by Chris Killian

They entered as students and left as advocates in a fight for environmental justice.

During the 2013 spring term, Alison Geist’s “Issues in Public Health” class was considering a project that would make an impact on the Kalamazoo community, perhaps one that looked at how more city residents could have access to healthy, nutritious food, or be more food secure. Then a hot topic popped up in the news, one that piqued her students’ attention.

Despite the protests of hundreds of Kalamazoo residents and city officials, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency announced it had decided to leave 1.5 million cubic yards of material contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in an 80-acre dump on the city’s south side, part of the Kalamazoo River Superfund site. The toxic PCBs, heaped into a pile where the former Allied Paper Mill used to operate, are a known human carcinogen and sit near several neighborhoods, schools, and one of the city’s main drinking water well fields.

In addition to teaching her public health class, Geist directs the recently re-named Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement (formerly the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning). The class, and the center, had a momentous project, and before spring quarter was over, they would end up making a difference much bigger than they had ever envisioned. 

“I’d never even heard of the site until we started researching it,” says Faiza Fayyaz ’13. “But we realized that we are a part of the community and hoped to make a lasting impact. This project has meant so much to me. We’re not just students, we’re residents of the city, too.”

City leaders and environmental advocacy groups at the time were pushing for the complete removal of the PCBs, organizing meetings and marches to raise public awareness of the issue. Geist’s students got to work, meeting with city officials, community leaders, and residents who lived close to the dump, educating themselves on the site, its history, and why the total removal of the waste was integral to the public health and safety of the community.

They set-up information booths at the Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market, canvassed neighborhoods nearby the dump, collected petition signatures from more than 500 residents demanding the EPA remove all the waste, and attended protest rallies. In many ways, the students became fully immersed in the grassroots movement.

Geist says the students’ efforts fully captured the mission of the Center for Civic Engagement, namely “to build a more just, equitable and sustainable world.”

That call to serve “means stepping up when the community faces a crisis, and not just through our long-standing partnerships and programs, but through ever-changing coalitions of residents, public servants, educators, activists, and others,” she says. “This particular issue drew me as a matter of community health; it encompasses environmental justice, sustainability, good governance, and the principles of community empowerment for social change—and it needed champions immediately.”

Community activists, including those who have been on the ground in the PCB fight for years, lauded the students’ hard work.

“Their activities were the most direct, face-to-face interaction with area residents of our entire campaign efforts,” says Gary Wager, executive director of the Kalamazoo River Cleanup Coalition, a group pushing for total removal of the PCBs. “It is one thing to read about an issue, or see some reporting on TV, but still more effective to have personal contact with someone who really cares about an issue. K students showed that personal commitment, and helped get people out of their houses and into the streets and attending our community meetings.”

“The more we learned about the issue, the more involved and passionate we became,” says Wyatt Smith ’14, whose voice could be heard from more than one protest marcher’s bullhorn. “It wasn’t like a class, it was real life. We were on the ground, talking to people, getting information out. We became foot soldiers in the movement.” 

“A number of seniors noted that the project enabled them to integrate and apply the many different kinds of things they’d learned throughout their time at K--languages, various disciplines, critical thinking skills, and intercultural skills from study abroad,” says Geist. 

But perhaps the most important aspect of the students’
"We're residents of this city, too."
project was the interviewing they conducted with residents who live in the areas near the dump, collecting personal stories about how the site has affected people’s well being as well as their hopes and ideas for the future use of the site--free from PCBs. No one--not the city or environmental or community organizing groups--was undertaking such work.

Some residents spoke of health problems they associated with the dump, while others thought it just didn’t make sense to have a toxic waste dump near the middle of a thriving city. Nearly everyone wanted to see all the waste removed and the site returned to public use as green space, or parts of it developed, recouping lost tax revenue from what is now a no-man’s land.

Each student had to write a report on the experience, with the best stories and research organized into a comprehensive document Geist says was delivered to the EPA, city officials, and groups advocating complete removal of the toxic waste. The document will be used as a powerful tool in the critical final months of the campaign to push for complete removal. 

“Students worked on all aspects of the project with energy, growing commitment, skill, and (usually) good humor,” says Geist. “They encouraged one another when it became so challenging because they were committed to learning together, as well as learning from and with community residents.  And they kept at it because they were working on a real issue with real consequences, and people depended upon them.  

“In the end, this was a magnificent illustration of how students can use liberal arts skills, knowledge, and experience to work with others to collaboratively address an ‘ill-defined problem,’” she adds. “These are public health and social justice tools, of course, but capably addressing such issues is also something all of us had better know how to do if we want to live lives of meaning and value.”

The Center for Civic Engagement has changed its name, but its mission continues.

Photo - Students collect signatures for a petition that will be sent to the United States Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of complete disposal of toxic waste containing PCBs. Pictured are (foreground to background, seated): Faiza Fayyaz ’13, Alexa Grau ’14, and Rachel Vettese ’15.

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