Urban Wire “Moving at the Speed of Trust”: How Environmental Justice Advocate-Researcher Collaborations Can Build Better Partnerships
Alex Tammaro
Display Date


Community expertise and representation are invaluable to high-quality applied research, and collaboration between researchers and environmental justice (EJ) advocates built on shared responsibility and accountability has proven to be key to better understanding—and better informing—environmental policy decisions.

But how do advocates and researchers design effective partnerships? It begins with recognizing that EJ advocates and researchers aren’t at odds but contribute diverse skill sets, tools, and expertise—and neither corners the market on any one resource or skill.

Rethinking these partnerships requires sharing resources beyond finances, challenging assumptions about advocates and their technical capacity, and reevaluating knowledge systems to include input from those most affected by environmental changes.

In a recent event cohosted by the Urban Institute and Resources for the Future (RFF), advocates and researchers discussed their experiences building partnerships that work.

What does partnership mean?

If researchers “are interested in a partnership, they should take that literally," said Eddie Bautista of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “A partnership implies some level of equality… of multiple partners bringing something to that partnership and therefore having their contributions and their perspectives honored and valued as such."

Skills, expertise, and experiences aren’t relegated to one role—EJ advocates and organizers can have methodological experience and researcher levels of education or training, and researchers can be members of communities affected by climate change and have advocacy experience.

Bonnie Keeler of the University of Minnesota said these partnerships are “human work” and must account for the often exploitative, extractive power imbalances between academic and research organizations and community groups. To acknowledge and amend this, Keeler suggested thinking creatively about how researchers can contribute. “Your academic expertise may not be the most valuable thing you have to offer,” she said—access to university libraries, fleet vehicles, and meeting rooms could provide more benefit.

And key to equitable, mutually beneficial relationships is engaging communities from a project’s conception—and staying engaged throughout the process by volunteering, attending community meetings, and returning findings to the community, said University of California, Irvine’s Michael Mendez.

“You can’t just helicopter in, do a research project, and then disappear—never share your data, never provide any opportunity for the individuals to understand what happened to that research project,” he said.

The dangers of pigeonholing

Community partners’ expertise, connections, and organizing power shouldn’t be relegated to a secondary role, Bautista said. “Do not approach a community group whose research is central to your success in a way that diminishes what those contributions might be.”

Research performed and completed without community engagement can diminish its quality and reach and create barriers to community acceptance of research findings or recommendations.

For researchers looking to have policy impact, they must “look at [their] partners as the entity with agency that’s actually going to be able to move a project,” Bautista said. His work with RFF to support the New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a 100 percent emissions-reduction goal for New York and the most comprehensive state climate legislation in the US, models this conducive partnership.

EJ advocates see value in partnerships as a way to better serve their communities, said Keeler. But partnerships may not always be fruitful or smooth, priorities may shift, and research may go another direction. “Moving at the speed of trust” and being willing to be “transformed by the partnership itself,” she said, makes an effective collaboration.

Revisiting knowledge systems

The panelists recognized that communities of color and communities with low incomes are the most likely to be overburdened by environmental harms and know the value of community engagement. The panelists also acknowledged that researchers and advocates must balance the rigor research demands with the political process advocacy requires—and have a duty to counter some values of scientism and purported objectivity that can exclude other forms of knowledge, including community-based and participatory methods or social and cultural experiences and expertise.

“None of us are impartial or neutral,” Keeler said. “We all have values, we all have biases, and many of us are in the careers we’re in right now because of those values, so we’re motivated to work on issues we care about.” Being transparent about inherent biases does more for the quality of research than ignoring them.

In his research on wildfire-induced air quality effects on migrant and other outdoor workers, Mendez has engaged local stakeholders, including the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project, a community-based migrant rights group. He said there’s a moral obligation to get some project findings to policymakers before they’ve been peer-reviewed, because for these workers, “these disasters are happening… it’s life and death.” When people’s lives are at stake, scientific values like rigor can be rebalanced to account for those most affected.

Even if researchers are uninterested in addressing a community’s racial and social inequities, research, the work itself, and the findings are going to affect these issues, Bautista concluded. This means research for the sake of research could cause more harm than good, but centering the people at the heart of the work can elevate research and advocacy to their highest potential.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

Show your support for research and data that ignite change. 

Related content