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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
The Citizens' Guide to Environmental Protection gives the average citizen information that help to plan and achieve a healthy environment. This guide is designed for community members who are concerned about both real and perceived environmental problems.
Citizens' Guide to Environmental Protection
View cached Adobe PDF of the web site at the time of publication: Citizens' Guide to Environmental Protection
The USEPA's "Community Cultural Profiling Guide:
Understanding a Community's Sense of Place" provides a tool for understanding
the social dynamics involved in community-based efforts. Guide users investigate
various community characteristics via a series of questions to discover:
- Local knowledge about community issues
- The language community members use
- Influential subgroups within the community
- Historical trends in the community
View cached Adobe PDF of the web site at the time of publication: USEPA's "Community Cultural Profiling Guide