On a gray morning in early October, neighborhood leaders, County officials, school board members, and stakeholders from across Athens gathered in downtown Athens at a workshop to discuss environmental leadership at the neighborhood level, and to explore the role it can play in the decisions and policies that affect Athens’ environmental health and sustainability.
Facilitated by the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), the workshop highlighted how structural racism has led to unequal outcomes for low-income, predominantly Black communities in Athens. Workshop participants from diverse backgrounds shared their perspectives, and through a multi-faceted view of history explored how local, collaborative efforts can promote a more equitable Athens.
The West Broad Community
Our experience with the West Broad Sustainability Project — an effort supported by ALT, neighborhood residents, PSE, and the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network (SSDN) — shows how effective environmental leadership can be at the neighborhood level. In that project, residents identified a range of environmental challenges and then successfully engaged local government to begin addressing them.
At the workshop, Shirley Tillman, a West Broad resident, reminded us that everyone values healthy environments, clean water, access to affordable, energy efficient homes and safe neighborhoods — but not everyone has access to the resources to realize these values.
What is environmental leadership?
Answering the question, “What is environmental leadership?” seems easy at first: it’s about land conservation, sustainable farming practices, and green building practices with a focus on energy and water efficiency. But, as we have worked with the West Broad community, the definition of environmental leadership has evolved to focus squarely on the leadership of our most impacted communities in determining their own environmental fate.
Keeping community history in mind
Hearing from residents like Shirley Tillman, whose family roots go back almost as far as Athens’ founding, we were reminded of our community’s living history. With memory of family members who lived through emancipation, Mrs. Tillman’s story was one of challenge and strife but also optimism and progress.
As she and others shared their stories, we were reminded that everyone values healthy environments, clean water, access to affordable, energy efficient homes and safe neighborhoods — but not everyone has access to the resources to realize these values.
Takeaways and next steps
We know that engaging residents up front and early about identifying specific neighborhood needs is critical to meeting community needs equitably. So, part of the discussion that morning was about how to build leadership among North Athens residents to take on a similar project in their own neighborhood.
A key takeaway was the importance of defining — and taking — the next steps. To that end, we’re working with county staff, West Broad neighborhood leaders and North Athens residents to build formal roles for North Athens grassroots leaders in expanding the project to their community. By centering the experiences of these citizens, we grow the base of environmental leadership and set the stage for healthy sustainable communities that serve all Athenians.