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Creating Sustainable Solutions: Students Learn from Environmental Activists Fighting for Justice in Newark’s Ironbound

Field trip provides hands-on experience in developing strategies for New Jersey communities confronting climate change

Posted in: Homepage News, Humanities and Social Sciences, University

Five people stand in a garden.
Anthropology Professor Katherine McCaffrey, far right, emphasizes the importance of listening and learning from communities that are affected by climate issues. “I focus on New Jersey to let the students understand what sustainability means in the state and to help them see the world that we live in,” McCaffrey says.

Krishna Polius, a PhD student in Environmental Science and Management, knows what it means to fight for a cleaner community. A geochemist by training, her experiences include testing drinking water during the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and serving in the AmeriCorps to raise awareness about water quality issues in New Jersey.

Still, she was surprised by what she saw in Newark’s Ironbound and the proximity of polluters to children playing in the streets. “It was startling to me because of the health risks,” she says.

The industrial neighborhood – a concentration of factories and warehouses, a power plant, chemical refineries, the state’s largest garbage incinerator and a Superfund site – has long been the focus of protests and activists dedicated to uplifting this overburdened community of color, continuing a fight for clean air and land.

“The stories we heard of the activism – what’s been, what’s in the works, what’s going on – that aspect gave us hope,” adds Leanna Sanchez ’22, who joined Polius and other students in a Montclair State University Anthropology class for a tour around the Ironbound.

A plane flying over industrial facilities and bare fields.
A plane flies over the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, where industrial facilities dominate the landscape. Down Bottom Farms, a community garden built on raised beds sits on top of an industrial brownfield and offers a hopeful vision of a healthy future.

Despite all odds, change has happened. Led by the Ironbound Community Corporation, environmental justice and social service programs, including early childhood and after-school enrichment, empower the low-income community – with its garden, Down Bottom Farms, proof that transformative change is possible.

“Seeing the garden was definitely a manifestation of the work absolutely being done,” says Sanchez, a December graduate with a degree in Anthropology now working toward a master’s degree in Sustainability Science.

A guide leads students on a tour through a garden.
Winter Sims, the farm’s program coordinator leads Montclair students on a tour of the garden. Among the group, graduate students Leanna Sanchez ’22, second from left, and Krishna Polius, third from left, are part of the Anthropology class that explores solutions to building sustainable communities.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen,” says Anthropology Professor Katherine McCaffrey. She teaches “Building Sustainable Communities,” a class that explores local and regional strategies being used to improve communities disrupted by climate change. She also draws on the strength of University partnerships, inviting leaders in the sustainability movement to class and collaborating with the University’s PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies on special projects.

“We are always talking in class about how to identify the vulnerable,” says Gianna D’Aloia ’21. “What can we do for them? How can we bring them together so they’re involved in decisions that are being made, that impact them.”

This semester, the three graduate students, D’Aloia, Sanchez and Polius, are collaborating with the Township of Verona, identifying with mapping software heat islands and designing ways to lessen the higher temperatures found in various parts of the town. The work is being done in partnership with Verona’s Green Team and Sustainable New Jersey, with findings to be presented to the township’s Planning Board this spring.

“We’ll be making suggestions for green infrastructure, plantings, rain gardens and bio soils and different kinds of infrastructure that will help reduce heat and manage stormwater,” Sanchez says. “We’re trying to bring ideas that are going to mesh with the community, are inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing.”

The students are also coming to terms that such work proceeds more slowly than hoped. “They’re learning that sometimes in order to be effective, you need a different pace. It’s not a matter of checking boxes and meeting deadlines. You need to take the time to talk and meet with people,” McCaffrey says.

A student uses a shovel to turn compost at a farm.
Richard Steiner-Otoo, a junior majoring in Geographic, Environmental and Urban Studies, turns a compost pile at Down Bottom Farms. The site has evolved from an abandoned and contaminated freight rail yard into a community asset that promotes sustainability and food justice.

For many of the Montclair students, the Ironbound tour was an eye opener. “If you care about your kids or your grandkids, then you have to care about the resources in terms of social, environmental, political and economic matters. You have to educate yourself and find something you care about,” says D’Aloia, who graduated with a degree in Philosophy and will earn her master’s in Sustainability Science this May.

“Start talking about it, start making people worried about it,” she says.

Photo Gallery

A gated fence at aSuperfund site.
The Superfund site of the Diamond Alkali plant, which gained notoriety for producing the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and polluting Newark with the highest concentration of dioxin in the United States. In the 1980s, residents protested that the company was poisoning the river with dioxins, which then attached to truck wheels, and tracked dioxin throughout the Ironbound. A toxic hot spot was the community pool which has remained closed ever since.
A person gives two thumbs up as a worker looks on.
Farmer Shannel Paulino, gesturing thumbs up to Montclair students alongside the farm’s program coordinator Winter Sims during a tour at Down Bottom Farms.
Seedlings in trays ready for the growing season in front of a group of students on a garden tour.
Seedlings ready for the growing season at Down Bottoms Farm. The garden encourages healthy initiatives and hosts a Farmer’s Market every Saturday from mid-May through the end of October, providing access to fresh, locally grown produce to the residents of the Ironbound.
A factory visible in the background as a tour guide next to a tree speaks to a group of people at a community garden.
JV Valladolid, center, leads the tour for the Ironbound Community Corporation. The tour was an opportunity for the Montclair students to learn about the environmental challenges facing the Ironbound and the movement over five decades for environmental justice.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters and John J. LaRosa.

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