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Community Voices Part 1: Rubbertown Reacts

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Two ongoing projects illustrate what can be accomplished when community advocates partner with TEX scientists to amplify their voice. In this two-part series, hear community leaders’ perspectives on the ins and outs of working with scientists. 


Part 1: Rubbertown Reacts

“We are responding to the chemical assault that has been launched against our families and neighbors. So we’re not always going to be sitting quietly in the room, nodding our heads. Sometimes we will demonstrate. Sometimes we will protest.”

Those are the words of Eboni Cochran, a community leader in West Louisville, Ky., a community perhaps better known as “Rubbertown” thanks to its position as the epicenter of the U.S. rubber industry. Noxious fumes from the area’s rubber plants are generating serious public health concerns.

Cochran is the deputy director of ReACT, the Rubbertown Emergency Action group, which advocates for better assessments of plant emissions. The EPA is tracking rubber plant emissions through the Next Generation Emissions Monitoring (NGEM) project, but community members are doubtful that NGEM’s long term goals align with the community’s more immediate air quality concerns.

ReACT formed when residents noted an uptick in cancer, asthma and other health problems in the community. But being a community-based group, they knew that to legitimize their concerns in decision-makers’ eyes, they would have to speak a more scientific language. Enter TEX, which connected the group with in an emissions expert, Amy Townsend-Small of the University of Cincinnati, to bridge the gaps between the community, the rubber industry and the EPA.

Cochran, who says she is grateful for the TEX partnership, stresses that community involvement is just as important as science in producing meaningful change. Residents, after all, are the ones with skin in the game. She also notes that for community members, this is not a paid position, but a volunteer job that they squeeze in between working full time and caring for their families. Commitment to the cause is essential. “Deadlines and project plans can place another layer of stress to our day-to-day lives, and we have to determine if we’re ready for that,” Cochran says.

A collaboration like this only works if both parties are open, attentive and respectful of each other’s contributions, she says. So far, both partners have shown dedication to bringing their unique value to the table. Without the community voice, firsthand knowledge of how the community works would be lost. Without assistance from TEX and Townsend-Small, local residents could be shut out from official discussions and kept in the dark about emission levels.

“The unique value in bringing scientists and communities together is two-fold,” Cochran says. “One is that scientists know how to gain access to and have the ability to interpret the data the community needs to advocate on behalf of people adversely affected by chemicals. Two is that scientists, if they are open, will learn that communities have a level of their own expertise that is vital to the fight for environmental justice that the data alone cannot win.”

Though the circumstances of each community differ, Cochran says there are likely common themes that connect the experiences of community leaders who choose to partner with scientists on issues such as environmental justice. “I think it will be important, as these collaborations grow, to identify partnerships that have worked really well and use those to inform upcoming partnerships,” she says. And that, folks, is exactly what we at TEX aim to do.

Read more about the West Louisville, Kentucky project.

mgoodwin editor

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