By Antionette Fowlkes.
The drive to Minneapolis, MN from Ames, IA for my summer environmental justice fellowship with Pillsbury United Communities and the North Minneapolis Environmental Justice Coordinating Council (EJCC) was a peaceful and exciting ride. Often, I pass up the opportunity to take a road trip, but this one was necessary. As I made my transition from an active learning space on the campus of Iowa State University to an applied learning space in North Minneapolis, I asked myself a set of questions. I asked myself (1) how will my time in North Minneapolis make lives better (2) what does success look like for me in this current role and (3) whom can I partner with to make this summer experience unforgettable?
After reflecting on those questions, I began to get a game plan together to make this a productive summer. I realized that by accepting the opportunity, I had been given a chance to serve a fantastic community that had been overburdened with much environmental harm. In this new role, I felt a new level of responsibility that I had not encountered before. In comparison to my previous summer experiences, this was by far the first experience that made me feel as if my work contribution mattered. Maybe you could chalk it up to the fact that I am serving a community of black and brown men and women who have not always been included in conversations regarding equitable policy, planning and zoning decision making. Whatever the reason, I knew that this summer was going to be meaningful.
During the first three weeks of my fellowship, I felt overwhelmed with the amount of information I received. I felt there was such an extensive amount of knowledge that I needed to familiarize myself with in such a short period. I knew that not only receiving the information would be beneficial but knowing how and when to apply the information would be necessary as well. I knew that I could not learn everything by reading but rather I had to actively engage members of the community actively. By partnering with members of the EJCC engaging the community, residents and other environmental partners did I learned who were the community elders, leaders, entrepreneurs, healers, teachers and business owners. Simply looking from the outside in one would think North Minneapolis was just like any other place in Minneapolis. However, this place is unique.
North Minneapolis is a place where the day to day environmental interactions impact many of the community members lives. Aesthetically to the average person visiting the area they would see that the area has been severely uninvested, polluted and in many ways unappreciated. Meanwhile overlooking the fact that the people who make up the community are passionate about the community in which they live and work. Many would overlook the fact that North Minneapolis is home to a plethora of art and artists, community gardens, healthy eating and soul food; and minority owned businesses. Aside from noticing that there is missing infrastructure, visitors would also notice that there is an air pollution concern that is brought about from several of the industrial polluters that line the main corridor to North Minneapolis. By engaging with the community members, organizers, activist and leaders I was able to put much of the research that I had done on North Minneapolis into perspective.
Nearing my fourth and sixth weeks of my fellowship I felt more confident about the work that I was tasked with completing. Although new to the area of environmental justice work and environmental education curriculum development I felt more at ease because I had been given the opportunity to speak with community leaders and residents about the concerns of the community. I was able to learn and see how air pollution has impacted residents and the way local politics are conducted. Without dialogue from community members, other EGA fellows and mentors my assignments would have been difficult to accomplish. Although I am not finished with my major projects, the conversations, meetings, and conferences that I have attended have guided the work and practices that I have implemented to be successful in this summer position. Though there is still much work to be done in North Minneapolis my contribution of creating an environmental justice action plan and education curriculum that guides practices on lead and asthma mitigation is going to serve an even greater purpose beyond this role. As I complete my remaining five weeks I welcome the opportunity to continue serving in this community until I transition back to graduate school.
Antionette Fowlkes is a Community and Regional Planning graduate student at Iowa State University with an expected graduation of December 2018. Upon graduation Antionette will attend law school and practice as an environmental attorney. In her free time, she enjoys touring historic landmarks, golfing and Zumba. Antionette can be reached via email at email@example.com.