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 Pittsburghâs highly underserved Homewood neighborhood. As an
Environmental Schweitzer Fellow,Â Teixeira is partnering with Operation Better Block ,Inc. and Homewood Childrenâs Village
and working with Homewood youth to mitigate the community violence and
health hazards associated with the neighborhoodâs 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 âhyper-segregatedâ (i.e., 95% African American), and it is
characterized by concentrated poverty and one of the cityâs 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 masterâs 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
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.Â 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 childrenâs understanding of the deeper contextual issues that may
have led to the childrenâs 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
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 oâclock news. The
reputation of the neighborhoodâand, in particular, the youth in the
neighborhoodâis that they are all violent criminals and up to no good.
If this project has taught me anything, itâs that there is so much more
to these youth than what you hear on the news. The youth Iâm working
with have dreams for themselves, their families, and their communities. I
hope that Iâm 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.Â 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.
Iâm 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
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
Being an Environmental Schweitzer Fellow is a commitment to service
and leadership.Â 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. Iâve 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.
SamanthaÂ 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 likeÂ Teixeira
it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service
projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of
Teixeiraâs efforts to address the environmental determinants of health
in Pittsburghâs Homewood neighborhood, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of âFive
Questions for a Fellowâ â 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 âFive Questions
for a Fellowâ interviews, click here.