Engaged Faculty Spotlight: Environmental Health and Justice

This month’s spotlight features two leaders from the Superfund Research Program.
January 14, 2022

This month’s spotlight features two leaders from the Superfund Research Program, who shared their reflections and experiences at a Fall 2021 Real Talk: Collaborative Conversations about Collaborative Work session sponsored by Brown’s Engaged Scholarship and Broader Impacts Working Group. Access a recording of the session (and other events) here.

For the last two years, Scott Frickel, Professor of Environment and Society and Sociology, and Summer Gonsalves, Research Associate in Environment and Society, have co-led the Community Engagement Core for the Superfund Research Program, Toxicant Exposures in Rhode Island: Past, Present, and Future. The program’s research has included assembling a data set and interactive maps on parks and playgrounds, schools, community gardens, child care centers, and historical sites of manufacturing or other businesses that would have stored hazardous materials and may have contaminated soil and water without people now being aware of contamination. This work is making RI Department of Environmental Management site investigations more publicly accessible through digitization and also supporting the RI Department of Health in identifying important places to do water testing. 

Beyond collaboration with state agencies, Gonsalves has facilitated innovative relationships with specific community partners as well as among those partners. “We had representatives from 13 different organizations come together, some of them for the first time ever, and work together on the [Narragansett] tribal farm,” Gonsalves noted. “Food connects all of us in some capacity,” but it also mattered that the Brown representatives showed up with a commitment to building trusting relationships and providing real value to partners. They looked for similarities in various groups’ aims, bringing together the Narragansett Indian Tribe, Southside Community Land Trust, and United Way around soil testing, for instance, to exchange expertise and save money through joint purchasing. 

Once the pandemic constrained activities, project leaders found new ways of connecting people with the land and sustainable food systems, including distributing over 500 home garden kits and compost supplies, which also gave youth and families a healthy outlet when school had moved online. “Previously it was us reaching out to communities asking ‘how do we help?’” Gonsalves observed, but now “they're reaching out to us wanting to know how to get involved.” Organizations like Mystic Aquarium have also sought out collaborative opportunities, creating new STEM programming with tribal youth and Brown trainees that quickly exceeded the original goals. 

“As faculty,” Frickel reflected, “we care about our own class and the semester in which that class is offered, and those aren't the timeframes and the scale of community engagement.” Relationships need time to take root. Gonsalves’ approach to building capacity and connections within communities and across organizations has been critical, according to Frickel, and he hopes “we can foster a longer term and more collective view of community engagement.”