Groping Our Way to Engagement: Brown’s TRI-Lab Reaches Out to Providence’s West End

by Professor Timmons Roberts
April 6, 2015

Timmons Roberts is Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology. The Environmental Justice and Climate Change in Rhode Island TRI-lab is supported by the Swearer Center and IBES, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Yesterday eighteen Brown undergraduates in an experimental new class  called the Teaching, Research and Innovation (TRI-Lab) met with twelve representatives of community organizations to hash out a series of projects to work on together on Providence’s West End neighborhood. The course is co-taught by Brown faculty (myself and Allen Hance of the Swearer Center) and a community partner (Julia Gold of the RI Department of Health). For students, it is a year- long commitment to working with our local communities in attempting to conduct research that also makes positive change. With the three co-teachers, the ratio of students to teachers and practitioners was approaching one-to-one.

The meeting popped with ideas. Students had been doing readings about what populations are most vulnerable to the current and likely impacts of climate change in cities, and beginng to brainstorm engaged research projects to work on.  Students have broken into three groups, named “GI Joes” (for Green Infrastructure), “No Vacancy” (on retooling vacant lots), and more straightforwardly, “Communications/Outreach.” 

Each group proposed three possible directions to partners, and the feedback was immediate. The GI Joes proposed producing maps of past flooding in the neighborhood, hoping to work with GroundWork Providence, Clean Water Action, or the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, jobs training and environmental organizations. They proposed “depaving” projects, looking at what is keeping people from greening their properties and working on a pilot project at a neighborhood church or school.  Planting trees, shrubs or even gardens and grass can help with reducing the heat island effect in a neighborhood where most yards are asphalted to provide space for parking cars off-street. They also reduce flooding and improve air quality, reducing two major risks to health and livelihoods in the neighborhoods.

The Communications/Outreach group proposed a neighborhood map and tour of sustainable practices undertaken by residents, creating opportunities for neighbors to teach each other about what they’ve done at their homes. This project was first proposed by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association at an earlier meeting, and students have proposed expanding the inventory work and outreach to physical signs and a website. They also proposed a project working with doctors and health clinics in the neighborhoods to get information out to residents about the risks posed by increased heat and asthma that will come with warmer summers. West Elmwood Housing is a likely partner for that work. A third project was helping create a disaster communications network, helping neighbors check on each other during disasters of any sort. In addition to the two neighborhood groups, the partners suggested they work with Providence Emergency Management Agency and ProvConnect.

The “No Vacancy” group put forward what might be the toughest area for intervention: finding positive utility for vacant spaces while building neighborhood resilience by creating community around them.   They shared that 43 lots in the neighborhood have been reported vacant by the Lots of Hope project, and they proposed surveying nearby residents about their desires for these spaces. These efforts have been undertaken in other cities around the country, especially those facing serious crises of abandoned housing. Our partners have had years of experience trying this kind of work, and were concerned about how long it can take to make anything happen in such places. Another concern was how to make upkeep of the new parks or gardens sustainable. The student group was steered to talk to Providence Department of Planning and Development, and the Lots of Hope program. One possible direction might be for students to work building up “Friends of X Park” groups for the West End green spaces that already exist, many of which are neglected.

All these ideas are provisional and the groups and partners may take this work in entirely different directions by the time this two-semester experiment is over.  But that’s the whole idea: the process of engaged scholarship was in action at yesterday’s TRI-lab session—a diverse mix of experts from our community were on-hand to lend their ideas and support to a team of student researchers to begin what are going to be challenging and uncertain projects.

Learning about problems like climate change can be overwhelming: focusing attention on strategic and approachable parts of the problem is an effort in collective planning and learning. Most people who die or are made homeless or otherwise affected by climate-related disasters are the poor or minorities, both here and abroad. Attempting to reach the most vulnerable populations can provide insights into how society works, and into how social change can happen. But doing so effectively requires close work with partners who work and live in those communities.  That’s the engagement we’re groping our way towards.