With the support of The Heinz Endowments and the Helen M. Sakraida and Clara M. Sakraida Charitable Trust Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program recently launched an Environmental Fellows Initiative to enlighten, empower, and mobilize residents in underserved communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania regarding environmental factors that impact their health.
The initiative was a perfect fit for University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work student Samantha Teixeira, who had previously conducted research and community service in Pittsburgh’s highly underserved Homewood neighborhood. As an Environmental Schweitzer Fellow, Teixeira is partnering with Operation Better Block ,Inc. and Homewood Children’s Village and working with Homewood youth to mitigate the community violence and health hazards associated with the neighborhood’s many vacant properties and abandoned lots.
Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?
When I first heard about the Schweitzer Environmental Fellows Initiative, I immediately thought that I should design a project that took place in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA. Homewood is a one-square-mile neighborhood located on the east end of Pittsburgh. It is a racially “hyper-segregated” (i.e., 95% African American), and it is characterized by concentrated poverty and one of the city’s highest rates of vacant and abandoned properties.
Youth in Homewood are exposed to community violence and health hazards associated with vacant properties. They have some of the poorest academic outcomes of any children in Pittsburgh. I had worked in Homewood as a master’s student assisting with a variety of community service projects, and I realized that most of the research and service projects in the neighborhood were created by adults and did not take into account the voices of youth.
During my research, I had the opportunity to work with high school youth from Homewood to assess the condition of properties surrounding their school. The youth added incredible value to the project and brought to light many issues that my other research assistants had not noticed. Their energy and care for their community were evident through their comments and actions. They expressed a desire to continue to participate in service projects and said that it made them feel good to do something small to help their neighborhood. Based on this experience and these comments, I set out to design a project that was led by and created by youth to address health problems related to vacant properties.
My professional background is in child welfare services, and I have always incorporated youth into my work and research. Research around how the neighborhood environment affects children has pointed to the need for incorporating youth voices as neighborhood change agents. In my experience, expressive methods such as photography, drawing, and conversation groups are some of the best ways to elicit meaningful input from children. This experience is supported by research suggesting that these methods can be used to facilitate co-learning where children can teach adults about their neighborhood, while adults can help shape the children’s understanding of the deeper contextual issues that may have led to the children’s neighborhood concerns. This experience and desire to learn firsthand from neighborhood youth about how we can help mitigate environmental effects on health is what motivated me to become a Schweitzer Fellow.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I hope that my project brings positive attention to the youth of Homewood and to the neighborhood in general. Most Pittsburghers never venture into Homewood, so their perceptions are based entirely on rumors and the sensational stories they see on the 6 o’clock news. The reputation of the neighborhood—and, in particular, the youth in the neighborhood—is that they are all violent criminals and up to no good. If this project has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much more to these youth than what you hear on the news. The youth I’m working with have dreams for themselves, their families, and their communities. I hope that I’m able to use the program to empower them to put forth more positive images of their community and learn advocacy skills to bring about change in their neighborhood.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
The reason I was drawn to the Schweitzer Environmental Fellows Initiative was because my community work and research led me to recognize the stark reality of environmental health disparities. As I explored the literature and tried to learn more about what I was seeing on the ground in Pittsburgh, I learned that environmental health hazards disproportionately affect low-income people of color. As part of a vacant lot remediation project I worked on with a community block club, we tested lead levels in the soil of several vacant lots. The results were astounding to me: the lead levels came back at dangerously elevated levels, and the land was deemed unsafe for children and unable to be reused as a productive community space. This was a large vacant lot that children routinely passed through and used as a play space.
The research bears these observations out. Based on unequal exposure in their environment, poor children and children of color are considerably more likely to be affected by lead poisoning. In fact, poor white children are twice as likely to have lead poisoning than middle class white children and African American children are more than 10 times more likely to be affected than middle class White children. As social service providers and health professionals, we must embrace the environmental justice movement if we are to make a lasting impact on community health. Environmental justice encompasses racial and income based disparities in environmental health and draws together some of the most pressing health issues of our time.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
I feel like every day I work as a Fellow I encounter a new surprise! To be honest, I thought that it would be challenging to get teenagers to routinely come to an after-school program. I have been so pleasantly surprised with the commitment of the teens to come to the program and engage in meaningful work. I know they all have personal challenges to overcome, and they live every day in circumstances beyond their own control, yet they still show up with a positive outlook (most of the time!) and keep reminding me why I do this work.
I’m also constantly surprised by the warm reception I receive in the neighborhood. I wondered how I would be received as an outsider and felt that I might be approached with suspicion by residents and youth in the neighborhood. Fortunately, the youth warmed up to me quickly and neighborhood residents have been friendly and encouraging of my work with the youth. We even had a gentleman send donuts and a thank-you card to the office when he saw us tending street trees and cleaning up litter outside of his business. It meant a lot to the kids to have their work recognized.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
Being an Environmental Schweitzer Fellow is a commitment to service and leadership. It means prioritizing community service and incorporating what I learn in the community into my ongoing research. As academics, we are often encouraged to focus on our research and to keep away from the distraction of other jobs and commitments. This Fellowship has reinforced for me the importance of getting out into the world with the people and groups we study to learn, from their perspective, what is really going on. I’ve gained incredible insights into my research from the youth in my project that I can carry on with me throughout my career and service. I constantly encourage my colleagues to step back from their research and take a minute to get out and work in the communities where their research interests lie.
Samantha Teixeira is an Environmental Schweitzer Fellow in Pittsburgh, PA. Click here to read more about the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program, the Pittsburgh Environmental Fellows Initiative, and the Fellows like Teixeira it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Teixeira’s efforts to address the environmental determinants of health in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.