Monday, July 23, 2012

Environmental Justice and Community Education at NOAH

By Sara Varela 
NeighborWorks America
Community Building and Organizing
communications specialist
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in East Boston, MA. The visit was part of a Community Building and Organizing Peer to Peer connection, a program we run to encourage our network members to visit and learn from each other. I was there as an observer. The visiting organization was San Juan Neighborhood Housing Services (San Juan NHS) from Puerto Rico. It was wonderful to meet and reconnect with the staff from both organizations

The agenda was so packed with content that, in one day, I learned more than I ever thought possible. We started our day with an interactive process where Kim Foltz, director of Community Building and Environment demonstrated how to engage a group using popular education techniques.
Members of the Chelsea Creek Action Group Youth crew
helped residents of all ages build new raised-bed gardens,
increasing access to affordable, healthy food in East Boston.

Popular education is a process which aims to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to take control of their own learning and to effect social change. Popular education indicates a collective effort in which a high degree of participation is expected from everybody. It was great to learn about this training tool as we actually saw it in action. Then Kim went on to engage the group in talking about environmental justice.

According to the EPA, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” NOAH, takes this to heart. Their website states: "Community Building and Environment Department (CBE) works with community members to improve the environment, enhance the quality of life, and develop the leadership skills of residents in East Boston and beyond."

Staff from NOAH and San Juan NHS work together in a
hands-on activity prior to visiting the local neighborhood.

As I participated in this interactive session I couldn’t help thinking I was lucky to work in a place where I get to learn about these concepts, meet people who work making our world a better place, and see the results first hand.

Our morning sessions were followed by a walk around the neighborhood and lunch in a local restaurant. After lunch we had a tour of the different places where NOAH engages community residents and youth. This organization really puts the concept of popular education and environmental justice to work; they engage residents to identify and become part of the solution for their environmental topics. We met a youth leader who encourages youth and neighborhood children to engage in the local community garden, and involves children in summer activities; we visited the Chelsea Creek, and learned about the community’s effort to improve environmental conditions in this part of the neighborhood, and we learned about all the great youth activities this organization supports.

It was an excellent day to be outside, visiting the neighborhood and seeing how a group from East Boston exchanges ideas with a group from Puerto Rico. And, as if that weren’t enough, the whole day was ran in Spanish! The staffs at NOAH are bilingual, and bicultural and excellent at their job of engaging people.

I am a fan of social media and online tools, but there is nothing better than meeting the people I work with in person. Three cheers for the community building and organizing peer to peer visits! Read about them or share your stories via Twitter @SaraVarelaCBO #peertopeer.