UW–Madison research team partners with Dane County organizations to host environmental justice discussions

As issues of climate change and environmental justice disproportionately affect communities of color, Kaiping Chen, an assistant professor in University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) and her team aim to empower and amplify Black and Latinx voices in sustainability policy making.

Chen and her team hosted two community discussions in October 2022 – one with Wisconsin EcoLatinos and the other with Urban Triage – at the South Madison Partnership as the first component of a larger research project. 

A headshot of Kaiping Chen
Kaiping Chen

“I want to empower people to have thoughtful deliberation but also to amplify their voices in local policymaking,” Chen said. “This is something I want to always do beyond my research work: Bridge the gap between academics, policymakers, nongovernmental organizations, and communities to address street level problems to enhance people’s everyday life. This is something I’ve also been learning a lot from my colleagues at LSC.”  

Chen’s research team, which received $300,000 in funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, aims to co-create collaborative solutions for carbon dioxide removal policies and other climate equity issues by combining deliberation designs, digital crowdsourcing, and data science. 

Communities of color have faced a disproportionate burden of negative environmental impacts for generations, and these community members’ voices have also traditionally been excluded by policymakers. To address this, Chen partnered with UniverCity Alliance (UCA) Managing Director Gavin Luter to connect with community-based organizations and climate leaders from Dane County and the city of Madison.

“We want to act as the bridge between county and city offices with the communities to create dialogues and use community knowledge to inform what actions the city and the county will take,” Chen said. 

Chen’s work aligns with the goals of UCA, which is a cross-campus initiative that connects Wisconsin local governments with university resources to move forward community goals. UCA strongly supports projects that address diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“This is a great example of how we are keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s needed in the city,” Luter said. “The city has been looking for more ways to expand inclusion and community engagement efforts. We found a professor whose work aligns with that same goal, and we helped move the project along. This is how the UniverCity Alliance works.” 

Creating welcoming environments

A group of people watches a performance.
In October 2022, EcoLatinos participated in a community discussion about environmental justice and impacts from climate change

Chen’s research team, which includes Department of Life Sciences Communication PhD student Amanda Molder, Information School Assistant Professor Corey Jackson, and others, aims to answer big questions: 

  • What would effective deliberation tools to listen and respond to community members’ opinions about climate change look like? 
  • How can we pair in-person deliberation and digital crowdsourcing to empower and amplify the voices of underrepresented communities in sustainability policy making? 
  • How can we use data science methods to automate the process of analyzing large-scale community input?

Molder, who is in the third year of her PhD program, said she’s drawn to working on environmental issues that have societal, political, and economic implications and researching problems without easy solutions. 

“A research project like this is pretty fantastic where we can really bring a lot of different community members together, hear people’s lived experiences and what they see as problems in their local community and propose solutions to solve them,” Molder said. “I really love taking theoretical ideas that we research in science communication and bringing them to practice through applying them to people’s day to day lives.”

Chen’s team is currently evaluating the results of the community discussions, which they described as a success. Approximately 100 people from Black and Latinx communities participated in the two forums and engaged in thoughtful conversations around energy saving at home, heat and health, green spaces, and climate technologies.  

Creating spaces where people feel comfortable to share their input and feel seen and heard leads to successful community engagement. Partnering with trusted community-based organizations is a critical component of fostering these environments. 

Different formats were used during each event. At the Urban Triage forum, participants spent 20 minutes on one topic at a table with their peers before rotating to the next. 

Cooper Talbot, who does bilingual rental support and outreach for Urban Triage, led a discussion on energy conserving measures and the cost savings associated with them. Talbot said the conversation was educational and left participants with the tools to make changes in their own lives. 

At the Urban Triage forum, participants spent 20 minutes in small groups before rotating to the next. 

“We don’t have to wait,” Talbot said. “We can leave that room with as much information as you were given, and we can start implementing some of those things and do some of our own digging. “I thought it was really empowering, and I thought people took the information really well. They really engaged and listened.” 

During the forum at Urban Triage, Molder said founder and CEO Brandi Grayson “set the tone” for the event’s purposes.

“It led to really rich conversations,” Molder said. “The goal was to make people feel comfortable, so that they could share their opinions, use their voices, and their voices would be heard. It was great, and I was thrilled to be a part of it.” 

The forum with EcoLatinos involved small group breakout discussions and Q&A sessions. Attendees also shared a meal and watched Mexican and Bolivian dance performances. 

“Raising awareness and understanding of climate change and how it affects our lifestyle is part of Wisconsin EcoLatinos’ mission,” said Executive Director Cristina Carvajal. “This event allowed us to fulfill our mission and promote the inclusion of the Latino community in the process of creating solutions to climate change adaptation.”

The conversations have already drawn attention from Kathy Kuntz, the director of Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. Kuntz published a blog post after attending the two forums, detailing their importance and outlook for the next steps. 

“The Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change is participating in these discussions because we recognize it is a unique opportunity to learn from the communities who are often most impacted by climate change,” Kuntz wrote. 

Kuntz also said that listening to local voices is especially important now because recent federal legislation includes new funding for environmental justice efforts.

“We want our communities to be ready to receive some of those funds to address priority issues locally,” Kuntz said in the post. 

Chen and her LSC students, Molder and Isabel Villanueva, will present their findings from the two community forums at the City-County Building on Jan. 31. 

Continued learning through digital crowdsourcing

There is a strong desire among participants to do more of this work. Additionally, Grayson said continuing engagement with Urban Triage and the Black community is “imperative” to environmental justice work.

Likewise, Carvajal said continued participation from the Latino community will influence changes. 

“Latino community participation in policy design on climate change adaptation will empower us to implement decarbonization programs, protect our health and improve lifestyles, which will translate into a collective effort to make an impact on local environmental quality and equity,” Carvajal said. 

The second phase of the project, which will involve Jackson and take place in Spring 2023, includes building and evaluating a crowdsourcing platform to facilitate dialogues between community members, local organizations, and policymakers and to use data science methods to automate the analysis and visualization of community knowledge. Chen’s past award-winning work has demonstrated how to scale up and sustain community engagement thorugh digital crowdsourcing and data science.

These conversations will inform how local governments can co-develop policies and programs that respond to the needs of communities of color and will also serve as a public education tool to amplify voices from communities of color to broader audiences in and beyond Wisconsin. 

Besides local government, Chen’s work has also received attention from the federal government. Chen was invited to give a talk at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Jan. 19 about how to sustain community engagement. 

“We want to listen to more members from Black and Latinx communities and to continuously encourage policy responses to community opinions and knowledge. This is where we’re going to scale up and make environmental justice discussions sustainable,” Chen said. “We’re going to pilot a discussion tool and system, for community members to continue conversations and share input in the communication modes that they feel comfortable with. It’s diversifying the way we try to engage and empower more people.” 

–Abigail Becker