Main Topics

I. Home

II. Environmental Threats in Ohio

III. Health Impacts

IV. The Regulatory Agencies

V. Prioritization of Environmental Risks

VI. The Disconnect

VII. Ensuring Participation

VIII. Resolving Environmental Disputes

IX. Conclusion

X. Citizens' Guide to Environmental Protection

XI. About the Green Environmental Coalition

A Handbook for Professionals Serving Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Communities:
Health Professionals
Social Service Professionals

Produced by the Green
Environmental Coalition
in Association with The Ohio Environmental Education Fund

Ensuring Participation for
At-risk Communities

Equal participation in environmental decision-making requires that the parties be well-informed about the issues and able to voice their concerns about potential risk. Yet full participation for individuals in disadvantaged communities may prove difficult. Often disenfranchised and distrustful of government, low-income and culturally diverse groups need help developing a meaningful dialogue with the regulatory agencies.

  • They have to make sense of bureaucracy and complex, unfamiliar subject matter.
  • Making informed decisions about human health and the environment involves often highly complex issues with data that is difficult to obtain and interpret.
  • Thus, communities characterized by limited education and political disillusionment are effectively barred from participation.

However, at-risk communities can be included in the resolution of their environmental disputes. Based on the Green Environmental Coalition's first-hand experiences with Jim and the Neighbors, introduced in the previous chapter, these communities can become involved in the development, execution, and analysis of their concerns.

  • They rapidly become familiar with the issues, the terms, and the methods of investigation.
  • When community leadership roles are developed, neighborhood leaders become liaisons between the community and the agencies.
  • Individuals in the community are often the initial source of knowledge about multiple exposures or confounding physical concerns. They are the first-hand observers with the unique and essential knowledge about the activities or places that may lead to exposure.
  • Video: The Neighbors Gather Facts

I. The Need for an Ombuds[person]

While the various Ohio agencies provide Ombuds services to populations with issues related to mental health, disabilities, and aging, none addresses environmental issues. The Ohio EPA has the authority to appoint an ombuds[person], yet it defers to the Agency's Public Information Center (PIC) as such. PIC, however, functions primarily as an information retrieval service.

While PIC provides access to information, the center cannot meet all the needs facing these at-risk communities. Folks like Jim and the Neighbors need more than just information. They need an advocate with a lot of time.

  • They need someone to help them learn about difficult technical jargon, to help them negotiate the complex bureaucracy that typifies our governmental regulatory system.
  • Environmental issues are often difficult, demanding patience, time, and participation to develop a plan of action that is broadly supported and can be implemented.
  • When citizen time and resources are limited, commitment to the process and group progress may lag (child care, transportation, work).
  • Overload of opportunities to participate may become a problem as individuals become burned out from too much engagement and too many issues.

II. An Opportunity for the Professional Working with At-risk Communities

By already being in contact with these communities, the education and health or social service professional is in a unique position to empower its members and to serve in an ombuds role. They understand the community's history, values and issues as well as its language and demographics. Moreover, they may know the influential subgroups within the community.

These professionals can involve the community in the development, execution, and analysis of research that addresses environmental problems. Community members become more familiar with the issues, the terms, and the methods of investigation. By facilitating resolutions of environmental concerns in a cooperative alliance with the regulatory agencies, the education, health and social work professional gives at-risk individual/communities a voice in the process.

As a result, the level of knowledge of the individual members of the community rises. They gain access to the political system, learn to identify environmental hazards, and to assess environmental risk.

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