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Empowering Tribal Communities through Community Science

The Kansas State Center for Hazardous Substances Research (CHSR), a multidisciplinary unit within the College of Engineering at Kansas State University, has been named as one of four AGU Thriving Earth Exchange Community Science Hubs. This hub will focus on working with indigenous communities across the U.S., helping them to revitalize underutilized properties and preserve cultural traditions. With support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, each hub receives $50,000 a year for two years to launch and support community science projects. 

The CHSR was founded in the 1980s to help bridge the gap between emerging environmental policies and their real-world impacts on communities. “We collaborate with various sectors, including community-based organizations, industry and local governments to provide on-the-ground solutions to help them achieve their locally defined goals,” said Oral Saulters, director of strategic partnerships, environmental justice and equity at CHSR.

Through its Technical Assistance to Brownfields (TAB) and Tribal Technical Assistance to Brownfields (Tribal TAB) programs, the CHSR has formed a vast network of diverse partners and has helped urban, rural and tribal communities redevelop contaminated properties known as brownfields. This has involved aiding in initial visioning processes, establishing goals, supporting assessment and remediation activities and figuring out how to redevelop contaminated properties.

Members of the Texas Gulf Coast Tribes, a coalition of indigenous communities that is part of CHSR’s cohort of community science projects.

Integrating culture and science

“The AGU Thriving Earth Exchange Community Science Hub program has helped us think about how we can approach community science in new and different ways,” said Saulters. “Much of our work is driven by federal partners and funding. AGU’s community science approach can not only expand our network of partners but also the kind of work that we can do — especially in terms of incorporating culture into the land revitalization process with our indigenous community partners.”

Due to inherent biases in data collection processes, publicly available data often fails to represent the communities most in need, including indigenous communities. This makes it challenging for these communities to tell their stories and demonstrate their needs. Part of the Community Science Hub efforts will focus on empowering communities to collect their own data through community science initiatives. Another goal is to help integrate traditional ecological knowledge with geosciences while also emphasizing the continuity between elders and youth.

The CHSR Hub’s first cohort includes five indigenous communities: the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma, a coalition of indigenous tribes along the Texas Gulf Coast, the Kickapoo tribe in Kansas, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas and the Fort Peck tribes in Montana. The projects will focus on preserving culture, passing on traditional knowledge and bringing traditional and ceremonial plants back into the communities. 

Preserving traditional knowledge and heritage

“This initiative is creating a space and opportunity that communities have long sought, and it’s exciting to see their enthusiasm about finally making it possible,” said Jennifer Clancey, director of outreach innovation and marketing for CHSR. “Additionally, for communities without a written language, these projects will help connect elders and knowledge holders with others to ensure the oral transfer of essential traditional information, providing a vital bridge for cultural continuity.”

One project will focus on reintroducing traditional and ceremonial plants that have become scarce. These plants are crucial for preserving culture, passing on knowledge and addressing medicinal needs. The project aims to provide a space for reintroducing these plants, a goal that was previously hindered by limited resources and competing responsibilities. 

In another project, CHSR will help a community evaluate its solid waste infrastructure and assess the tribal government’s relationship with the local government. The community would like to use the collected data and assessment to design and construct their own solid waste facilities while also fostering stronger relationships and learning from peer communities.

“Through the Community Science Hub, we’re able to help launch small community science projects that we couldn’t do through Tribal TAB,” explained Clancey. “However, we can later use our Tribal TAB resources to expand these projects or carry them forward in a way that would not have been able to happen otherwise. It’s exciting to see how these programs can work together to help these communities achieve their goals.”

The exterior of the former Concho Indian Boarding School in the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes community, which is part of CHSR’s cohort of community science projects.

Liz Crocker editor

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