Civic engagement projects connect students to real-world issues
At Centre, students often have the opportunity to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in the real world. In an environmental justice course taught by ACS Post-Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies Cindy Isenhour, students are doing just that with civic engagement projects.
“After a semester of learning about environmental injustice, I felt it was important to prevent students from resigning themselves to these issues,” Isenhour says.
Students were asked to spend a minimum of five hours working on the project of their choice, with the only requirement being that they produce a ‘deliverable’ to present to an organization or group working towards environmental justice.
“I wanted students to utilize their talents and creativity,” Isenhour says, “and they certainly delivered!”
Nine students presented their projects to the class, which ranged from a compilation of literature about the effects of mountaintop removal to reducing carbon emissions to helping a local food pantry raise money. The class then voted on which project they believed was worthy of a donation — with the plan to actually make a group donation to that cause at the end of the semester.
Garrett Powers ’13 won the class vote for his project, which focused on the problem of e-waste — discarded electrical or electronic devices, which are often disposed of in irresponsible ways.
“Eighty percent of e-waste ‘recycled’ in the U.S. is actually exported to developing countries, where workers toil in terrible conditions for extremely low wages,” Powers explains. “In these countries, environmental laws and workers’ rights are very weak.”
The problem of e-waste hits close to home, as Powers learned while working in the Information Technology Services office at Centre.
“I began researching our current recycler and discovered that they most likely export our e-waste, instead of recycling it responsibly as advertised,” Powers says. “I was excited to find a recycler in nearby Georgetown, Ky., that is a certified e-Steward — all of their operations adhere to environmentally and socially responsible practices. In my proposal, I argue that we should switch to this certified e-Steward recycler.”
Powers will present his research to ITS, and the Basil Action Network (BAN) will be the recipient of the donation the class will make in support of his project.
“The Basil Action Network is the world’s leading advocate for information about the toxic trade industry,” Powers explains. “They do a lot of great investigative work and fight for policy change, so I’m happy that we get a chance to support them.”
Many of the students took unique approaches to their projects, including Libby Trevathan ’14, who researched Cancer Alley, a 90-mile stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where petroleum processing industries have severely polluted the water and air.
“The whole area around the Gulf Coast reeks of toxic pollutants and is especially burdensome on communities of color and low income,” Trevathan says. “I wanted to illustrate the massive amounts of toxic pollutants in this region to promote awareness. I am extremely passionate about this issue and am looking to make a change.”
Trevathan enlisted the help of art professor Stephen Powell and chemistry professor Jeff Fieberg to illustrate the negative effects of pollutants in Cancer Alley in a surprising way: they blew four glass orbs and filled them with toxins found in the area.
“One of the orbs had iodine in it, demonstrating one of many toxins found in high amounts in the air in Cancer Alley. The second orb was filled with a huge pile of dirt, oil, garbage and other items typically found in the soil of Cancer Alley,” Trevathan explains. “The third orb represented the filth in the water, primarily illustrating the oil spill. And the fourth orb represented the material used in housing structures, which is extremely toxic.”
After recording the reactions of the toxins within the glass orbs, Trevathan sent the results to the Sierra Club Louisiana Environmental Justice and Rights Organization with the hope that they will use her research to take action.
Greg Nicaise ’14 focused his project closer to campus, proposing to work with the Heart of Kentucky United Way in Danville to create a community garden.
“Working throughout Danville as a Bonner Scholar, I have witnessed problems that I feel a community garden could address,” Nicaise says. “Many current social and environmental problems — such as over-consumption and pollution — can be solved through the localization of industry and greater consumer responsibility. Community gardens have been shown to address these.”
Nicaise created flyers and newsletters to be posted and distributed throughout the community about the benefits of a community garden, which he hopes to create with HKUW.
“I hope the community would use a garden in the way that is most appropriate for them. Ideally, it would grow to address problems of health, hunger, poverty, respect for the land and community responsibility,” Nicaise says.
Matt Doss ’13 and Annie Schultz ’12 both did their projects on fracking, a process of drilling for oil horizontally rather than strictly vertically, which can contaminate water sources for communities surrounding the drilling site.
“Awareness of fracking is growing,” Schultz says. “On one side, there’s a concern that water is being tainted in the drilling process, resulting in human rights violations. On the other side, gas companies are heralding natural gas as a bridge fuel to sustainable energy, while decreasing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.”
Schultz created pamphlets to be distributed to raise awareness of the issue. Doss created bumper stickers with slogans, including “Don’t frack in my yard,” that he plans to send to the Ohio Sierra Club.
“I’m committed to raising awareness about fracking, because citizens of the U.S. deserve to be informed and have sovereignty when they believe their human rights are being violated,” Doss says. “I’m hoping the bumper stickers I created can be widely distributed to catch peoples’ attention.”
Isenhour was thrilled with the results of the assignment.
“All of the students, even those who didn’t present in class, created projects that would make a difference,” she says. “I certainly hope that perhaps this experience with civic engagement will inspire them to become involved in other issues about which they are passionate.”