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Woods brings science to N.C. communities fighting environmental hazards

Woods brings science to N.C. communities fighting environmental hazards

Woods brings science to N.C. communities fight against environmental hazards

January 31, 2022

Dr. Courtney Woods

Courtney Woods has been a PhD researcher for more than a ten years. Participatory research allows her to tap local expertise and support communities suffering from environmental racism. To support local responses in the face of environmental health concerns, she established the Environmental Justice Action Research Clinic (EJ Clinic), with funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Woods, assistant professor and MPH Program director in the Gillings Schools Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, stated that the goal is to encourage students and faculty to engage in participatory, action-oriented research. This will help community organizers work towards environmental justice and transform the way academics approach environmental health issues. We hope that the clinic will improve the effectiveness and capacity of community organizing efforts, and train a new generation to be able to center the voice of the community in their work.

A recent collaboration with a rural North Carolina village revealed that there was potentially dangerous environmental contamination. It also highlighted the need to conduct similar investigations in other communities. Sampson County residents raised concerns about pollution coming from nearby agricultural operations, a landfill, and other sources. Woods received information about their situation and her team worked with them to identify the levels of polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs), in a local waterway. This evidence can be presented by community leaders to regulators. Sampson County-based EJ Clinic has partnered with them. EJCANContinue to assess water quality in households.

Woods proposed the creation of a clinic in order to expand the work of the clinic and to continue it in other communities throughout the state. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation granted the EJ Clinic a State Level Systemic Change grant of $210,000 over three years in November 2021.

A group of people standing on a roadside in a rural area

As part of the local water-monitoring campaign, a visit to the site for a new biogas facility was made in Sampson County.

The EJ Clinic provides technical assistance to support community organizations that are concerned about environmental hazards. It functions in the same way as a legal clinic. It provides free services that inform and promote local efforts to improve public protections. Woods has provided services such as community health surveys, monitoring of the environment, and technical review for critical policy and permit documents to community clients. Students are included in the program to have hands-on experience with community-driven research methods.

The clinic has a special focus on urgent environmental issues. It is intended to influence impending permits and policies. The clinic’s long-term goal is shift the power dynamics between decision-makers, and those who are affected by their decisions. Woods will establish relationships between UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and community leaders. She will also mentor students who will bring practical experience in participatory action research to the public healthcare workforce.

In collaboration North Carolina Environmental Justice NetworkThe team will evaluate and summarize the current state of environmental justice in N.C. and create a resource to help communities and organizations statewide. This landscape analysis, which includes a review and survey of relevant literature, interviews with key figures, will lead to the creation of a system map that identifies key environmental justice issues in the state. The clinic will host community leaders and residents in skills-building workshops and establish a community advisory panel to guide their work. They will also respond quickly and efficiently to technical support requests.

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The EJ Clinic combines scientific expertise and public health with community knowledge, networks, and insight. It has goals and a structure that maximizes the contributions of academics and community leaders. The clinic will collect its learnings into a resource to support community-level environmental justice work. This will serve as a guideline for future organizers, community-engaged scholars, and others. This guide will help academics and community members to train the next generation environmental justice advocates and scholars.

Woods received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 2007 from UNC Gillings Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Woods is also the leader of the Environmental Health Concentration of the Master of Public Health degree programs. She also co-leads and directs the Health Equity, Social Justice, and Human Rights concentration. She is also a founding member. Earthseed Land CollectiveBIPOC-led organisation that uses cooperative principles to share access to land, redefining how the human-natural-environment relationship is redefined, and works towards food sovereignty

The Z. Smith Reynolds FoundationsState-Level Systemic Change Grantmaking seeks to remove barriers and improve outcomes for North Carolinians in four priority areas. These include Advancing Public education; Fostering Healthy and Sustainable Environments; Promoting Economic Justice and Strengthening Democracy.


Contact UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Communications Team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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