Graduate student’s research helps environmental organizations better serve coastal communities of color

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Coastal Science and Policy Program graduate student Kalina Browne.

Coastal Science and Policy Program graduate student Kalina Browne led development of a research report, released on World Ocean's Day, that can help guide environmental organizations toward better engagement with coastal communities of color. Browne received a paid fellowship to work on the project on behalf of Green 2.0, a national watchdog organization focused on diversity and equity in the environmental sector.  

Coastal communities of color are among those on the front lines of climate change, facing environmental, social, and health hazards, often with limited resources, as a result of historical exclusion and marginalization. Environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could potentially provide important support for these communities, but little research has focused specifically on these relationships. So Browne was brought in to develop a report on the topic with actionable recommendations for NGOs. 

Browne’s work with Green 2.0 was part of a summer placement through the Master of Science in Coastal Science and Policy (CSP) degree program at UC Santa Cruz. All CSP master’s students spend a summer working alongside an organization within their field of study as part of the program’s focus on real-world experiential learning. And Browne said her summer placement project with Green 2.0 felt like a great fit from the start. 

“I am from Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, which is a coastal nation in itself, and this project was all about coastal communities of color, so I’ve always been interested in that,” she said. “I wanted to get a perspective on these issues from the U.S. standpoint.”

As part of her work on the new report, Browne conducted a literature review, interviewed 17 personnel at local, regional, and national NGOs, and reviewed the work and strategies of 25 organizations operating primarily within coastal communities of color in California, Florida, and Louisiana. 

Findings from the report detail how coastal communities of color across the U.S. experience environmental harms, including industrial pollution and climate change impacts like sea level rise, flooding, and hurricanes. Some communities are also threatened by climate gentrification, which is displacing residents in higher-elevation coastal areas. And declining marine biodiversity places a strain on livelihoods and culturally important food resources. 

The report also shares how NGOs can support these communities, including through help with lobbying, funding, and organizing and through specialized services like legal aid, scientific research, and disaster relief. Training and education offerings can also help community leaders and local organizations to build their capacity. 

However, the report also describes best-practices that NGOs must follow in order to engage equitably with the communities they intend to serve. Many communities have past experience with extractive policies or unmet promises from NGOs, so these organizations will need to earn trust. One way that the report recommends doing this is by listening to the community and making a long-term commitment to relationship building, practices which Browne says many environmental organizations still overlook. 

“Often, communities are included only when the planning and design for a project is already done, and they're asked to comment on it, but inclusion should really happen at the very beginning, and then continue throughout the entire process,” she said. “It’s important to start with listening to the community’s needs, rather than going in with preconceived notions, like your own idea of a project that you want to do or that you think a community should be interested in.”  

Building a true partnership with a community requires co-creation of projects, which should include appropriate compensation for community members, the report says. NGOs should also educate themselves about the historical and local context in coastal communities of color and can leverage their organization’s resources toward empowering youth and engaging community members in accessible ways. At the same time, they should be conducting work to address internal diversity, equity, inclusion and justice issues. 

The report contains examples, from organizations of varying sizes, about what they’ve learned from working with coastal communities of color, and Browne hopes environmental NGOs across the country may use the report’s findings to guide their own efforts to engage more equitably with communities. Browne also took her own personal lessons away from the experience of producing the report. 

“I’ve found that I really like working with organizations that have values aligned with mine, and where I can work with other people of color and feel a sense of belonging,” she said. “I’m looking to work with organizations that lead with justice and equity, instead of it being an add-on, and I want to continue centering people in my work, especially frontline communities.”