Defining Environmental Justice Communities in Allegheny County: Data User Group Meeting Recap

by Bob Gradeck

August 4, 2016

 

On July 29, we partnered with the Allegheny County Health Department on an event held at their offices in Lawrenceville. We convened over 30 data users to identify indicators that can be used to identify “environmental justice” communities. The Department’s Plan for a Healthier Allegheny calls for targeted and focused strategies and investments to be made in areas of highest need. Establishing environmental justice communities will help the County define baseline conditions and track progress toward one of the Plan’s objectives to  “Reduce local emissions in high priority communities in Allegheny County.” Defining communities will also allow the Health Department’s community partners to prioritize their 2016 efforts. Feedback from the participants at our event will help inform the County’s analysis.

In advance of the event, we shared links to the EPA’s EJ SCREEN and UCSUR’s Southwestern Pennsylvania Community Profiles with participants. We also posted a list of all datasets relevant to environmental justice from these tools in the meeting room.

The meeting started with a welcome, overview of the agenda and ground rules. LuAnn Brink and Lynne Marshall of the Health Department then delivered a brief presentation listing several common environmental justice definitions. They then outlined the County’s approach to defining environmental justice communities, and explained that the Health Department and other government and civic organizations could use these defined communities for targeted interventions and programming. Attendees came from a number of different backgrounds. Academic institutions, local nonprofit organizations, public sector agencies, and private-sector firms were represented, and we even had a few attendees that did not work in the environmental or health fields but had an interest in the topic.

Staff from the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center then moderated a group discussion that started with the question: “What does environmental justice mean to people in your community?” This question received a lot of responses, including: access to natural resources, impacts of air quality on health and lifestyles, and housing stock issues. Several people also mentioned that the capacity to participate in environmental conversations, take advantage of parks and trails, and take advantage of services like recycling can vary across communities, as some people/communities face barriers relating to time, information, transportation, information literacy, and income.

Participants were then asked to nominate datasets that the County should consider when defining environmental justice communities. We asked participants to exclude data on health outcomes for this exercise.Lists of these datasets were recorded by meeting facilitators on large sheets of paper. These lists were grouped into four major categories (air, water, neighborhood / land, equity), and a “parking lot” for issues where comprehensive data was lacking. Participants then voted on eight datasets that deserved the highest consideration by the County. People were asked to vote on at least one dataset in each of the groupings. You can see the full list of nominations and votes in our companion spreadsheet.

Our next steps for the meeting involve sharing the listing and datasets and vote totals with the County Health Department. The County will then produce and openly share its analysis of which places should be included in the definition of environmental justice communities.

 

Reflections:

  • As you can see from the appendix, people nominated a wide variety of datasets, and the discussion exposed people to data they weren’t too familiar with. We always are  impressed with the depth of knowledge and experience of data users in our community. One example of this was how several audience members offered a critique of how some national indicator systems focused on access don’t take topography and human-made barriers (railroads and highways) into account.
  • The results of our meeting satisfaction survey were very positive. People especially welcomed the ability to engage in a direct conversation with the Health Department about data, and nearly all participants felt that they were welcome to participate in the discussion. Given the size of the crowd, we were encouraged to incorporate breakout discussions by some of the attendees.
  • Our user group meetings to date have attracted a number of professionals working at environmentally-focused organizations, and we were challenged by a few participants to broaden our outreach and hold meetings at a different time in order to capture resident interests and concerns. We would welcome advice and ideas from organizations that work directly with residents in environmental and health issues in how our meetings can be more-inclusive.
  • We’re glad the Health Department asked us to organize this event. Since our first user group event in December, it’s become much easier to attract participants, and the size of the audience at our user group meetings has grown. This demonstrates the benefits of organizing data users through a series of events and activities. We think this is an important lesson for our NNIP colleagues in other cities.
  • A question came up about whether we would allow the recording of the meeting – admittedly, we weren’t quite prepared for this request, and declined. We do not want to do anything that would make our participants reluctant to openly express themselves. To clarify our policies, all future user group discussions will be held under Chatham House Rules, where the content of the discussion can be shared, but not the identity or affiliation of the speaker. This clarification will be added to the ground rules shared at the start of each meeting.  
  • We’re always looking to learn more about the interests of data users. This information helps us design future activities and events. Some of our participants ideas for future events centered on the intersection of environment and health topics, exploring soil contamination, and encouraging cross-agency discussions. We also were asked to explore equity issues such as food access, transportation disparities, and neighborhood change.

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