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UB's First Civic Engagement and Public Policy Research Fellows Named

Collaborative community research to address social problems in Buffalo, Pennsylvania, Alaska

Release Date: December 15, 2009

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CEPP fellow Chris Mele will study the implications for the environmental justice of urban redevelopment projects in Pennsylvania.

Sara Metcalf, also a CEPP fellow, will work with a Buffalo movement supporting sustainable urban agriculture.

Sarah Elder has been named one of the first fellows to be funded by UB's Civic Engagement and Public Policy research initiative; she will study climate change in Alaska.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo has named the first fellows to be funded by the university's Civic Engagement and Public Policy (CEPP) research initiative, one of eight areas identified in the UB 2020 Strategic Plan as the embodiment of a particular tradition of excellence at the university.

They will establish projects to address social justice issues linked to dramatic climate change in the town of Emmonak, Alaska; to urban agriculture and food security in Buffalo, N.Y.; and to schemes for publicly financing economic-development programs in Chester, Pa.

The fellows are Sarah Elder, professor, Department of Media Study, and adjunct professor of anthropology; Christopher Mele, PhD, associate professor, Department of Sociology; and Sara Metcalf, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Geography.

They will be given course relief to permit them to carry out their projects.

Robert Granfield, PhD, professor and chair of the UB Department of Sociology, who heads the initiative's faculty advisory committee, says, "This faculty-driven, transdisciplinary initiative pulls together intellectual, financial, and programmatic resources from across the disciplines to address a number of social challenges in this region, state and beyond.

Laura Mangan, who coordinates the CEPP initiatives, says, "The fellowship program itself permits fellows to work with community collaborators to address any of a number of social problems. They include concerns posed by poverty, educational access and reform, housing, substance abuse, crime and social justice, to health and environment, family violence and persistent inequalities related to race, social class and gender.

"In each of the research projects here," she says, "the fellows address several of these issues that have converged in a particular social, economic and political setting."

Elder, an internationally celebrated, award-winning ethnographic filmmaker is known in particular for her 25 years of documentary work among Alaskan Eskimos and other indigenous Arctic peoples. She will conduct a project titled "Surviving Climate Change: Impacts, Responses, Strategies and Resilience in an Alaska Native Village."

Using documentary video and ethnographic fieldwork, the project will research and document the economic and social consequences of climate change in the remote Yup'ik Eskimo village of Emmonak, Alaska, which sits on the Yukon River and the Bering Sea coast.

Elder says the town and its people, who were the subject of her multiple-award-winning 1988 documentary "Drums of Winter," recently suffered a catastrophic loss of their fisheries, as well as a warm-water parasitic fish infestation.

"Much of the world's scholarship on climate change has focused on science and projected consequences of global warming," Elder says, "but there has been little social research conducted with the people who now experience the impacts of climate change, research that examines cultural responses, strategies and resilience that arctic residents are using to cope with these new environmental stresses."

In this case, Elder will conduct initial field research and promote community networking among the people of Emmonak, who will help to determine the focus of the project. Together they will produce a short pilot documentary as a basis for developing a proposal for an expanded feature documentary. The film also will be used for public education, political discussion and other purposes determined by the Emmonak City Council and Tribal Elders Council.

Mele's project, "Publicly Subsidized Urban Development and Environmental Justice Concerns in Chester, Pa.," reflects his work in the fields of urban sociology, the sociology of culture and community studies.

Mele says, "A key objective of environmental justice movements is to achieve healthy and sustainable environments in cities and towns by challenging systematic power inequities and structural barriers that disadvantage marginalized people."

His project will examine the implications for environmental justice of publicly financed urban redevelopment projects in Chester, a small city located on the Delaware River, 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

The city is currently undergoing a much-touted "renaissance" along its waterfront, but Mele notes that the tangible benefits of a casino, a soccer stadium and other recent subsidized developments for the city's mostly minority and poor residents is in question.

"For this project," he says, "I propose to examine the underlying public financing scheme that provided substantial subsidy to private developers of waterfront projects, analyze my findings, and produce a report for a community-based environmental justice organization in Chester."

Mele is an award-winning instructor and recent recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. He has published a several studies related to housing and the built environment, social justice issues, immigration and community redevelopment.

Metcalf's project, "Participatory Modeling for Community Agriculture," will employ participatory modeling to help match opportunities for urban farms in Buffalo, N.Y., with areas of greatest need.

Her goal, she says, "is to explore strategies for growing the city's capacity for sustainable urban agriculture." Urban farms, she points out, can serve as a buffer against the extreme conditions of poverty and environmental stress that presently plague this and other Rust Belt cities.

Metcalf says the project is part of a broader move toward sustainable agriculture practices in the context of global change, is appropriate to concerns about local food resources, and will function in part as a computational laboratory.

"We will develop a systems model to examine alternative planting schemes and to support decisions being made by activists, officials and planners who seek to satisfy human needs in a sustainable manner."

She will work with the Massachusetts Avenue Project, an organization at the forefront of the local movement toward sustainable urban agriculture, and its Growing Green Program, a youth development and urban agriculture program designed to improve access to healthy food.

Additional information about the UB 2020 Civic Engagement and Public Policy Strategic Strength is available at http://www.buffalo.edu/ub2020/strengths/civic.html.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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