In summer of 2020, the UNC Institute for the Environment reconstituted its diversity, equity and inclusion committee known as the Institute for the Environment’s Inclusion and Equity Committee or IEIE. The group facilitated discussions about what the Institute can do to make the organization the best it can be by moving forward with inclusivity and equity in its discipline.
“We work in the area of the environment and one thing that is well established is that environmental challenges are not felt equally by all people,” said Mike Piehler, director of the UNC Institute for the Environment. “People in under resourced communities, people in marginalized communities are feeling more of a burden by environmental challenges.”
As an action-oriented committee co-chaired by Regina Hill, development director at the Institute, and Andrew George, a community engagement coordinator at the Institute, the team’s discussions bore the idea of creating a program where the Institute could have the most impact.
“At that time, Kathleen Gray [director of the Institute’s Center for Public Engagement with Science] had the great idea to focus on one of our core strengths, which is research,” said Piehler. “We talked about environmental justice in particular. With its more than billion-dollar research enterprise, UNC has tons of data that can be gathered for lots of specific purposes that have value in the environmental justice context, but haven’t been looked at through the lens of environmental justice.”
The team landed on facilitating environmental justice research through funding graduate students.
The $50,000 annual stipend is awarded to a UNC graduate student who can demonstrate a research plan that broadens understanding of environmental justice issues in marginalized communities in North Carolina. The recipient must conduct research using methods that can be modeled for use beyond the state and is encouraged to partner with other disciplines and communities in their project.
Neasha Graves, environmental health outreach manager at the Institute, took the lead on generating the application and selection process.
“I’ve enjoyed working on an initiative that impacts our Institute and can impact the broader research community at UNC,” Graves said. “This endeavor is personally meaningful to me, as a native of a community with a history of environmental contamination, because it offers opportunities to understand the effects of exposure to environmental hazards and to help partners in socially and economically marginalized communities seek solutions for addressing them.”
The inaugural recipient of the award is Amy Kryston, a graduate student in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Kryston will examine septic systems and other on-site sanitation usage and their relationship to health and socioeconomic indicators in rural and marginalized communities in North Carolina, a state where nearly 50% of the population uses on-site sanitation systems, like septic tanks.
“This program is connected to the IE mission, which is to do environmental research and provide the information generated to the people who need it,” Piehler said. “All of that connects back to an imperative to think about environmental justice as a freestanding research topic and really increasingly as an element of everything we do. When we are looking to find solutions to environmental problems, we always want to have our eyes on understanding what a just solution might look like.”