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A new environmental justice center at Wichita State will connect communities with federal funding

Region 7 EPA Administrator Meg McCollister speaks at the opening of the Heartland Environmental Justice Center.
Celia Hack
/
KMUW
Region 7 EPA Administrator Meg McCollister speaks at the opening of the Heartland Environmental Justice Center.

The center received $10 million in federal funding from the EPA.

The new Heartland Environmental Justice Center at Wichita State University opened Wednesday as a resource for marginalized communities applying for federal grant money.

The center is one of 17 throughout the U.S. that will receive at least $10 million in the next five years from the Environmental Protection Agency. It will serve Kansas as well as Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and nine tribal nations.

The centers are a part of a federal effort to focus on environmental and public health issues that impact “underserved and overburdened communities,” according to a news release.

“The idea is to help those smaller communities, those smaller nonprofits, get access to funding that they really do need to tackle things like water quality issues, lead … lead in yards,” said Meg McCollister, the region 7 EPA administrator. “There are a lot of issues.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have made millions of dollars available in environmental grants, from the Clean School Bus Program to Climate Pollution Reduction Grants. Forty percent of many of the federal grants are meant to go to disadvantaged communities under the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative.

The center will provide training in navigating federal grant applications and grant writing to help smaller organizations vie for the funding, McCollister said.

“These communities can be competitive with those bigger universities or bigger cities who maybe historically would have been able to get more of the funding,” McCollister said.

The center is partnering with eight nonprofit organizations, including Kansas-based Climate + Energy Project, Kansas Rural Center and Kansas State University Engineering Extension. The nonprofits will receive roughly 45% of the center’s funding for their staffing and operations, according to the center’s senior manager Jeff Severin.

But some at the meeting appeared frustrated that available money would go toward training instead of direct assistance to people already impacted by environmental issues, such as groundwater contamination in historically Black Wichita neighborhoods.

“We don’t need your training. We need your help, that’s what we need,” said Mary Dean, a Wichita social justice advocate, at the meeting. “Partner with the people that are boots on the ground that know and have connections with community people on an everyday basis.”

Dean said she felt environmental justice issues relating to Black people specifically were ignored.

In response, Severin said the center will create an accountability board made up of community members who can oversee its environmental justice work.

He also said that he has goals to increase diversity at the environmental justice center, which will be hiring up to three community program coordinators and six community engagement coordinators.

“As I was standing here noticing, all of our presenters today are white,” Severin said. “... We do hope to change that as we are hiring these new positions. And definitely we will be encouraging people of color, Indigenous folks, to apply for these positions. Because they are the people we need to be a part of this team.”

Severin said more research and conversations with the community need to take place before he can say what role the environmental justice center will play when it comes to groundwater contamination in northeast Wichita. The contaminated site is technically under the jurisdiction of the state.

“Obviously it’s a topic that comes top of mind as we launch this center,” Severin said. “... I think it’s not always going to be as simple as a direct solution to the problem, but being able to help identify funding for initiatives that can support the needs of the community.”

Aujanae Bennett is a neighborhood association leader who has led advocacy around the groundwater contamination in Wichita.

“I’m excited,” Bennett said. “I think this might be a step in a positive direction.”

In addition to grant writing, the center will also provide “guidance on community engagement, meeting facilitation, and translation and interpretation services for limited English-speaking participants,” according to a news release.

The center won’t have a physical walk-in location at Wichita State University, but community members can contact it at heartlandej@wichita.edu.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.