March 8, 2019
Brian Smith, a community relations specialist at the Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES) at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, helps to raise residents’ awareness of how to protect their health from environmental stressors.
Having grown up in Detroit’s industrial corridor, where residents face serious health threats from air pollution, Smith is not only passionate about raising awareness but also understands the culture and how best to connect with community members. Smith and the CURES team are working in collaboration with community partners to address environmental health concerns in Detroit’s urban landscape, such as poor air quality due to high truck traffic, lead-contaminated soil and water, and abandoned homes and buildings that create an unsafe environment.
Leveraging Community Partnerships to Build Capacity
Smith got his start in community outreach in 2013 when, as a returning combat veteran for the Michigan National Guard, he began work as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit in Detroit addressing hunger, poverty, inadequate education, and racial divisiveness.
He was able to leverage the partnerships and skills he built while at Focus: HOPE when he joined CURES in 2015. “I feel really proud that through my work with CURES I’ve been able to continue to give back to Focus: HOPE,” noted Smith. “They were interested in learning about the health impacts of a proposed concrete recycling facility in a neighborhood with high poverty and high asthma rates, and we were able to help address that need.”
Smith worked with CURES researchers and community partners to host an environmental health literacy session to review exposure and health impact data with the residents, who then used this information when they met with the board of zoning.
“Rather than using the term ‘empower,’ I think of this work as helping people to stand in their own power by way of giving them more knowledge and connecting them to community services and resources,” Smith stated.
Bringing Research to Detroiters Through Environmental Health Chats
One way Smith helps to foster collaborations and co-learning experiences for environmental health advocates, healthcare professional, stakeholders, leaders, and researchers is through public forums and mobile environmental health chats.
Smith’s innovative forums and workshops bring environmental health information to the places community members already gather, such as churches, schools, and community centers.
CURES hosts these public forums for 80 to 100 people several times per year. The forums include presentations from researchers on the current science as well as presentations from the Community Advisory Board members or community partners, such as Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Ecology Center, Zero Waste Detroit, Detroit Health Department, Breathe Free Detroit, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, and provide residents with information and resources. These presentations are recorded so that the information can be accessed at any time. In addition, Smith uses these presentations to host mobile environmental health chats for approximately 80 community members two to three times per year.
Guided Environmental Health Tours
To see Detroit’s environmental health issues up close, Smith provides Environmental Health Tours to nursing students, medical residents, environmental law students, visiting researchers, and community partners. The stops on the tour highlight CURES research interests and areas of concern for the CURES Community Advisory Board, such as petroleum coke exposure in Southwest Detroit, community gardens, and the neighborhood around the trash incinerator.
“One of our stops is the neighborhood I grew up in. When we were on a tour last fall, I knew the driver of the ice-cream truck that drove by because he was the same driver when I was growing up,” Smith noted. “I feel honored to continue to be a steward to my community as well as a conduit to for bi-directional information sharing between CURES and the community.”
Planning for the Future
Smith is currently completing his Master in Urban Planning degree at Wayne State University and will graduate in December. Given the direct relationship between the urban and industrial environment in Detroit and the environmental health disparities in the city, he hopes to bring this unique planning perspective to his work to continue to make a difference to the residents of Detroit.
- Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors (CURES) at Wayne State University
- CURES Video Raises Awareness of Detroit’s Environmental Health Issues
- CURES Community Engagement