Research spotlight: Harnessing community and technology for equitable environmental policy

Above: In October 2022, Wisconsin EcoLatinos participated in a community discussion about environmental justice  as part of a collaborative project led by UW–Madison researchers and students. This photo shows cultural elements of the event; participants placed their culture of origin onto a World Map and enjoyed a Bolivian dance.

Underserved communities bear the brunt of environmental hazards like air pollution and extreme heat. Rigorous studies have repeatedly affirmed this, in a variety of cultural and historical contexts. And recent research shows Wisconsin is a case in point: the Badger state has some of the widest racial and ethnic disparities in the nation when it comes to exposure to dangerous air pollution. These disparities illustrate environmental injustice, whereby marginalized communities suffer the most from environmental problems they did the least to create. 

What can be done to address environmental injustice at the local level? A pair of UW–Madison professors are searching for answers—but not on their own. 

A collaborative research project, led by iSchool Assistant Professor Corey Jackson and Department of Life Sciences Communication Assistant Professor Kaiping Chen, is creating multi-stakeholder dialogues in the Greater Madison area to combat environmental injustice locally. The work is connecting local governments, Black and Latinx community members, the university, and local nonprofit organizations in a web of mutually beneficial relationships. And the end goals are clear: to better understand how Black and Latinx residents experience environmental harms, and to empower them with the capacity to co-create policies that reduce environmental injustice.

“Currently, there are not a lot of opportunities for communities of color to be involved in shaping or supplying opinions about environmental issues that they face. Morally, we want to ensure that every person contributes.”

Corey Jackson, assistant professor, The Information School

Jackson and Chen emphasized that students from across campus are also playing key roles throughout the project, including by helping with survey design, data collection and analysis, and in-person assistance at community events. The students include iSchool master’s student Corey Black, two PhD students in Life Sciences Communication—Amanda Molder and Isabel Villanueva—and others from the departments of Computer Sciences and Statistics. A total of eight students have contributed significantly to the project, in addition to many other student volunteers. A majority of them are from underrepresented communities themselves, and some are the first in their family to attend college. Chen said she hopes the project will help these students become “the next generation of community sustainability leaders.”

The project

The yearslong project came together during a conversation between Chen and Gavin Luter, managing director of UniverCity Alliance, an organization whose mission is to connect local communities with the university and foster equity and sustainability across Madison. Chen and Luter agreed that more action was needed to engage under-resourced communities in policy discussions, especially around environmental issues like extreme heat and air quality. When Chen and Luter met with officials from the City of Madison and Dane County governments, they discovered that everyone in the room held the same view.

“They began to share with us that they wanted to listen and respond more effectively to community members,” Chen said, “especially those underserved community members, about how policymakers can address some of their needs.”

With local government in the fold, the researchers secured initial funding of $300,000 from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and launched the project in earnest. The first phase involved hosting a series of in-person events in spring 2023 with underserved community members. Chen and Jackson partnered with Urban Triage and Wisconsin EcoLatinos to invite Black and Latinx residents to these events, which included small group discussions, surveys, and free lunch and refreshments. 

At the events, community members shared their thoughts on which environmental issues they experience most in their lives, as well as the specific ways they prefer to interact with local governments about those issues. Topics of discussion included saving energy at home, the health impacts of extreme heat, tree canopy, and air pollution. 

The researchers came away with some surprising findings regarding participants’ communication preferences. “A lot of people would prefer they be texted, for example, to give their feedback,” Jackson said. He added that many people at the events still listened to the radio for news about environmental issues. “That type of knowledge is something we would not have had otherwise,” Jackson said. 

In an additional field experiment, Chen, Molder, and Villanueva examined how the way in which information is presented can affect people’s sense of empowerment to address environmental challenges. In the experiment, some participants received straightforward, facts-first materials, while others received information on the same topic, but this time conveyed through personal stories from members of their own underrepresented communities. 

The team found that storytelling was a far more effective method for making participants feel empowered to address the environmental hazards affecting their communities. These findings make intuitive sense, Chen said, because when people can relate to a story, “they feel more agency to participate.”

“Identity-based storytelling is a powerful way to engage and empower these underserved communities, to help them develop confidence,” Chen added.

A participatory platform

Using what they learned from the community events, Chen, Jackson, and their student collaborators set out to design a website to solicit feedback from community members on a longer-term basis. Jackson hopes that this digital platform, in addition to the in-person community forums, will “help facilitate better communication between individual members of underrepresented groups and the local governments that they are supposed to be served by.” The design and redesign of the website has been shaped, every step of the way, by local community members.

“We are actually engaging in what we call participatory research, where we’re engaging the participants in constructing the tools, constructing the processes,” he said. For example, when some participants reported struggles in navigating an early version of the website, the team created a tutorial video on the home page, walking participants through the process of taking surveys and providing their feedback. This iterative, participant-centered process has been “really powerful to see,” Jackson said. 

Chen added, “It is always a dynamic process for us to figure out how to make it more community-centered.”

Visitors to the website, entitled “Wisconsin Community Climate Solutions”, can report exactly where within the Greater Madison area they have experienced extreme heat, a lack of tree cover, or poor air quality. Community-reported locations can help shape future action. For instance, the map of extreme heat could help the city government decide where to build public cooling centers in the future, and the map of citywide tree canopy gaps can help organizations like Urban Tree Alliance decide where to plant trees.

Members of underserved communities can report the precise locations where they experience environmental risks like a lack of tree canopy (above) or extreme heat in the Greater Madison area.

On the site, participants can also take three surveys, designed in collaboration with local government officials, to report the extent to which they experience extreme heat, a lack of tree cover, or polluted air. 

A portion of the researchers’ survey on tree canopy in Madison, available on the custom-built website.

The survey responses enable Jackson and Chen to create what they call a “community knowledge map”—a visualization tool to illustrate the severity and frequency of environmental risks faced by various demographic subgroups. In line with the project’s goal of inclusiveness, the site is accessible in multiple languages, including French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and several others. The team plans to make the platform available to the public later this year.

An interdisciplinary alliance

Chen and Jackson each bring unique expertise and backgrounds to the project. Chen, a scholar of science communication and democratic deliberation, focuses on equity and inclusion throughout her research. She is also an experienced data scientist, adept at extracting useful insights from large datasets. With her background in deliberative democracy and computational social science, Chen has taken the lead on designing and facilitating in-person events, conducting data analysis, and building and growing networks across different stakeholders.

Kaiping Chen (photo courtesy of Chen)

Jackson’s work, meanwhile, is focused on “thinking critically about how we engage communities in digital spaces,” he said. His research takes a human-centered approach to designing and optimizing information systems, and with this project, he is putting that approach to work, “us[ing] data and information to facilitate better understanding of environmental issues and crowds online.” With his experience in citizen science projects and other collaborative digital tools, Jackson has taken the lead on constructing and reconstructing the interactive online tools, while contributing to numerous other aspects of the project.

Corey Jackson (photo courtesy of Jackson)

“Prior to working with Kaiping, I had no background in environmental issues,” Jackson said. “But what intrigued me about this project, and how I started to learn a lot more about environmental issues, was thinking about ways of getting [online] crowds, and communities of color in particular, to gain something meaningful in the area of shaping environmental policy.”

Together, the researchers, students, community members, government officials, and NGOs form an interdisciplinary alliance working toward common goals from multiple angles. 

On the horizon

In addition to the initial funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the team has since secured a grant from the UW–Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (OVCRGE) as part of its Increasing Social and Economic Inclusion Initiative. The new funding from OVCRGE will allow the project to expand its scope and scale, potentially reaching beyond Madison and Dane County.

In the coming weeks, the team will be presenting their latest findings to their NGO partners, city, county and state governments, and individual community members, gathering yet more feedback on the online tools they’ve built and the data they’ve collected, including the community knowledge map. Chen describes this as the latest step in an ongoing “dialogue feedback loop” among the various stakeholders involved.

Relatedly, this project is occurring alongside the gradual implementation of the biggest federal climate-and-energy law in US history, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The law provides hundreds of billions of dollars for states and municipalities to mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, it remains unclear how exactly that money will be spent, particularly in Madison. Findings from this long-term research led by Chen and Jackson, and powered by Black and Latinx residents, could prove instrumental in helping local governments steer IRA funds to the places where communities need them most.

Written by: Thomas Jilk, marketing & communications specialist.