February 4, 2023

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Syracuse University’s Environmental Finance Center is among 29 regional centers selected statewide for a five-year Environmental Protection Agency grant, SU’s EFC announced Monday in a news release.

Now, the center — which is working to help communities implement sustainable infrastructure — is shifting its focus to beginning setting up projects in February for the $1,084,000 first-year allocation, while supporting community-based initiatives and prioritize accessibility.

For the remaining four years of the grant, the EFC will receive a minimum of $950,000 per year from SU to fund projects in EPA Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey and Puerto
Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as eight indigenous people, according to the press release. In local communities throughout the designated EPA region, those involved in the center work to fund environmental infrastructure with an individual focus on each area’s needs.

“The unprecedented type of funding SU-EFC has received from US EPA to provide technical assistance to underserved communities demonstrates a real commitment to ensuring safe, affordable and reliable water for every household in the country,” the EFC said SU Water Resiliency Initiatives Director Khristopher Dodson said in the press release. “SU-EFC is proud to be part of the national network of EFCs that will provide these services, in some cases as teams, across the country.”

After nearly 30 years of environmental work by SU’s EFC, Tess Clark, the center’s program manager, said the viability of environmental infrastructure across the country has changed recently: infrastructure such as water mains and landfills are reaching the end of their expected lives. She said redevelopment projects can look very different by area, as there were existing management and funding challenges in communities they worked with prior to this shift.

As the center plans its projects, Clark emphasized the importance of reaching out to communities on a case-by-case basis to address the specific needs of a given community.

Averi Davis, a program partner at the center, said that in addition to projects addressing infrastructure, one way the support can meet a community’s unique needs is through outreach and education. Clark added that the communities they work with fall across a broad spectrum in terms of what is needed to implement their vision and meet their environmental needs.

“Some of them are way up there with ‘we just need a preliminary engineering design,’ and that’s something where we can connect with one of our partners who’s doing that through this grant,” Clark said. “Some of them down here are saying, ‘My community doesn’t understand the flood risk, what can we do?’ And that is another side.”

When connecting with communities to implement projects with, Clark emphasized the importance of not making assumptions. She said she and others at the center strive to conform to the demands of a particular community rather than to further their own agendas.

“Our long-term goal is to truly meet communities where they are and help them achieve their vision so their community is healthy and prosperous,” Clark said. “It’s not helpful to go in and say to someone, ‘Hey, you need to replace your water infrastructure. It fails.’ What I mean is, ‘Hey, what’s up? Where are you struggling the most?’”

Clark also pointed to a deficit model, which she says operates on the assumption that communities have a cup that someone needs to fill with knowledge. As she implements new projects over the next year, and throughout the five years of the grant’s lifetime, she said, members of the center will aim to leave their preconceived notions at the door and immerse themselves in the communities they serve.

“What we do is important, but we also need to hear and use local slang, understand it, connect with stories, avoid jargon and visit communities where they do site visits and outreach,” Clark said. “These things enhance our communications and our practices that cross the line between where we are here at Syracuse University and where the communities are and their journey towards creating a safe and sustainable infrastructure.”

Davis and Clark both said their future efforts will give further priority to accessibility by working to communicate effectively in the right language for the communities they work with.

In terms of improving communication, Davis added that a large part of the center’s activities is hosting events and roundtables. She said the center’s goal is to make its resources as available as possible and to build the trust necessary for communities to use those resources.

“Many communities are tired of how long it takes, and rightly so. It takes a lot of time when there are a lot of threads and hoops to jump through,” Davis said. “That’s why communities have traditionally never accessed (resources like these), and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier now. There’s just a lot more money. And the need is great. So our job is to try and make it easier.”


Contact Jana: [email protected] | @JanaLoSeal

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