COMMUNITY VOICE BOX by Jeff Munie & Bill Vassilakis
The recent Chicago Tribune article from April 1, 2011 revealed that high levels of toxic lead were found in the air above the Perez elementary school in Chicago’s own Pilsen neighborhood. To residents of this community this was not a complete shock as the coal burning Fisk power generation station can be seen emitting white smoke almost constantly, and the ominous H. Kramer smelting facility can be heard all hours of the day. The real untold story behind the Tribune article was that the monitor used to collect this data was installed only through the hard work of P.E.R.R.O. (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization) member Maria Chavez, who pressured the Illinois state EPA to install an airborne lead monitor after it announced its intention to set-up air pollution monitors around the state. If it were not for the action of this community member, Pilsen would have been left out of this study.
This story illustrates an important point that science and politics are interdependent. According to the book Street Science by James Corburn, “Scientific knowledge is presumed to be shaped outside institutional, cultural and historic events – not something integral to and evolving with political decision making… (however) scientific knowledge is always “co-produced”; science and politics are interdependent, each drawing from the other in a dynamic iterative process.”
The “Voice Box” project claims that local environmental health issues are not solely a result of point source emissions, but a combination of political, economic and environmental issues, which combine to create overall inequalities in environmental health and morbidity. This project also rejects the “deficit model” of citizen participation, in which the public is assumed to be largely ignorant and in need of education regarding environmental and community health. It instead embraces community-based participatory research where the community is brought together to collect information, share stories and exchange local knowledge. Together the community can create a comprehensive body of local knowledge, public opinion and suggestions for solutions, which can be viewed by community members, decision makers and the world at large.
The Voice Box project is focused around a mobile community forum where information is recorded and exchanged. The local knowledge of the community would be recorded and shared with others in the community, the general public and decision makers via a real time online outlet. This online website will serve as the ‘voice’ of the community and as a record of local knowledge. The Voice Box would be a built upon a mobile trailer with a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, which open to create an inviting area for residents to relax, respond and exchange. The ‘local knowledge’ will be recorded in the form of video and audio testimonials, storytelling, visual demonstrations, community mapping and impressions of Fisk, which will be recorded through the use of touch screen tablets and audio/visual recording equipment. There will also be a “viewing window” where residents can sit and view Fisk, focusing on the issue while thinking of their own solutions. The Voice Box will also be a place to provide information regarding the history of Fisk, the types and amounts of pollutants, the health effects of these types of pollutants, and ways to become involved in local community decision making and politics. It can also serve as community meeting center, mobile health clinic and resource for further scientific studies. The benefit of the mobile trailer is that it can be brought to all affected communities including Pilsen, Bridgeport and Little Village with a residence in each community for a number of weeks.
The Voice Box should be viewed as a conduit for local knowledge and community involvement. The trailer itself is only a small part of this project. A group of local students, educated on the available scientific information and operation of technical devices, would act as docents and host these community involvement workshops. This project would be conducted during the summer, where residents can contribute and learn on their own time. The virtual presence of this project would allow for greater visibility and reach. This project seeks to bring together the realms of legal and scientific knowledge with that of local knowledge. The purpose of this project is to realize that community environmental health is a combination of science and politics and that encouraging community residents to record and share their experiences can influence decision makers. As Jane Addams stated in the introduction to her classic 1895 work Hull House Maps and Papers: “The residents of Hull House offer these maps and papers to the public, not as exhaustive treatises, but as recorded observations which may plausibly be of value, because they are immediate, and the result of long acquaintance”