Elizabeth Nelson
Elizabeth Nelson

Stormy Weather, Community Resilience

by Jackie Swift

Communities of all kinds are rocked by environmental issues that test their fortitude and adaptability. Shorna B. Allred, Natural Resources and the Environment, wants to help them build resilience to these shocks. Her own experience growing up on the Gulf Coast of Texas in a county with 30 petrochemical and oil refineries has a lot to do with that.

“When I was a child, we had oil spills on the beaches and the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide in the air from the off-gassing at the refineries,” she says. “These things happened all the time, in addition to natural disasters like hurricanes. They were part of my psyche growing up, and I was always interested in the human side of these environmental issues.”

Allred is a conservation social scientist, using her expertise in science and in community-based research methods to explore the human and environmental dimensions of resource management. Over the years, she’s developed a number of participatory partnerships that seek to strengthen the social ties that bind together the landowners, local government representatives, and other stakeholders of a community in the face of adversity.

From Rust to Green

One project focuses on Binghamton, New York, a city located at the confluence of two rivers in the Rust Belt of the Northeast. On top of years of economic downturn, Binghamton was struck by two major floods in 2006 and 2011. In their aftermath, Allred joined with colleague Heidi Mouillesseaux-Kunzman, senior extension associate in the Department of Global Development; the City of Binghamton; Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County; and Binghamton University to initiate Rust 2 Green (R2G) Binghamton. The project is modeled on the original R2G Utica project, which was founded four years earlier in Utica, New York, by Paula H. Horrigan, Landscape Architecture. Both projects are part of the R2G initiative, currently under the auspices of the Department of Global Development at Cornell.

“R2G Binghamton is created around sustainable development, sustainable planning, and the fostering of a resilient community in the face of climate change,” Allred explains. “It’s about changing the city’s identity from one of decay and decline to one of growth and prosperity based on the incredible resilience and strength in the community. We saw the rivers as an important aspect of that change because they are such a big part of Binghamton’s identity.”

As part of R2G Binghamton, Allred and her colleagues conducted story circles, in which community members affected by the floods of 2006 and 2011 could recount their experiences. They also interviewed decisionmakers in government, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector. Then they incorporated the words of participants verbatim in a community-based play called Living with Water. “When people came to see the play, they could hear exactly what other community members said,” Allred says. “They were exposed to the perspectives of all sides.”

Social Capital Builds Resilience

Bringing people together is central to Allred’s work. A large part of her ongoing research in Binghamton focuses on social capital—relationship networks, which are crucial for the smooth functioning of society and pivotal in building resilience. “Research by others has shown that a lot of times it’s social capital in communities that allows for immediate response to natural disasters,” she says.

Social capital encompasses things like churches providing community members with food, or people with higher education and connections helping the less-resourced navigate the bewildering array of forms required for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and various service providers. These types of actions depend on what’s known as bridging ties. “Bridging ties connect different groups together,” Allred explains. “They are associated with mobility and access. We were looking at how to proactively strengthen these ties to build a culture of resilience to disaster rather than just mitigating damage once it happens.”

The researchers worked with the city of Binghamton to bring the community together around the rivers through activities such as concerts on the waterfront where local businesses and organizations make economic and social connections with community members. “We utilized those events to provide educational information about flood preparation and about the agencies and organizations that can help communities adapt,” Allred says. “And at the same time, events like these also allow people to meet others outside their usual social circles and form these important bridging ties.”

“The story of Black forest landowners in the Northeast has never been told ... It’s almost as if they’re invisible.”

The Needs of Minority Landowners

Allred’s research interests also include environmental and social justice issues, including a new project focused on minority landowners that is funded by the Cornell Rural Humanities Initiative from an award by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For the project, Allred has joined with Paul Catanzaro from the University of Massachusetts, Kristina Ferrare of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County, and the nonprofit Center for Northern Woodlands Education (CNWE). Starting in the summer of 2021, the researchers will be interviewing Black landowners in the Northeast who own forested land, to learn about their stewardship experiences. “We also want to understand what organizations have emerged to provide support for minority landowners, who have experienced land loss at a much higher rate than their white counterparts,” Allred says.

The researchers plan to produce an outreach report by the end of the year that will showcase the stories of the landowners. In addition, Northern Woodlands magazine, published by CNWE, has agreed to highlight two of the stories. “The story of Black forest landowners in the Northeast has never been told,” Allred says. “There are actually a lot of them, but it’s almost as if they’re invisible.”

Already, in their preliminary work, the researchers are seeing some differences in goals between minority and non-minority landowners. Minority landowners appear to have more interest in using their land for community purposes, such as providing solace for addiction recovery. “Our forestry education programs through extension aren’t geared toward that sort of thing, but maybe they should be,” Allred says. “There may be landowners who are interested in using their land in that way, so how can we support them reaching their goals?”

An Oral History of Uniontown

Applying her interests in yet another direction, Allred has also been carrying out a participatory oral history project in Uniontown, Alabama, which she plans to turn into a book. Uniontown is a mostly Black community of 1,800 located in Perry County, one of the epicenters of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In 2010, the town was chosen as the dumping grounds for 3 million cubic yards of coal ash loaded with arsenic, mercury, and other toxic chemicals.

“The waste management company that manages the landfill didn’t even cap the coal ash initially,” Allred says. “It was literally blowing in the wind, and eating the paint off of cars. When we spoke with the people living adjacent to the landfill, they told us about all kinds of health problems. And part of the story, too, is about how all the white communities refused to have this coal ash, but ultimately it was put in a Black community.”

As the situation in Uniontown illustrates, having environmental laws in place doesn’t guarantee social and environmental justice. “A lot of the time, it’s not the technical part of environmental issues we have trouble with,” Allred says. “It’s the social side, the policy, the community impact aspect. We have very strong regulations for these kinds of things, but a lot of the time there is not equal protection under the law. We have the technology to reduce emissions, for instance, but whether and how we actually apply it is often a political or social issue.”