The Power of Grassroots Organizing and Community Level Actions

May 22, 2023

by Yanting “Raven” Luo

Sustainability is a big issue. Even when broken down into its three pillars—the environment, the economy, and our society—each pillar seems to carry so much weight that we often imagine top-down solutions to this problem, rather than a bottom-up approach. For example, some people believe that grassroots efforts to reduce carbon emissions are insignificant compared to corporate de-carbonization or that innovation in sustainability can only come from entrepreneurs, policy makers, and leaders of institutions. However, the citizens who make up our communities have long driven and innovated sustainability movements.

Leading by Example

AWIS members have been at the forefront of creative sustainability practices in their neighborhoods. In our online community, they have shared their approaches to avoiding unnecessary purchases, to making the most of local and recycled materials, and to composting waste. They have also gravitated toward renewable energy, opting to install solar panels on their roofs and to drive electric vehicles when possible. While these habits seem to be shared among many of our diverse members, several novel practices have emerged as well.

Fanny Rodolakis is replacing the original lawn in her house with native plants that will shelter birds and bugs. Similarly, Martha Galinski has created a native rain garden and grows vegetables in a raised-bed garden complete with dripline irrigation. Not only does she use edible weeds like dandelions, garlic mustard, and sow thistle in her cooking, but she also plans to plant deciduous native trees in her yard to naturally improve the shade for her house during the summer.

Although scientific workplaces are not traditionally thought of as sustainable, some labs are headed that way. Holly Cline and Barbara Di Eugenio, for example, make a positive impact by sourcing biodegradable nitrile gloves, refilling pipet tip boxes, and encouraging students and colleagues in their labs to recycle.

Last but not least, Jeffery Brown focuses on the kinds of sustainability challenges imposed by life changes, such as when children move out of their parents’ home and leave childhood possessions behind, or when a family member passes away and their relatives must dispose of a lifetime of acquisitions. He notices that this environmental issue has a social cause as well as an economic impact. As scientists, colleagues, heads of households, gardeners, cooks, shoppers, and beyond, our AWIS members act in their many roles to push for constructive change in their own homes, workplaces, and communities.

Grassroots Organizing

Citizen-science research programs have long held industries accountable and have called for topdown change. I learned about this revitalization of grassroots organizing from Cameron Oglesby, who is working on a master’s in public policy at Duke University and is also an environmental justice organizer, academically-trained ecologist, and award-winning journalist.

Cameron Oglesby

Cameron Oglesby

Oglesby enlightened me about the Environmental Justice Movement, which emerged from a six-week protest in the town of Afton in Warren County, North Carolina, residents against the placement of a toxic waste landfill there in 1982. This grassroots protest was one of the first and largest movements against environmental racism to receive national attention. Today, as we mark the 40th anniversary of this wake-up call, organizations like the Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN) in Clinton, North Carolina, carry the mission forward. EJCAN empowers citizens to test ammonia, lead, and nitrate levels in their water, to recognize warning signs of pollution, and to report their findings to the Department of Environmental Quality and in so doing, to hold local industries accountable. This is one of many citizen-science efforts that EJCAN facilitates in Sampson County, North Carolina, a community plagued by pollution from industrial animal agriculture, wood pellet facilities, and the largest landfill in the state.

Many of the community and academic leaders heading up this effort, and the research it entails, are women and people of color, such as EJCAN Cofounder and Sampson County native Sherri White-Williamson at Duke University, Dr. Courtney Woods at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dr. Rebecca Witter at Appalachian State University. Rather than waiting for national climate initiatives to trickle down through corporate hierarchies, community leaders and academic experts are working together, from the bottom up, to push for change.

Compelling Storytelling

As the manager of the Environmental Justice Oral History Project (EJOHP), Oglesby, with the help of her team, has been recording and elevating the voices of historically under-documented communities to create a valuable repository that will help them advance their activism. EJOHP’s work centers on a partnership with the Piney Woods Free Union community, the ancestral home of civil rights advocate Bishop William Barber II and one of the oldest examples of uninterrupted land ownership by Black people in North Carolina, and the project’s focus also extends throughout the U.S. South from New Orleans, Louisiana to Union Hill in Richmond, Virginia.

Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN) water-testing and information meeting at the Lisbon Street Baptist Church.

Environmental Justice Community Action Network (EJCAN) water-testing and information meeting at the Lisbon Street Baptist Church.

EJOHP invites elders, young people, community leaders, and other participants to share their positive and negative experiences with land, place, and the local environment, experiences that are inextricably tied to the social and economic sustainability of their communities. This project includes personal video and audio histories woven into an interactive map, a podcast, multiple journalistic articles, many research projects, and a series of nationally scaled events. Because the documented communities retain ownership over the data collected, as well as long-term access to training and financial support from influential institutions, the hope is that EJOHP continues to support communities in creating environmental justice stories in a sustainable way for years to come.

Moving Forward

The communities and organizations that I have had the privilege to learn from represent the power of innovative grassroots sustainability. The people who make up these communities and organizations are deeply passionate about their natural, economic, and social environments. As they tackle sustainability issues from the bottom up, they introduce fresh wisdom, whether it is an innovative daily practice or the revitalization of traditional research techniques and small, nonprofit, newsroom-style journalism. Far from a waste of time, their actions generate ripples and launch trends.

Environmental Justice Oral History Project (EJOHP) students at the Warren County 40th Environmental Justice Commemoration.

Environmental Justice Oral History Project (EJOHP) students at the Warren County 40th Environmental Justice Commemoration.


I would like to thank the AWIS members who contributed to this article through the AWIS online community: Fanny Rodolakis, Martha Galinski, A.J. Campbell, Jodi Kutzner, Holly Cline, Diedre Brown, Barbara Di Eugenio, and Jeffery Brown. I would also like to thank Cameron Oglesby for her time and guidance.

Yanting “Raven” Luo Yanting “Raven” Luo is a PhD student in the University Program in Genetics and Genomics at Duke University. She does research in evolutionary genomics and is passionate about science communication.



This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.