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Hands-on activities help high school students learn about environmental justice, health

Dearborn has some of the highest rates of air pollution in Michigan.

 

YARA

Junior at Dearborn High School

Environmental Health

Research-to-Action Academy participant

It just hurts me and it kind of worries me that the areas around my neighborhood are constantly affected by these environmental issues. 

 

UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Health Research-to-Action Academy is fighting for clean air and water in their community.

 

Natalie Sampson

Associate Professor of Public Health

EHRA Co-Founder

University of Michigan-Dearborn

EHRA is a youth academy that is focused on connecting young people to folks who’ve been in the movement, the environmental justice movement, for decades. Connecting them to scientists, connecting them to policymakers so that as a region we can shift.

 

The EHRA program started in 2018 as a way to raise awareness about local environmental justice issues amongst students between the ages of 16-18.

 

EHRA has grown into a group of over 100 alumni, many of whom are highly motivated to continue fighting for clean air and water in their communities.

 

[Uncredited on-screen speaker]

“They had what they call redlining. They steered you and geared you to certain places where you could go live, in fact, rent. Well…”

 

YARA 

The first day of this program, we actually went on a bus tour and we toured around areas that had really bad air quality and that many lived near factories. So throughout this program, it’s allowed me to understand that environmental justice is more than just the environment. It’s about the people. 

 

In addition to education, EHRA provides students with the tools and confidence to advocate for change.

 

[Uncredited on-screen speaker]

“So American Concrete Institute used to own that side of the building, right? So that’s who you designed the building originally for. So when we walked through there and I point out some things, you just think about like, okay, he designed it…”

 

AYAAT

Junior at Henry Ford Early College

Environmental Health

Research-to-Action Academy participant

Although I love my friends, the majority of them don’t really think of the environment as much as I do. So being able to meet people who share similar interests to me and want to make a change in the world has been very enlightening, and I’ve been able to learn from them as well. And I’ve been able to teach them things, and it’s just this whole cycle that’s really beautiful. 

 

JASON

Sophmore at Central Michigan University

Environmental Health

Research-to-Action Academy participant

We need to reduce dumping, pollution and, you know, treat nature like it’s your home, ’cause it is.

Video Produced by Harry Mayers, Michigan Media All photos by Erin Kirkland, Michigan Photography
By Fernanda Pires, Michigan News

DEARBORN, Michigan—Picking the right wind is key when kite flying. But on a recent morning at Ford Field Park in Dearborn, it took several attempts until Yara Reda and her high school friends could see their kites zigzagging against the cloudy sky.

The group was flying colorful kites—equipped with sensors and cameras—with a special mission: measuring air quality.

Yara Reda viewed from below with a kite flying far above her

Yara Reda was part of a group testing air quality in Dearborn with sensors on their kites.

“It is easier to learn doing hands-on activities. We realized there was not a lot of wind coming in our area, so it was not easy to fly our kites. But we could measure the air and see that the quality was not as great as we’d want,” Reda said.

While 11th grader Reda and her school friends measured the air quality, student Jason Philpot-Dixon’s team was by the River Rouge “driving an aquatic rover” to check the
water quality. Three other groups were working on chemical testing.

It was an intense day, with various skill-building activities for 22 youth, ages 16 to 18, part of the Environmental Health Research-to-Action Academy.

EHRA started in 2018 in Dearborn’s South End. It is a community-academic partnership focused on building skills and intergenerational knowledge in environmental health, community science and policy advocacy to address cumulative environmental exposures in the nearby communities.

“EHRA has taught me to recognize the power of my voice as a youth, the strength of my story as a woman of color, and the impact of intergenerational work as a means to mobilize for justice.”

~ Zeina Reda, who participated in the Environmental Health Research-to-Action Academy in 2018.

“We start asking what is environmental justice? What is environmental racism?” said EHRA co-founder Natalie Sampson, associate professor of public health at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “Then what is environmental health? What is the science around this and how does it affect health?”

Student Jason Philpot-Dixon poses at a picnic table

Student Jason Philpot-Dixon and his team were by the River Rouge driving an aquatic rover to check the water quality.

To answer these questions and tackle some of these issues, students must go beyond just collecting air and water quality data, and learn what to do with the collected information, Sampson says.

“The students learn about existing data, the importance of mapping and why history matters,” she said. “Then they have to finally bring these issues home with storytelling, understanding how to communicate in plain language and be effective policy advocates. The main goal of EHRA is to gain knowledge around the different skills one needs to be part of environmental decision-making in our country.”

In its fifth year and with a network of about 100 alums, EHRA academies happen every summer and entail two and a half weeks of active learning – including a bus tour of local air pollution sources, mapping risks and assets with community leaders, developing an air monitoring action plan, using handheld air monitors and engaging in policy education training.

“Our summer academy is meaningful because students also interact directly with policymakers, community members, environmental justice advocates and experts in the field,” said Carmel Price, EHRA co-founder and UM-Dearborn associate professor of sociology. “We design the academy to be empowering; we want youth to lift up their voices and embrace an environmental justice framework as they move forward throughout their careers and lives.”

Carmel Price and Natalie Sampson stand together while wearing Clean Air t-shirts

EHRA co-founders Carmel Price, UM-Dearborn associate professor of sociology, and Natalie Sampson, associate professor of public health at UM-Dearborn.

Student Philpot-Dixon, who drove the aquatic rover at Ford Field Park, joined EHRA to learn how he could be a part of the solution against environmental injustice. As a young community member, he wanted to understand the causes of the main problems in Detroit and Dearborn and possibly find effective ways to work with local factories, which are the major polluters of the area.

“We have to find a solution together so the companies can grow without harming the environment,” he said. “This is particularly important to me because I grew up with terrible asthma. I knew this problem was a direct correlation to my neighborhood environment because when traveling and going to different areas, I could breathe a lot easier. So I chose to know the root of the problem and what I can do to influence other people and help change.”

Learning, inspiring change

Student Ayaat Shiaab lives in an area with multiple factories in the South End of Dearborn. She says it is common to see a plume of smoke and emissions outside. The air quality is problematic, mainly because most of her neighbors are older with underlying health concerns.

Students on a tour of Detroit stand in front of industrial buildings and railroads

The main goal of the EHRA program is to gain knowledge around the different skills one needs to be part of environmental decision-making in the U.S.

“I wanted to understand more about the environment to work with my community members to try to prevent any future diseases or disorders from increasing,” she said.
“In the program, I have learned that home pollution tends to be a major factor in air pollution, in general. Limiting their energy usage, preventing or not using fueled stoves, for example, can improve the air quality.”

For Shiaab, the program’s highlights included the bus tour around Detroit and the discussion panels, especially one that explored how the environment plays a major role in mental health.

“If we as community members don’t have good mental health, that is reflected based on our environment,” she said. “So, if we change our environment, improve its quality, we would improve ourselves. It is important to have information to bring more awareness to these topics and be proactive.”

Ayaat Shiaab standing in front of woods

For student Ayaat Shiaab, the program’s highlights included the bus tour around Detroit and the discussion panels, especially one that explored how the environment plays a major role in mental health.

Regardless of her career path, Shiaab wants to focus on volunteering and advocacy in the near future.

“I want the world to be better and I hope to help decrease climate change,” she said. “I want us to be able to reuse, reduce, recycle and be more in tune with nature. EHRA has brought me closer to people who have similar interests to me and want to make a change in the world. I’ve been able to learn from them and teach as well. This whole cycle has been very enlightening.”

Students wearing goggles look at samples

Students go beyond just collecting air and water quality data, and learn what to do with the collected information.

Standing, strong connections

Besides youth academies, EHRA hosts a virtual series designed by youth leaders for teens eager to address environmental and social justice issues in Dearborn and beyond. The team also translates agency documents into plain language, keeping scientific information but helping to ensure readability to the general public so they can engage in environmental decision-making in their community.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib speaks to students

Students interact directly with policymakers such as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, community members, environmental justice advocates and experts in the field.

“Our students all go on to shine in different ways on their own personal and professional paths,” Sampson said. “We just want to offer them skills, resources and connections so they can contribute in the ways they see fit.”

Yara Reda’s older sister, Zeina, is a 2023 graduate of U-M and an alum of the 2018 EHRA Academy. She served as a program youth coordinator, worked as a research assistant and co-authored a peer-reviewed manuscript about the academy.

Yara Reda standing in front of woods

Yara Reda says the EHRA program has helped her understand that environmental justice is more than just stopping water pollution or low air quality.

“EHRA and its invaluable teachings have become foundational to who I am as an advocate, a leader and a learner,” said Zeina Reda, who majored in political science.

“EHRA has taught me to recognize the power of my voice as a youth, the strength of my story as a woman of color, and the impact of intergenerational work as a means to mobilize for justice. I hope to take these lessons, alongside a commitment to empowerment and education, to further a career dedicated to supporting and amplifying the underrepresented voice.”

Planning to pursue a career in environmental justice, the youngest Reda says the EHRA program has driven her toward her passions and helped her understand that environmental justice is more than just stopping water pollution or low air quality.

“It’s about protecting the youth,” Yara Reda said. “The diseases that some people are catching are just terrible. It’s all connected to these disasters that they’re experiencing in their area. Throughout this program, it’s allowed me to understand that environmental justice is more than just the environment. It’s about the people.”

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