Urban Waters Initiative: Community Outreach, Engagement, and Leadership Program

Empowering community leaders to take action on environmental issues in their neighborhood

Stay involved with this project by contacting Melissa Pappas at mpappas@savethesound.org

Save the Sound created and nurtured new connections with residents and community organizations of Fair Haven, Connecticut in order to amplify community voice and leadership in environmental stewardship and justice within the lower Mill River watershed. The project was comprised of three core elements:

1) the hiring of a Community Leader,

2) the engagement of 13 Fair Haven residents in community-based participatory research utilizing the PhotoVoice method, and

3) a community organizing effort to channel the ideas and energy from the PhotoVoice project into actionable project proposals.

Fair Haven residents explore their neighborhood during the PhotoVoice project.

In stark contrast to traditional outreach and education efforts, the project team looked to play a supporting role to the residents and community institutions within Fair Haven, a New Haven neighborhood that continues to experience environmental injustice, to identify and address areas to prioritize for environmental improvement.

The first step was hiring the Community Leader. Xóchitl Garcia, who came to the project with an open mind and extensive experience working with the residents of Fair Haven.

Xóchitl Garcia (right) with Kathy Fay of Neighborhood Housing Services (left) at the final presentation hosted at Junta for Progressive Action.

“As a Latinx woman of color, I have only seen three environmental Justice (EJ) leaders who look and speak like me,” said Xóchitl on her desire to apply to the Community Leader position. “Everywhere else, I’ve only ever seen white people in this space, and I am strongly aware of this systemic circumstance. Being part of the new EJ wave, I constantly think about who needs to be seen, heard, and addressed. I represent my neighborhood and should be one of many sources of information.”

“Serving as a Community Leader for Fair Haven allows me to address those complex environmental justice issues in the neighborhood where I grew up,” she said. “Being a leader of this project is the first time in my life that I can be an active change agent and work behind the scenes and on the front lines of environmental justice.”

Xóchitl’s passion in her role led her to become deeply invested in the recruitment process of Fair Haven resident participants to join us in the effort to document environmental hazards and benefits in this community. Thirteen participants, eight English speakers and five Spanish speakers, joined our orientation session. Xóchitl strengthened relationships with each of the attendees and recruited all 13 to the month-long PhotoVoice training course.

Melissa Pappas, ecological communications specialist, and Xóchitl Garcia present on PhotoVoice at the “Meet and Greet” networking event.

Through bi-weekly classes hosted at Junta for Progressive Action, Xochitl and Ecological Communications Specialist, Melissa Pappas taught participants the PhotoVoice method and how to think like researchers as well as storytellers. Information was shared by both the teachers and the students. Life-long residents shared their memories of the Mill River and experiences living in Fair Haven, and by the end of August, everyone walked away with perspective-shifting knowledge.

“I am so grateful to have been a part of the PhotoVoice project,” said participant Abbie Storch. “By traversing the neighborhood of Fair Haven on foot with an eye toward documenting the particulars of the environment we live in, I grew more aware about the history of the neighborhood and its unique challenges and strengths. I am grateful that the project drew my attention and focus toward our collective built environment and enabled me to think critically and creatively about ways to improve the spaces we all share.”

PhotoVoice participant Abbie Storch (right) shares her experiences in the program with Alder Sarah Miller (left).

Over 100 photos were taken throughout the course. Participants selected the final 50 showcased in the PhotoVoice exhibit (slideshow below) and interactive storymap. The following five themes or environmental issues were identified: Green and Blue Spaces, Abandoned Buildings, Trash Travels, A Safe Place?, and The Homeless. The physical exhibit traveled through the Fair Haven Public Library and Junta for Progressive Action, accompanying the charrettes and presentations to the larger community. Now, our digital exhibit and storymap continue to engage our audience with these impactful images.

Click on the photo above to see where are photos were taken.

To gather more perspectives and ideas on solutions to address these issues, Xóchitl, Melissa, and New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services, hosted two community charrettes at the Fair Haven Public Library. Community derived solutions from these charrettes were then presented in conjunction with the results of the PhotoVoice project to leaders, policy-makers, and city representatives at the final presentation hosted at Junta for Progressive Action at the end of September, 2022.

Jenny Medina Morris (left), founder of Latinx-focused PR firm Omni Culture, and Adriana Portal (right), PhotoVoice participant, share their ideas for solutions to address issues identified in the project.

Now, Xóchitl and project participants plan to hold organizations and local authorities accountable for implementing these solutions through creative campaigning and a mini series of workshops that will further develop the ideas into proposal-ready projects. All interested organizations are invited to get involved and help see these projects through.

“PhotoVoice has given me the best of both worlds,” shares Xóchitl. “A place where I’m vulnerable and assertive enough to communicate intersectional EJ topics while also providing a safe space for other neighborhood residents to do the same.”

“Now, I am establishing a strategic plan for community outreach and creating a winter workshop series. I want to improve resident attendance in the spaces where people will make decisions. Representation is more important than ever in the environmental justice world. BIPOC cultures and non-English languages need the voice, the space, and the flexibility to communicate their matters that have been systemically disregarded.”

Are you interested in our upcoming workshops? Xóchitl gives a sneak peak on what’s to come.

“The winter workshops will focus on creating actionable solutions based on the identified social-environmental concerns we gathered throughout the summer,” she says. “Ideally, we would want an organization or a partner to commit to addressing these solutions in their capacity. At the same time, Fair Haven residents continue to be the source of inspiration and can hold organizations and decision-makers accountable to those commitments. Realistically, there will be one concrete solution as a first communal step toward environmental justice in Fair Haven.”

PhotoVoice Exhibit - 3

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Thursday, Apr. 20 at 5:30 p.m.
Clean Waters & Thriving Coastlines New leaders of Save the Sound, David Ansel, vice president of water protection, and Laura Wildman, vice president of ecological restoration, will guide a discussion on how we are working to create a more resilient and thriving coastline.

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