INTRODUCTION

REJOICE–Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise formed in 2018 to directly center the voices of frontline communities in generating recommendations for policy.  In March 2020, REJOICE shifted focus, to examine disparities in frontline communities’ access to information, services, and benefits, and protection from harms in the context of COVID-19. As the pandemic placed existing disparities in starker relief, and created new ones, we kept using an Environmental Justice (EJ) lens. An EJ framework says that all people should have equal access to the benefits of a clean, healthy and safe environment, and protection from harms. We find that it fits the context of a health emergency, and that it applies to our everyday lives, because it allows us to identify opportunities, correct harms, and build community resiliency– here, the ability for individuals, communities, organizations, and the State of Vermont to support one another to recover from disaster, prepare for, and prevent future emergencies, and thrive together.

To support those goals, this report details some successful practices we used in outreach, and shares what we heard, both by community and by area of concern. Importantly, it highlights the stated preferences of those we interviewed about how, where, and from whom to receive information on health, safety,  economic and educational opportunities, and disaster resiliency. The findings we share here are qualitative. That is, they do not represent all Vermonters, or all members of the groups of people to whom we spoke. They do offer a window into the concerns, fears, priorities, preferences, hopes, needs and desires of Vermonters who are not always heard in planning for resilience and equity. This report is an invitation and guide to listening better: to learn from one another, and to act on that knowledge to change how those who are closer to power and who manage resources communicate, facilitate access, and do business, so that the practices and systems we create will enable more of us to thrive. 

From July to November 2020, REJOICE held 17 focus groups, and spoke with 77 Vermont residents from 7 different groups. We asked about: 

Environment and Natural Resources (Air/water/environment/waste/outdoor access)
Economic recovery and worker safety (Economy/jobs/safety/Education)
Emergency communications and Equal Access (Equal Access / Fair Treatment / Meaningful Involvement )
Information (Language Access, health economy)
Food and Transportation                                                                     
Health and Family Wellbeing
Housing and Energy  

We spoke to Vermonters from these groups:
New Americans: Bhutanese Nepali and Somali Bantu, both elders and younger adults
Migrant farm workers 
People living with traumatic brain injury or chronic illness 
Deaf /Hard of hearing 
Mobile home residents  
Rural and older Vermonters
“Heat map” of how conversations with groups of people from different frontline Vermont communities focused, by topic, August – December 2020. Questions are listed in the Methodology section, above. Here, percents matter less than patterns, and may add up to more than 100%, because issues overlap and connect. For example, someone talking about feeling unsafe at work during the pandemic might speak about information , equal access, health, and economic concerns in a single sentence.
This chart uses part of the same data shown above to “zoom in” on topics people in most groups spoke less about. It shows differences in how and whether people spoke about those topics.

HIGH-LEVEL FINDINGS

Design with and for impacted communities 

The people who directly experience environmental injustices or harms, and who are working to resolve and correct those harms, are overburdened. They face heavy and intersecting burdens on their time, resources, finances, responsibilities to work and family and community, and to their own health and wellbeing. They also hold key understanding of how existing systems impact individuals and communities. 

I happen to be aware of how so many different factors interact with each other. That it’s very difficult to say what’s, what’s wrong over here, without mentioning that there’s something over there that’s having its effect either, sometimes more directly than it seems.

–NEK resident

As such, any effective policy, planning and action must take into account the knowledge and expertise based in place, experience, and community. Doing so with respect means compensating people who share their knowledge at a professional rate. It means those who are closer to power and resources go out of their way to meet people where they are, in welcoming spaces and accessible language, to devise equitable solutions together.

“All the main things in life conspire together to make it very difficult for the poor. The big ones: transportation, housing, food, and medical, there’s four or five of them. And so if you’re well to do you’re comfortable and secure, you’re not well to do you’re uncomfortable and insecure.”

– NEK resident

“Environment” isn’t just the great outdoors

Environmental justice thinking teaches us that the environment is the place where we live, work, eat, play and pray. As a result, the environment exists not just out-of-doors, but inside our homes and places of work. It is recorded in our bodies and makes an imprint on our tissues, sometimes literally in the marrow of our bones. 

As REJOICE worked with interpreters and liaisons to design focus group conversations, they asked, “what do you mean by ‘the environment’? Many people we spoke with did not relate to the environment mainly as the great outdoors or the natural world.  The environment that mattered to them manifested as the condition of indoor and interior space: their housing, the second-hand smoke and woodsmoke filtering in from neighbors; the quality of safety, risk, threat, or policing that they felt in public and private places; the substances around them that affected their bodies’ health; the safety and health of their workplace; and the barriers and gaps they met with in trying to access government resources and programs. 

Audience

This report is an invitation to policymakers, planners, and agency staff; funders, non-profit and community groups: everyone, in fact, with the need, desire, capacity or power to change how we get things done in Vermont, so many more of us are respectfully and meaningfully included. It highlights successful engagement practices, key concerns, and experiences and ideas in participants’ own words. To successfully connect with and serve these groups requires thinking outside the lines, a need to shift language, focus, priorities and metrics of success. It starts with humble listening, and stays to build relationship, trust–and resiliency.

Story box: Relationships build resiliency
In June 2020, COVID-19 infection rates spiked among New American communities in Burlington and Winooski. Vermont Department of Health officials scrambled to find community-trusted institutional and individual partners, and points of entry to understand and build on community members’ diverse thinking about pandemic safety, testing and risk. While the Department was able to work with key, embedded community partners to support the communities, “our lack of already existing sustained relationships slowed us in quickly and effectively communicating with and serving Somali Bantu and Bhutanese Nepali communities.” an official shared. Part of the solution? Collaborating with and hiring bilingual, younger New Americans, who shared good information, their own experiences of safe COVID testing, and state-provided quarantine options with parents and other community elders.

Beginning in mid-March 2021, Addison County-based Open Door Clinic , and their northern tier partner, Vermont Migrant Education Program’s Bridges to Health, used grant funds to run mobile vaccination caravans, traveling from farm to farm to offer shots. By June 2021, Latinx farmworkers were the most COVID-protected population in the state, with 95% or more vaccinated.  That win built on 14 years of accessible bilingual health care and case management in relationship with Spanish-speaking and other uninsured rural Vermont residents. That care has included proactive pandemic outreach and a rapid shift to bilingual telemedicine availability. 

“Within the state and Nation, we are leaders and getting vaccine into the field, bringing greater access and health equity to our community members and people of color who have long faced great disparities in care. This life-saving work is pivotal and our involvement is deepening the connection between us all. As long as the Vermont Health Department continues to provide vaccine, we plan to keep vaccinating!” – Open Door Clinic Director Heidi Sulis, ODC Spring 2021 newsletter

INTRODUCTION

Who we are & how we work

REJOICE, Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise, is a collective made up of partners from the Center for Whole Communities, Community Action Works, University of Vermont, and The Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law School, with input from CVOEO’s Mobile Home Program. The coalition works to further environmental justice in Vermont through community engagement, research, and policy making. Environmental justice is a movement that works to ensure no community or group of people bear a disproportionate share of environmental costs nor enjoy a disproportionate share of environmental benefits. The current realities of environmental injustice include inadequate access to food, housing, workplace safety, recreation, disaster recovery, health care, and other relevant community and governmental services.

Recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance regarding natural disasters and environmental justice communities underscored the need to build trust and be accessible before a disaster strikes. Government agencies and designated emergency actors should have relationships in communities most affected and underserved in order to deploy meaningful support quickly. This guidance fully aligns with the efforts of REJOICE to work with a variety of state, local, and nongovernmental partners to understand, inform, and advocate for policy changes to address environmental injustice in Vermont. REJOICE has already been engaged over the past two years in an exploration of what environmental health disparities look like in Vermont, including conducting in-depth surveys and interviews in environmentally distressed communities and holding community conversations in Rutland and Newport. We have collaborated with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Department of Health to connect community concerns to policy solutions. 

Through our early work, it became clear to us that there was lingering trauma and mistrust of government from Tropical Storm Irene among disproportionately affected communities, which informed our sense of urgency to understand community needs at the start of the unfolding pandemic. Our existing work and partnerships positioned us to swiftly change course to assess the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 in Vermont. To assess and illuminate underrepresented experiences of the pandemic, the REJOICE Project conducted compensated, telephone-based focus groups with communities in Vermont that we identified as vulnerable and digitally underserved. These groups include New Americans and migrant farmworkers experiencing lingual and cultural barriers, mobile home park residents, seniors, people with disabilities, and geographically isolated communities. Our hope was to identify key findings and recommendations to help ensure an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and to inform an improved response to the next disaster, pandemic, or other form of crisis necessitating a governmental and institutional response.

How we did this work

To conduct our assessment, REJOICE worked with relevant community leaders or liaisons (sometimes referred to as cultural brokers in New American settings). We compensated them at a professional rate for their expertise to co-design, recruit participants for, and co-facilitate focus group conversations. If an interpreter was required, we also compensated them and included them in the design process. This co-design process helped us create welcoming and accessible virtual spaces, and set us up to ask questions in ways that would be accessible and meaningful to participants.

 The focus group discussions were conducted via group Zoom calls that allowed participants to call in from a phone or access the conversation digitally. Participants were asked to devote roughly an hour and a half of their time to these focus groups, and were compensated $50 each. Compensation was delivered as quickly and safely as possible, with the help of the community liaisons. During our calls, we provided a brief overview of the project and sought consent in participants’ primary language. We shared vital targeted health and economic resource information, as available and agreed upon with the community liaison. By checking, we avoided repeating information already shared by our partners. We then worked with our liaisons to prioritize some or all of the following questions (bilingual sessions with interpretation ran longer, or covered fewer questions in depth)..

  • What were the environmental and health issues of concern to you and your community before the pandemic?
  • How do you usually get the information and resources you need to address environmental or health concerns? Has that changed during the pandemic? Has it been adequate and timely? Where did it come from? What information do you feel you still need?
  • Where and how would you like to receive health and economic information and resources? What is the best way for you to access medical care and economic support?
  • Has your economic situation changed during the pandemic? If you’re working, do you feel healthy and safe at work? Have you been able to talk about and address any problems with a supervisor?
  • Do you have a healthy and safe living situation/housing? Has that changed during the pandemic?
  • What are your challenges, if any, to accessing sufficient, nutritious food and necessary supplies? Have things changed for you during this pandemic?
  • If you could pass a law right now to deal with the biggest environmental and health issues facing Vermonters, what would that law say?

Given the unpredictable nature of the current pandemic, we argue that it is even more imperative to understand how to reach marginalized and digitally underserved communities with two-way dialogue to meet their needs. Furthermore, there has always been existing tension between inaccessible remote public processes and getting feedback from frontline communities who face barriers to participation. To this end, we are putting forth a summary of the best ways to engage frontline and digitally underserved Vermont populations, the failures and drawbacks of certain communication channels, and the key considerations for different populations and communities to help ensure an equitable recovery from this crisis and a better response in anticipation of the next disaster, pandemic, or other crisis. Beyond the immediate crisis, this will inform policy recommendations about more inclusive forms of engagement, information dissemination, and integration of public feedback.

Photo: A pre-COVID REJOICE community conversation in Newport, Vermont, in 2019.

What do we mean by…

Community resilience

The ability to work together to protect against, plan for, adapt to, and recover from hazardous events. How do we build this resilience? What infrastructures do we need? Resilience requires a culture of strong interconnections and a sense of shared identity. It is based on broadly shared access to high quality of life that emerges from sustainable practices and relationships in the arenas of health, politics, economy, social interaction, and the natural world. it depends on transparency: on equal access to resources including emergency assistance, technical and financial information (EPA 2016).

Digitally Underserved Communities

“The term Digital Divide has typically been used to describe decreased access to information technologies, particularly the Internet, for racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, rural populations, and those with low socioeconomic status” (Chang et al., 2004). In Vermont, limitations may include broadband access, access to smart devices, language barriers, time during workday, geography, proximity to services, financial wherewithal, etc.

Summary compiled by:
Dr. Susannah McCandless, 
Center for Whole Communities
REJOICE 2021
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