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Assessing illegal dumping sites in Fort Defiance, AZ to raise community awareness and stimulate innovative solutions

Fort Defiance, Arizona

Featured image for the project, Assessing illegal dumping sites in Fort Defiance, AZ to raise community awareness and stimulate innovative solutions

Volunteer clean up event in Window Rock, AZ. Photo credit: Rez Refuge Program Coordinator, Derrith Hardy

Illegal dumping sites are frequently found in the Fort Defiance community in the Navajo Nation. However, there is a lack of information on why they arise, the quantity of sites, and the harmful effects the trash can have on community members. Therefore, Rez Refuge, a local non-profit, aims to: connect with scientists to provide tangible evidence of the dumping sites using GIS tools, educate community members on the consequences of the problem, and engage community members to help solve the issue through community led clean ups. Promoting awareness and enabling the members to improve upon both their health and the environment will lead to a more resilient community.


The Community and the Project

Fort Defiance is a community within the Navajo Nation located in northeast Arizona close to the border of New Mexico and has a population size of about 3,600 people. The Navajo Nation consists of 5 agencies and 110 Chapters. The Fort Defiance community is in the Fort Defiance Agency and is the location of the Fort Defiance Chapter House.

For this project the Fort Defiance community is being represented by the local non-profit Rez Refuge, which is located in the Rio Puerco neighborhood. This non-profit demonstrates its commitment to Navajo people and their home by creating a welcoming environment for all and providing opportunities for the youth. A growing concern for the non-profit has been the increasing amount of trash found throughout their neighborhood. Therefore, one of their priorities is to address how waste is disposed of in their community. In the past year Rez Refuge has hosted volunteer clean up events to tackle the littering issue, but they strive to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem. Rez Refuge would like to promote awareness and prevention of the ongoing effects of littering with the hopes of engaging Fort Defiance and surrounding communities to come together to address the issue.

The first step in the project is to quantify the illegal dumping sites in the area. This will be accomplished by collecting GPS coordinates from the sites, which will then be used to create an interactive map available to the public. Visually portraying illegal dumping sites will support their goal of raising community awareness.

Once the sites are marked, community outreach will follow. Educational materials focused on the impacts of improper waste disposal on the community and the environment will be published on the Rez Refuge website and made into hard copies for distribution to gain community buy-in. They hope to engage all members of their community on the project, but they have a special goal of reaching out to members that live in rural, often off grid, areas to inform them how to safely dispose of their trash as well as the youth who are the future of the community.

With an increase of community interest, the trash clean ups held by the staff at Rez Refuge will see more attendance and be able to make a greater impact. Furthermore, an ArcGIS story map will display the progress and accomplishments of the project for easy access to the public. Successful completion of the project will result in a community empowered with the knowledge and tools to advocate for better waste management resources.


Summer & Fall 2022 → Search for and connect community to scientists

Fall & Winter 2022 →  Host community outreach events

Spring 2023 → Publish interactive illegal dumping map and educational materials

Project Team

Community Leads

Mrs. Autumn Haley is a Dine’ (Navajo) woman, originally from Wheatfields, Arizona. Her work transpired from her own experiences growing up as a young Native American woman on the Dine’ reservation. Mrs. Haley began working at Rez Refuge seven years ago. She interviewed as a Tutor and quickly began integrating in other areas of the organization. Having grown up in the Fort Defiance community, Mrs. Haley graduated from high school at Window Rock High School, received her Certification as a Diabetes Prevention Specialist, went into Nursing School to come back to her community and use the tools and knowledge she learned at the University of New Mexico. However, at the time of working as a Tutor, Mrs. Haley grew curious about the potential that Rez Refuge could inspire meaningful programs for the youth and surrounding community. Taking a leap of Faith, Mrs. Haley turned from Nursing School and graduated with a degree in Human Services with a Concentration in Family Studies. Mrs. Haley currently lives in Gallup, New Mexico with her husband and has legal guardianship of her two youngest siblings who are currently fifteen and seventeen years old. She is now a Program Director at Rez Refuge and continues to strive to be an inspiring role-model for her community.

“I have been working for Rez Refuge for 7 years, I began as a Tutor and remembered being curious about the after-school program beyond the tutoring doors. Opening those doors created an inspiring move to build meaningful programs for the youth and surrounding community. There I was able to fulfill my duties as a Program Director with the foundations of learning and growing with the organization- to inspire others in my community to plant the same growth for our future community leaders.” -Autumn Haley

Derrith Hardy Headshot

Derrith Hardy is a Native American woman from the tribe called Dine’ (Navajo). Her first clan is To’aheedliinii (The Water Flow Together clan) which comes from her mother’s clan, she is born for Tl’aashchi’I (The Red Bottom clan) which is her father’s clan. Her third clan is Kinyaa’aanii (The Towering House clan) which comes from her maternal grandfather’s clan, and lastly her fourth clan is Tabaahi (The Water Edge clan) which comes from her paternal grandfather’s clan. Derrith is originally from Wheatfields, Arizona, but was born and raised in Fort Defiance, Arizona where she lived and attended school, she graduated from Window Rock High School. She is a mother of two young children, her oldest son is 11 years old, and her youngest son is 6 years old. Derrith’s interests include spending time with family, photography, skateboarding, and being outdoors.

In January of 2013, she started volunteering at Rez Refuge, a non-profit organization in Fort Defiance, AZ, and in March 2013 she was hired as a Program Assistant working and mentoring the youth. Over the years, she gradually worked her way to her current position as a Program Coordinator. Working and interacting with the youth and community, she began to build connections which led her to realize that this was more than a job, it was her passion. Derrith demonstrates professional, friendliness, warmth, and genuine caring in her relationships with others while providing intellectual and emotional support. Currently, she loves working with the youth and her community. Being a member of her community, she understands the impact of community responsibilities as it applies to the welfare of others and the environment. Not only has she seen herself but also her community grow into a beautiful, caring person/place. Derrith looks forward to continuing nurturing her community for the generations to come.


Community Science Fellow

Dede Lawal Headshot

Hadijah “Dede” Lawal (she/her) holds a B.A. in Environmental Science from Emory University and an M.S. in Environment and Sustainability from the University of Michigan. For her master’s project she has been working with the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation to create a wetland enhancement and site design plan for a recently acquired parcel of culturally significant land. She has experience in marine research, environmental education, and citizen science programming. She is interested in restoration, conservation ecology, science communication, and actionable science. Passionate about community-driven projects, she is excited to be a part of the Thriving Earth Exchange fellowship. In her free time she enjoys baking, hiking, and aerial silks.


Community Science Partners

Headshot Sheelah Bearfoot

Sheelah Bearfoot graduated with a degree in Genetics and Plant Biology from UC Berkeley in 2016. She’s Chiricahua Apache, and upon graduation worked at the Native American Health Center in San Francisco as a diabetes educator and referral coordinator before starting a Master’s in Environmental Health Science at Johns Hopkins, continuing her focus on Indigenous health disparities. In her spare time, she’s also a speech and debate coach.

Scientist Wanted

This project is looking for two scientists or one with the ability to fulfill both roles. One scientist will utilize GIS tools to build a user-friendly interactive map based on the coordinates from illegal dumping sites found around the Fort Defiance area. The second scientist will create informal educational materials to help inform the community on the impacts of improper waste disposal.

Desired Skills and Qualifications:

Scientist #1

  • Proficient in GIS software
  • Experience cleaning and organizing data
  • Knowledge and respect for indigenous cultures and worldviews
  • Experience and/or desire to participate in community education, outreach, and engagement
  • Experience with citizen science
  • Strong listening and collaboration skills
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns

Scientist #2

  • Experience with municipal waste management and/or rural waste management
  • Knowledge about the impacts littering/illegal dumping have on communities and the environment
  • Experience creating informal educational materials for all age groups
  • Knowledge and respect for indigenous cultures and worldviews
  • Experience and/or desire to participate in community education, outreach, and engagement
  • Experience with citizen science
  • Strong listening and collaboration skills
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Interested in volunteering as a scientist? Apply now!