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Healthy Community Services


In this episode, listeners will hear from the executive director of Healthy Communities Services, Dr. Angela Chalk, and the Greater Treme Consortium Executive Director, Cheryl Austin.
In New Orleans, LA, many areas in the 7th Ward, 9th Ward, and Treme sit below sea level and have experienced many rain events that have led to water run-off and increased flooding impacts. In an example of community-based response, three community-based organizations partnered to address water run-off issues in the Treme, 7th Ward, and Upper 9th Ward. Healthy Community Services, Greater Treme Consortium, and Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association, with the support of Water Wise Gulf South, have created the Water Wise Neighborhood Champions (WWNC). WWNC is a program open to residents, business owners, and churchgoers who live in the impacted areas to learn about green infrastructure projects that increase resilience to climate change impacts through a three-step training program. Each area already has a WWNC completed green infrastructure vision plan: Treme (2017), 7th Ward (2018), and Upper 9th Ward (2019). At the end of the WWNC program, participants prioritize project implementation from each visioning session. WWNC uplifts resident priorities in planning to increase adaptability and resilience to climate impacts. Each neighborhood has one prioritized project pending implementation in partnership with the state of Louisiana, with the opportunity for community input during the design phase. Each stormwater management project will reduce flooding in vulnerable areas, including historically Black and Creole neighborhoods.

Full Transcript

Dr. Angela M. Chalk [00:00:00] My name is Dr. Angela M. Chalk. I am from the 7th Ward section of New Orleans, Louisiana, and I live and work in the community in which I serve. I come to this work via a conversation with a then 14 year old child who at the time I had to bring to work early on a Saturday morning and my discussion with her was that if I had to bring you to work early on the Saturday morning, you were going to have a conversation with me because we were going across town. And so I asked the question what happened at school this week? And typically, like most teenagers, the answer was nothing. And so we continued that conversation where you did absolutely nothing at school this entire week. And her…then her response was, well, we installed a rain garden in our school, on our school yard because it flooded and they weren’t able to go outside…the kids weren’t able to go outside during those rain events or even play on the school grounds after the rain event. I had no idea what the rain garden was high functioning or anything. A few weeks after that, Jeff Supak with Water Wise Gulf South was home holding a community meeting, and I went to the community meeting to learn what it was about. And from there, I won a free home assessment and this was post-Katrina. And as things progressed, with the demonstration of how green infrastructure would work on my own property, I decided that this would be a good community event. And the premise was to not only show people what green infrastructure was, but to leave a tangible asset in the community so that people can understand what it is and that it became real. And so this is how I come to this work with the conversation with the 14 year old, who’s now a graduating senior from LSU in Natural Resources in my family and I am so very proud of her because she’s making her mark in this world with the natural environment. And as a result of the work that I do with healthy community services, it’s become a family thing unintentionally, and it has become my passion now to work and live in a community in which I’m a fourth generation resident. A rain garden is a depressed area. You assess your area to determine where water collects on the property. And so a rain garden is a depressed area that is excavated out, filled back with bioretention soil and number 57 limestone and then planting it with native plants to absorb the water. And so the native plants both absorb water and help the help the water to infiltrate into the ground, which prevents that stormwater runoff from ever getting into the storm drainage system. However, once that intervention reaches capacity, that’s the amount that goes into the storm system. And in New Orleans, it’s the first quarter inch of rain that causes the street flooding. And so the longer that we can prevent water from getting into the storm drain and backing up the system, it’s called the time of concentration. We can lessen the amount of flooding that our streets in our community has, and it’s been proven effective time and time again by the interventions that across the Water Wise Gulf South brand in which Healthy Community Services is a part of the collective…works with community organizations and neighborhoods to help them to, first of all, be engaged, educate and empower to make decisions around how they manage in the water in our city. 

Cheryl Austin [00:04:19] I am Cheryl Robichaux Austin. I live in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the historic Treme community. Well, first, I first got involved with this work. The physical work is when I visited Angela’s project at her home and was part of the bio square rain garden that she was installing at her home. And I looked at it as a beautification project for Treme, but I want to go back a little bit because I was reading going through the internet one Sunday morning and came across the New Orleans Urban Water Plan, and I was fascinated by it. So to be invited to Angela’s home, where she was installing a project really intrigued me, but I saw it as a beautification project, not as something that would help the environment or reduce the hazards caused by climate change. So I asked Jeff, who is with Water Wise Gulf South, “Would he be interested in installing something like that, a project like that in Treme? I did not think that he would jump on it immediately, but he did. In less than a week, he and I were talking about what we can doin Treme. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, it was about beautification in Treme. We had very little trees. I knew nothing of bioswales rain gardens and the positive effect it could have on reducing flooding. I’ve been involved ever since, but I also would like to say I met Angela on TV. I love to tell people this story because she has a lot of power, and this was after Katrina and we did not know one another. So our relationship is really organic, which plays into the green infrastructure, the environment, the water management, because we both we ended up in the same area at the same time. And I’m always thankful and grateful for the people that God brings my way in doing community work. So I went to she just have a presence and I’m so proud of her as she became Dr. Chalk, because she has done so much work in the last six, seven years. She’s earned that title. 

Dr. Angela M. Chalk [00:06:47] The organization that I work with is Healthy Community Services, and I am the founder and executive director of…we like to give it an acronym HCS. And our mission is to engage with residents in order to teach them about coastal resiliency, urban flooding in urban a…urban Ag at the intersection of climate and public health. My background is in public health. I am retired from State State Civil Service with the Louisiana Department of Health, and so the intersectionality of all of those factors can provide or improve public health outcomes. In Louisiana, we rank near the bottom of all the good and all the bad outcomes like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. And just recently I learned that Louisiana ranks eighth in the most eighth littered state in our country. And so with poor health outcomes and all the environmental factors that affect us Healthy Community Services focuses on those climate impacts and in fact, in fact, can have serious consequences to the population. One of them being heat, the other as a result of having what we call the urban heat island effect. It increases respiratory illnesses. People are unable to do their daily essential activities when it’s hot in…in our part of the state. And so all of that is a result of climate change. We have more intense rainfalls. We have more increased coastal flooding because of sea level rise. We have more intense heat days because there are no trees to help cool down the atmosphere. And we come to that again at the intersectionality of public health because if it’s too hot, then we can’t grow crops to help feed folks who are food insecure. And what we teach residents around urban Ag is to be able to grow their own food locally and naturally, not necessarily organically, but naturally to help offset some of the high cost of food. I mean, we all go to the grocery each day. We see the…the price of bacon. We see the cost in…not only that, but accessibility and affordability to have healthy food options. And so one can begin to change that incrementally by being, first of all, being aware, being engaged and learning something new that can be intergenerational for all families. We don’t have to starve waiting for the government to feed us or for foods that come in from hundreds of miles away or even from the countries that we import food from, we can begin to look at our environment and grow our own food. And I’m quite sure Cheryl will have some say about that because last growing season, she was the beneficiary of some cabbages. And so we’re a little slow this year to get the crops in the ground because we’re still recovering from Hurricane Ida. But we have the pediplant series that will be coming up that will teach our younger people aged five to 12 where food comes from. And so if you grow it and you taste it, you’re less likely to say, I don’t like that because you’ve grown it, it’s your baby, you can taste it and you can repeat that process over and over again. 

Cheryl Austin [00:10:54] I worked with Greater Treme Consortium. I’ve been the Executive Director for almost 30 years. I started working in 1994 with a mission to develop affordable housing in historic Treme Community preserve Treme’s indigenous culture, supports small business development and increased green infrastructure and stormwater management awareness. We are activists, we are organizers, we are builders. We are collaborators, which is why we are here today. We have collaborated with almost every organization that has expressed an interest in doing something in Treme. Our focus post-Katrina has been on how do we prevent or educate residents in the ways that they can help reduce flooding with when it is flooding where you live at? What can we do? So on Angela’s end, as she mentioned it, they’re growing. What we are doing is building. I love the construction part of stormwater management. We’ve created with the help of Water Wise Gulf South go out and help Healthy Community Services, a signature plant a box that we have installed throughout the community along with trees. I think right now we are storing about thirty three thousand gallons throughout the Treme community when it rains, when there’s a storm.

Dr. Angela M. Chalk [00:12:35] Storm water management is not a new idea in using in the natural environment. What occurred is populations increased and we shifted to more pervious surface impervious surfaces such as concrete and the density of populations. There was no room for the water to naturally flow to where it was to get into our lakes, rivers and streams. And so what we’re doing now is bringing back what was, you know, how they say what was old is new again. And so using these interventions on both small scale and large scale interventions is how we are able to engage, educate, empower residents because no resident is left behind, regardless of whether or not you’re a homeowner, or a renter. And in the seventh ward, we’re managing right at fifty thousand gallons of stormwater per rain event. So I need to make that clear it’s per rain event, whether that’s on the green block or planting trees or harvesting rain with rain barrels or small planter boxes. All of these entities using bio retention soil 57 limestone and I mentioned that a lot because that’s mainly what we use in our large scale projects, there is a number 8 limestone that we use, but all of these are natural occurring mechanisms that we can use to again slow that time of concentration so that water is not all rushing into the storm drain and overpowering the storm drain all at once. And we live in a 300 year old city here in New Orleans that the infrastructure is aged. You have them just like you have to maintain the natural interventions that we put in. So are those pumps, pipes and canals that have to be maintained. And it just was neglected throughout the years because we took it for granted that the pumps, drains and levees would work. And here we are in, you know, 2022 and we have to find a way to complement and marry the aging infrastructure: the pumps, the drains, the levees, along with getting back to the natural interventions that we use to green infrastructure, harvesting water, detaining water, allowing water to infiltrate into the ground. Those are the natural ways. 

Cheryl Austin [00:15:25] The main climate issue we are working on really is information, information communication. Having people to attend our workshops, having people to attend the Do-It-Yourself workshop. Our whole goal is to get more people involved so that they too can understand is going to take all of us if we are expecting a change in the environment, then we all have to address it and it is and a stated we live with an aging drainage and pumping system. But there’s something that we all can do. And so Angela, myself, Jeff, Cartherine and all the people that are part of the Water Wise Gulf South Collective say, “we’re not just talking the talk, we are walking the walk”. We know that if everyone will start doing something on their property at this site, whether they be home owners or renters something as simple as a rain barrel, we can help the city reduce the amount of water that…that flows into Lake Pontchartrain. 

Dr. Angela M. Chalk [00:16:42] People of color need to be more involved with environmental change issues because we are the first that are impacted the most and we’re the last to recover because of disparities. Disparities in health disparities and wealth and disparities in where we live. And so here in New Orleans, we live the communities that we work in across the Water Wise South Collective, live in some of the low-lying areas of the city and government is slow to respond. We, as community leaders and residents, can lead and drive how we want to live and manage water. My house received six feet of floodwaters during Katrina and it was a raised house, so it was already four feet off the ground. And so another two feet inundated the house just on a typical rain day, hard rain day event. The streets can be flooded and impassable. Those of us who are still working and working class people then have to consider if the hard rain comes. How do we get out of the house to get to work? How do we get our kids to school? And we know that insurance companies don’t pay us equitably in black and brown and indigenous communities if they pay us at all. So we, as black people have to play…play the game. And insurance companies know that. But you know what community,  which communities, which community based on the zip code? And so it…it beguiled me when I hear people say it doesn’t flood in my neighborhood. No, because your water’s running down stream to my neighborhood where the flooding is occurring. But no matter where you live and in this city, I can tell you this, rainwater is nondiscriminatory. Floodwaters are nondiscriminatory. It doesn’t care what your zip code is. What’s your race, gender, where you work. If you’re caught in that, in that hard rain downpour, your car will flood, just like mine, your home will flood. You can’t get home from work, your kids can’t get home from school. And so it’s incumbent upon all of us to play a role incrementally to make those behavior changes. If not, we’re doomed. And again, we can’t wait for government to respond to our actions. Anyone who wants to work in this area, you have to have a passion. You have to have the desire to make change, and we don’t all start from money. When I started this organization, I had zero dollars. And so there are community organizations all across this country that want to do something. But we’re held back because we sit because it said that we don’t have the capacity. And so I’m saying to any community organization that’s just starting out, start small, build your network and show you know what I’m going to say next. Keep your circle small. And the reason why I say keep your circle small, because the larger the circle, the more opportunities for confusion and no one gets anything done. Stay pinpoint on what your goals are and they will happen. Change will slowly occur. I could have never imagined in my life after retirement or 30 years of service with the state that I would be here at this moment doing what I’m doing. Having spoke with four congressmen on panels telling people the simple things that we can do, I have no room for error. And what I mean by that is that there are too many people, depending on me in my community, that I cannot and will not fail, nor will I sell out for the dollar. And that’s the message that I would have to people who are, who are getting into this green sector that just want to chase the dollar. Or you may get the dollar, but will you keep it? And what will be tangible for your community, the receipt of results of your efforts. Long after I’m gone, I want the trees that we’ve planted in the Civil War to be just as mature and vibrant as the ones on St. Charles Avenue. I want go into the green infrastructure interventions to still be operational in maintaining its function by having employed black men and women to maintain those and have the skills to maintain those. And long after I’m gone, I want the world to say this was the black woman that did it from nothing to something. It’s not just about a job, it’s personal. The Institute for Sustainable Communities priority project, there are people who…who came to the community meetings and wanted this vision and the vision is now reality. So long after I’m gone, that project will sit at the intersection of two major corridors. One is a hurricane evacuation route, in the other one that’s a historically black business corridor. And once people get a taste of what can happen in their communities, it’s going to be damn hard for somebody to take it away from it because they know better now. 

Cheryl Austin [00:22:14] Look for Dr. Angela Chalk, she…she is so brilliant. She really is. I’m not just saying that I had been working doing community work. Oh, my God., at what, 24 years before Angela and I started working together. I had never seen anyone connect, link, get involved with everything that can move the environmental and climate change narrative forward in their community and is just been an outpouring of knowledge commitment. I live in Treme, she lives in the seven ward. We are both committed to our communities. As I stated earlier, we live the struggles and we feel the pain, Black folks pain as our pain. That’s why we worked to make a difference. Make yourself known as hard as that can be, because it’s very hard for me, it always has been very hard for me because I do not like politics, but is necessary if you want something done, you have to let the people know what you are doing. People know about us in our work and what we’ve been doing. And so I would just say, organize your with your community first because that’s who you’re going to need. Get them on the same page with you in if it’s 10, that’s fine, if it’s three, that’s fine to just start moving in that direction, but get involved with the local politics. As they say, be the change you want to see in others. So once they see the change in you they become the change also, because that’s exactly what happened to us. They know about green infrastructure, they know about the environment, but Black folks were not moving in that direction until these ladies got together with Jeff and we started…we started moving…we started moving in that direction and is starting to pay off now is starting to pay off. 

PRC Oral Storytelling Project Production Credits and Attribution 

  • Project Producer, Felicia T Perez 
  • Sound Producer, Vanessa Vancour 
  • Sound Editing Assistant, Escenthio Marigny 
  • Transcriptions, Dr. Lydia Huerta 
  • Illustration and Music, graceuarts 

Additional music credits (credits do not imply endorsement): 

  • “Emergency Siren” by onderwish CC0 1.0
  • “Fire” by mmutua CC by NC 3.0 segment of original audio sample used
  • “Matchbox Strike and Light” by jaredgibb CC0 1.0
  • “Sewing Machine” by j1987 CC0 1.0
  • “Water Stream” by sterferny CC0 1.0
  • “Construction Soundscape” by ajexk CC0 1.0
  • “Neighborhood City Street” by rifualk CC0 1.0
  • “Street Protest Sound Effect” by spanac CC by 4.0 segment of original audio sample used 
  • “Royalty Free Mexican Mariachi Background Music No Copyright” by MFCC
  • “Car Horn” by keweldog CC0 1.0