Erasing the Redline: Addressing Lead Poisoning and Environmental Racism through Research, Education, and Advocacy

In 2015, the city of Springfield, Ohio, finished participating in a $2.5 million federal grant program that assisted low-income families in reducing the health risks from lead paint in their homes. But because of rule changes from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that made it harder to use funds on certain properties (including some rental homes), much of the grant money went unspent. This barrier meant that lead contamination was left unaddressed in many Springfield homes, especially within low-income or historically minoritized neighborhoods.

Springfield is not unique in its challenge to address lead contamination. Approximately twenty-four million US homes—four million of them with children between the ages of one and five, the population most susceptible to lead poisoning—have deteriorating lead paint, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As many as ten million homes have water service lines that contain lead, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Even the soil in marginalized communities often contains lead from housing deterioration, close proximity to traffic using leaded gasoline, and nearby industry. This chronic, systemic exposure can result in elevated blood lead levels that can be devastating for the mental and physical development of children. Nationally, children living in poverty have higher rates of lead poisoning, and non-Hispanic Black children are twice as likely as non-Hispanic White children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, according to the CDC.

For universities committed to supporting and strengthening their local communities, this failure to address lead poisoning generates an urgent question: How can we grapple with issues related to systemic and environmental racism more deeply through our teaching and research?

I first approached this question in the fall of 2013 in my 200-level Environmental Science Research Methods class at Wittenberg University, a private university in Springfield. As an environmental science faculty member, I recognized that having my sophomores and juniors map soil lead levels and create neighborhood fact sheets to reduce the risk of community lead poisoning would provide them with the skills, habits, and technologies to design and conduct an environmental research study.

One of my class’s first partners was Robert Welker, then the executive director of the nonprofit Springfield Promise Neighborhood (SPN). He and SPN interns visited my class and described SPN’s efforts to engage families in ways that improved the education and lives of children. They also talked about their interest in community gardens as places for educating children, building community, and improving neighborhood food security.

To advance SPN’s interests in ensuring the safety of locally grown food, my students created posters and reports featuring recommendations and maps of soil lead content in neighborhood gardens. I used a modified version of the Inquiry and Analysis VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) Rubric from the Association of American Colleges and Universities to help students incorporate the knowledge, perspectives, and priorities of our community partners.

While the project gave SPN reliable information, I didn’t feel that students were addressing the systemic nature of environmental racism, nor did I feel that creating maps for one partner was enough to inform larger-scale changes needed to protect children in our community and others like it. I began to explore models that might improve both student and community outcomes.

Higher education scholar Tania D. Mitchell’s work on critical service learning—or learning that engages systems of injustice and aims to dismantle their structures—provided valuable new context. I realized it was important not only to identify lead poisoning as a major challenge but also to situate it within the context of historical and sustained structures of injustice. To truly address neighborhood environmental conditions caused by dilapidated housing, my class and I would have to tackle systemic practices like redlining.

Like many urban centers, Springfield has a history of redlining, the unethical practice of creating systems, structures, and policies that cause disinvestment of marginalized people and, as a result, perpetuate inequities by race and class. In the 1930s, federal New Deal policies for “economic revitalization” during the Great Depression included programs for housing and mortgages. As part of one such program, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) created color-coded maps that rated the perceived investment risk of different neighborhoods. Most Black neighborhoods were deemed too risky for investment and coded red. At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized mortgages en masse for White people, making it easier to enter into homeownership. Redlining practices limited housing sales, devalued homes, and amplified mortgage failure, resulting in declining neighborhood conditions that increased the risk of lead poisoning and other environmental hazards.

In 2019, a policy think tank released a guide on housing policy and community development in Springfield. The report analyzed the housing landscape, including vacant lots, rentals, home sale values, homeowner tax delinquency rates, and the availability and distribution of affordable housing. The report also made a series of recommendations for community investment and ways to address housing challenges like affordability.

These recommendations, however, were made without considering lead poisoning from the city’s deteriorating housing or other challenges caused by the legacy of redlining. In other words, the recommendations failed to advise community revitalization efforts in ways that might address systemic racism.

To fill these gaps in the think tank’s guide, I had my students explore and map how environmental pollution, demographics, and the variables that informed the housing policy guide (such as vacancies or home sale values) correlated with redlining practices established nearly a century before. I also incorporated reflective prompts to encourage students to think critically and discuss sensitive issues around racism and public health.

Not surprisingly, given the systemic barriers to changing policies and practices, nearly every housing and environmental variable the students mapped revealed the sustained grip of racist housing policies. To work toward the critical service-learning goal of dismantling structures of injustice, we sent students’ reports to the think tank that created the housing guide. In return, the think tank pledged that going forward, its guides would better address racism and economic inequality.

Mitchell’s approach to critical service learning also calls for “developing authentic relationships” with both students and communities. But establishing deeper and more effective relationships is an ongoing process. I reached out to Jennifer Latimer, an accomplished metal researcher at Indiana State University, for advice on building sustained partnerships within communities. She had worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Chicago to help middle school students test soil and water at their own homes in order to protect their health and safety. Following Latimer’s advice, I began talking more with the local health department to ensure my students were collecting and sharing data in ways that were respectful of privacy and that pointed people to health resources.

I also thought a lot about whom else I could learn from and what I could offer other educators through my experiences in long-term research and community engagement. To build relationships across institutions and disciplines, I formed two interconnected communities of practice: the Metal Redlining Network and the Redlining Education and Change Coalition.

The Metal Redlining Network is a group of nine faculty and researchers from across the United States engaged in advancing environmental justice by addressing pollution from lead and other heavy metals. Since 2019, the researchers and our students have collaborated to map the distribution of heavy metals associated with redlining in eight urban communities. We have also been engaging residents, community development leaders, and policymakers to identify and share opportunities for change.

Network members come from unique institutional settings, and collaborative planning for the project ensured that our goals for engaging students, community members, and policymakers fit each of our local priorities and personal comfort levels. Many of us have prior experience in community engagement, and discussing strategies and barriers we’ve faced helps us to better tackle issues of racism, privacy, and health. For example, when some of my students expressed concerns about knocking on doors to share information with residents and offer to test their soil, I went to network colleagues for strategies to improve student confidence. They offered advice for respectfully navigating encounters with community members and suggested designing alternative assignments for some students. As my colleagues moved forward with their own work, some replicated my strategies, while others leveraged existing community networks to redesign their methods for collecting soil samples.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our campuses in spring 2020, half of the network team had already completed its soil sampling, student engagement, and community engagement work for that semester. The rest of us shifted to sampling soil closer to our campuses, explored past research on redlining, and identified other environmental and housing information to better assess the complex and lasting harms of redlining.

As we move our work forward, the network members are taking inspiration from other models that improved community outcomes related to environmental racism and redlining, especially those from outside our scientific fields. For example, in their “Toxic Neglect” series, Plain Dealer reporters Rachel Dissell and Brie Zeltner provide detailed investigative coverage of lead poisoning challenges in Cleveland. The series portrays lives ruined by lead poisoning and explores how lead poisoning connects to other neighborhood challenges like education and violence. It also details specific actions—such as involving community members in creating policies to hold landlords more accountable for remediating lead pollution—that gave us ideas for future work.

As the Metal Redlining Network advances research on environmental racism across different institutions and cities, we are also collaborating with colleagues at our own institutions. At Wittenberg, Elena Dahl, assistant professor of art, introduced me to artist and activist Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill project, which has engaged nearly half a million children in using art to create awareness about the effects of childhood lead poisoning. Taking inspiration from this project, we worked with partners at SPN to host a community block party. Dahl’s art students helped kids make cyanotypes of neighborhood flowers to build awareness of their neighborhood’s beauty, while my environmental research students communicated the community’s challenges with lead pollution.

After talking with an interdisciplinary group of colleagues at Wittenberg and representatives from community organizations, we formed the Redlining Education and Change Coalition (RECC) in 2019. This local alliance seeks opportunities for collaborative campus and community programming that raises awareness about structures and practices that cause racist environmental injustices.

As part of the RECC collaboration, Julius Bailey, associate professor of philosophy and director of justice, law, and public policy at Wittenberg, led a yearlong seminar series on systemic racism called “Amplifying Whispers.” English professors Cynthia Richards and Lori Askeland each hosted antiracism book discussions, on campus and virtually, in collaboration with the City of Springfield to provide opportunities for learning and reflection for students, faculty, and members of the community.

Travis Proctor, an assistant professor of religion who was new to the Springfield area, says that he joined RECC because “I’m passionate about connecting my academic interests (environmental humanities and justice) to local communities and finding ways that my teaching and research can have real-world impacts in the communities that my students and I call home.” In his Religion, Nature, and the Environment class, Proctor introduces the topic of environmental justice and racism, and his students explore how some religious groups address or ignore those issues in their practices. He then asks his students to reflect on how their own backgrounds or identities shaped their relationship with the environment.

One of the RECC community partners, Adam Brown, is a Wittenberg alumnus and founding board member of the Conscious Connect, an organization that develops Children’s Equity Zones, or beautiful and safe community spaces where children can play and read. When Brown met with my students to explain how the Conscious Connect got started, he described his own background and how some of his family members suffered from lead poisoning “from a house that wasn’t really fit to live in.”

“I understand what it is like to live where things are falling apart—it is not fun,” he says. “Children need places to just be kids and not walk out that door and see houses that are rotting. That is really what motivated us to change the environment that children are subjected to.”

After Brown realized that the equity zones could also be places to grow food for community members, my environmental research students sampled soil to identify safe sites for garden installations. Since many contaminated locations were on land previously occupied by demolished houses, my students identified other demolished home sites and tested soil on empty lots across the city to inform the Conscious Connect and other community groups as they evaluate safe sites for future redevelopment.

My students’ projects not only inform community decisions; they also continue to provide data to update maps illustrating the systemic and ongoing challenge of lead poisoning. Drawing from students’ work since 2018, I developed the online resource “Lead Pollution and Environmental Injustice in Springfield, Ohio” to share continually updated maps tracking soil contamination along with my students’ advocacy work. The resource page includes information about the skills, habits, and technologies that students used in their projects. Students can later use this information as they draft résumés and advance on their career pathways.

“Professionally, I just thought this project was good for a lot of us,” says environmental research methods student Bradley Quick. “This project was a lot like people’s jobs—going out there and getting that data and then having to analyze it and put it in context.”

The resources also serve as a template for other educators developing critical service-learning projects. In fall 2020, Sheryl Cunningham, an associate professor of communication and digital media at Wittenberg who serves on the RECC team, used the web page’s data and maps as a case study in her Environmental Communication course. Drawing from videos and academic articles on housing segregation, redlining, and environmental justice, as well as maps of redlining in Springfield from the Mapping Inequality project, her students collaborated in virtual breakout rooms to identify stakeholders in Springfield such as community members, policymakers, and environmental advocates. Students then worked together to create strategies for getting the stakeholders involved in testing soil, communicating test results and health risks, and cleaning up contaminated areas.

“I wanted the students to understand that environmental injustice is present in a community in which they live right now,” Cunningham says. “It’s important for classes to talk about justice to build in a sense of efficacy—that something can be done.”


Sarah Fortner is an associate professor of geology at Wittenberg University.

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