Grassroots: Equitable Environmental Leadership By and For the People

Photography by Nanci Goldberg


Over the past few years, I have had the honor of working with my fellow Sharpsburg residents to engage our community in a resident-driven EcoDistricts planning process. Sharpsburg, PA, is a small, industrial borough on the Allegheny River, with about 3,500 residents and .5 square miles worth of land. Densely built and populated, the community borders the City of Pittsburgh across 

the river and is nestled in a valley between an expanding highway, an active railroad, and two 4-lane bridges, directly downwind of two of the region’s biggest industrial air polluters. 

In doing this work, I am struck daily by the power of connecting the dots. Once you start seeing systems in every aspect of a community, of a household, of an ecosystem, of a county, it is hard to see where one system starts and another begins. From access to the opportunity to the cost of being poor, from mobility options to energy costs to housing affordability, and from environmental pollution to risk of negative climate change impacts on quality of life, these issues interconnect in every neighborhood, invariably causing more harm to Black communities and communities who have less wealth. 

Inspired by my EcoDistricts experiences and increasingly feeling the need for a more technical foundation, I decided to dive into the Master of Sustainability program at Chatham University’s fascinating living-lab Eden Hall campus, home to the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment. Here, tucked in the forests of rural-suburban Pittsburgh, some of the strongest sustainability minds of the Rust Belt convene at Rachel Carson’s alma mater to discuss urban systems, biodiversity, the politics, and communication of sustainable policy, and how businesses can harm or help these issues. 

As people around the world migrate overwhelmingly to higher density urban areas while the health and economic threats of climate change loom heavy over humanity and the world’s ecosystems, the time to dedicate real energy, resources, and brainpower to sustainable urban systems development are now. 

In looking at the climate of federal politics, at the reluctance of many federal policymakers to utter the words “climate change” let alone advocate for science-backed legislation that would rebuild crumbling infrastructure and mitigate the still-unrealized impacts of our societal dependence on greenhouse gas emissions, it can be easy to feel helpless. However, the lack of federal action gives local policymakers and other leaders a prime opportunity to demonstrate the power of local action, the power of scientific literacy, and the power of people engaged in building equitable and resilient local communities.

In a place like Sharpsburg, the issue of increased frequency and severity of wet weather events is not political; regardless of where we find ourselves on the political spectrum, none of us here want to stand knee-deep in raw sewage in our basements while we wonder where we will find the money to replace our hot water heater and furnace for the third time in ten years. No one, least of all the fisherfolk who spend every Saturday morning down at the riverfront park, wants raw sewage pouring into the Allegheny River every time it rains. Small business owners cannot afford to pay as much in flood insurance as they do in rent every year. We all recognize that the situation can be better. 

Agreeing that there is a problem that needs to be addressed is the first step to finding and advancing solutions. 

So how do we galvanize a community of diverse people with diverse viewpoints and challenges and passions around a shared goal of building a more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and resilient rivertown? We bring it down to the lived experiences of every person here. Sure, we ask about energy usage habits and attempt to quantify data on emissions, air quality, and water volume, but we also ask the hard and important questions. 

What issues are causing you or your family pain right now? 

What changes might improve your quality of life or make your life happier? 

What do you wish your local government representatives knew about your, your family, and your life here? 

You might get answers that do not seem immediately connected to urban planning issues, crosswalks, and zoning. But you will get immeasurably valuable feedback on what systems changes the people in your community truly need to content their souls. Maybe they want to spend more time with their kids because the public transit system makes their 12-mile commute 2.5 hours long. Maybe they cannot access mental healthcare because they have no insurance and the only free clinic is two rivers and two buses away. The priorities for your community are out there if you are only willing to build trust and listen. 

In an increasingly digital world, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, so many are feeling adrift, overwhelmed by responsibilities, and helpless to change a system that doesn’t necessarily serve them or their aging parents or their young children. Perhaps the most important takeaway from my experiences in Sharpsburg so far is the enormous power of even a single person to change the world around them simply by showing up, caring, and engaging in the civic experiment that is small town life. That power is exponentially expanded when it is a group of passionate persons who find themselves believing in a shared vision and feeling empowered to become leaders. 

Everyone can be a leader. If my time in the AmeriCorps Public Allies program taught me anything, it is that anyone and everyone has the capacity to lead, to do good, to offer a valuable perspective to a conversation, and to change the world around them in small or revolutionary ways. In Sharpsburg, we do not order people to volunteer on causes that they may not be passionate about; we get to know people, find out what they care about intrinsically, and offer guidance and resources to let them be leaders in their own style, on their own blocks, on their own passion projects. It is not enough to engage and involve people; you must build up local leaders (in confidence, in knowledge, in networks) and then follow their lead. 

Grassroots leadership shows up to meetings and notices out loud who is not at the table and needs to be. Grassroots leadership shovels mud out of seniors’ flooded basements on 90° July days. It speaks up on behalf of the too-often ignored voice of the environment. It demonstrates through not just leading on critical human rights issues, but on amplifying and following the leadership of those who have the formative lived experience that makes them most qualified to lead. 

The EcoDistricts framework encourages us not just to lay down attractive sod in our communities, but to nurture the existing soil to ensure the grassroots are strong enough to endure storms and droughts and to flourish for seasons and years to come.

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