New Strategic Advisors Expand Community-Led Science in North Carolina

May 13, 2020

by Calvin Cupini

In late January Clean Air Carolina hosted workshops in both Greenville and Asheville, meeting with local stakeholders to assess priorities for potential community environmental projects. The workshop attendees brought diverse backgrounds and local expertise, with insights into the air quality concerns specific to each area. Working with local partners and collaborators is essential to finding the most equitable and effective solutions to air pollution problems.

We had several goals for these January meetings. We aimed to derive a collaborative survey of priority air and climate issues and needs from local stakeholders; to build a shared collection of resources, research, and contacts helpful in addressing the priority issues; and to construct a planning framework to reach those shared goals and develop strategies for achieving success. Our most important goal, however, was to connect with local environmental leaders who could serve as ‘Strategic Advisors’ to help us assess priorities for potential community science projects.

Design Thinking

We designed the Strategic Advisors Workshops to engage participants according to the Design Thinking model. Design Thinking is a series of creative and constructive steps to ensure project success through iteration and review, similar to our community science approach. This process involves brainstorming and open-minded idea creation. It also designates a stage in the process when participants must be open to all ideas and inputs before any critical decisions have been made. Crucially in Design Thinking, almost no decision is completely final and set in stone.

Community In, Results Out

Clean Air Carolina’s Citizen Science program believes that community input comes first. Local communities are not participants, but expert collaborators when working in their area. It’s imperative that our planning frameworks include them at the very beginning, and Strategic Advisors are identified and consulted before any frameworks are set in place. We begin by gathering information on what is most relevant and consequential to the community. What are the environmental problems residents are concerned with? What kind of activities to address these already exist? What opportunities are there to collaborate or empower?

We gathered our Advisors together and utilized four facilitation tools to generate the data input for the Discovery phase of these topics:

First Burst!
Using sticky notes, participants rapidly list out individual topics relevant to the area. This can include concerns like “climate change,” “cost of living,” “coal ash,” etc. All ideas are accepted at this point, and the more honest and far-reaching they are, the better they fit the exercise.

Future Story
A future story is an inspirational headline that you’d like to see in the local paper. This offers an opportunity to communicate the future one would like to see come true. It’s optimistic and gives other participants an insight into how we each see the future.

Attendees identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to potential projects using a SWOT analysis.

SWOT Analysis
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s a chance for participants to add topics derived from the previous exercise to those categories.

Get Fired!
This activity is a little unconventional, but it yields excellent results. The goal of the activity is to come up with any idea that applies to the Opportunities or Threats from the SWOT exercise. But instead of a difficult answer to fix the issue, this exercise asks the participants to come up with a terrible idea. An idea so bad, you would be fired for trying to implement it.
Each terrible idea is then given to another participant who has the task of turning it into a positive, somehow. This is a very frank and humorous way to unearth unthought-of strategies and unique approaches to problems. For example:

Bad Idea: Cut down every tree in the Asheville area to reduce the impacts of leaf tourism on the area
Fixed Idea: Cutting down trees would increase the availability of solar power (by getting rid of all those sun-blocking trees), and stop the spread of invasive species. Cut trees could also be used to replace products made of plastic.

Bad Idea: Remove historic buildings in Greenville, and replace with a 50 story high rise to provide shade in the city.
Fixed Idea: The building could be built to be LEED platinum certified, energy neutral, and offer affordable housing opportunities. The density takes cars off the road and can inspire future sustainable development.

Strategic Advisor Identified Priorities

The workshop activities yielded a few possible opportunities in eastern North Carolina. The environmental issues identified there include:

Industrial agriculture is one of the major industries of eastern North Carolina. Monitoring and accountability efforts around hog and chicken production need to be developed to improve our understanding of the effects industrial agriculture has on the entire region, and to identify solutions to improve public health.

As climate change accelerates, heat susceptibility has become an increasingly important issue in eastern North Carolina. Climate resilience requires decisions to be made by communities that best fit their needs, while heat islands and land use can be studied to develop maps that prioritize greatest community concern.

Eastern North Carolina is a hot topic in energy. One the one hand it has some of the highest potential for solar and wind resources in the state, while on the other it has become a center for natural gas pipelines and wood pellet production. Citizen science can address community concerns on the cumulative impacts and social cost of these energy sources on the region, and climate at large.

In the mountain west, participants found these priorities to be most important:

Wildfire smoke is a risk that is expected to increase as the climate change in the region intensifies. This means exacerbated health impacts for particularly vulnerable populations. Increased monitoring and communication about the impacts of wildfire smoke can lead to better outcomes.

Asheville and its surrounding region are experiencing rapid development. This can mean significant changes in tree cover, affordable housing, and large scale projects such as the I-26 Connector. Collaborative research can discover the effects of these changes and guide community input in their design.

Recreational spaces are increasingly impacted by human activity. Streams, parks, and wilderness areas are being battered by pollution as people explore these natural environments. By working with researchers, riverkeepers, and other organizations, citizen scientists can document and help remove the contaminants affecting these natural spaces.

Next Steps

The first regional meetings have taken place, and all the initial data has been collected. The next steps in the design thinking process are to begin framing this information within the context of what’s possible. What are some of the constraints we might face as we work on these issues? What capacity do our partners have in the region? What partnerships still need to be built? And importantly, is there pre-existing work being done on these issues we could help with? After all, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Over the next few months our Citizen Science program will be virtually meeting with individual stakeholders to further brainstorm ideas within the priority areas laid out in the meetings. This represents the “ideate” phase of the model. The ideas may still need some (or a lot) of work, but are starting to take shape into potentially impactful strategies. As with anything, it will take input and direction from members of the community to co-create a working design that fits the needs and capacity of those involved. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be perfect just yet.

The Community Science Revolution

The community-based participatory model is a slow revolution for how communities represent themselves in a world increasingly defined by data. Rather than wait for research or intervention by outside groups, residents are taking action to build a better future for their communities. Advances in technology and research methods have allowed far more opportunities for people who are experts in other areas to get involved in citizen science and make a difference.

Community leaders in Charlotte’s Historic West End have shown that local experts and community stakeholders drive real change. With your support, we can make community-led science and policy a powerful force in addressing climate, health, and equity challenges across North Carolina!

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
-Margaret Mead