like the Superfund Law are needed to shape and define local efforts, Korfmacher told me in an interview. But in a time when we are facing a federal administration focused on undoing as much environmental regulation as possible, strong, well-thought-out and well-executed local efforts can send a message, serving as a bulwark against federal efforts to undo or weaken environmental protections.

“Innovation at the state and local levels is especially important in times of federal retrenchment when agencies of the national government choose not to promote public health, protect the environment, increase access to health care or advance the common good,” Landrigan notes. 

Korfmacher is slated to hold a discussion and book signing on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at Writers and Books. Events are planned at URMC as well. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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