New Nonprofit Aims to Build a More Resilient, Just Erie from the Ground Up
Groundwork Erie joins national network to address environmental justice at the local level
Aaron Kerr's been a pastor and professor. Beginning in January, he pivoted to become an executive director — leading Groundwork Erie, the newest "trust" in Groundwork USA, a national network of now 21 locally-based organizations devoted to transforming the natural and built environment of low-resource communities to advance equity, health, and resilience.
Just as differences can be seen from neighborhood to neighborhood — a boulevard of trees, a trail running along a creek, boarded up windows, skyscrapers concentrated in a dense urban core — each trust (so-called because the Groundwork model originated in the United Kingdom, where a nonprofit charity is referred to as a trust) — differs.
But when one asks: What does Erie have in common with Mobile, Alabama, or Jacksonville, Florida? One can answer that those three places — plus the 18 other trusts in other communities — share a common vision and mission: to transform neglected land and waterways into community assets, increase resilience to climate change and environmental crises, increase access to healthy food, and cultivate the next generation of environmental leaders. The details can be found in Views from the Crossroads, Groundwork USA's 2021 "State of the Network" report.
Proof of idea has turned into proven results in the U.K. with an environmental justice movement that has renewed economically distressed towns and cities since the early 1980s. So, in 1996, the National Parks Service's Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program along with the Groundwork USA Steering Committee, wanting a long-term strategy to better engage residents to improve public access to open space, brought the model stateside. The following year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency joined with seed funding to launch the three pilot trust communities of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island.
The 21st trust — Erie — officially began its pursuit to become a Groundwork USA Trust in April 2021. The Groundwork Erie Feasibility Study Steering Committee — which included the city of Erie, Bayfront East Side Taskforce, Eastside Grassroots Coalition, Erie Downtown Partnership, Erie Farm to School, Erie Redevelopment Authority, Our West Bayfront, ServErie, and the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Network — voted to approve its joint-effort feasibility study. But the group had been meeting regularly since May 2020, and had been drawing inspiration to plot action from "Erie Refocused," the city's comprehensive plan drafted and submitted by the Alexandria, Virginia-based planning firm czb, LLC in 2016.
The word "trust" — aside from the British-English origin — is fitting. By design, the local trusts, so explained in Views from the Crossroads, serve as "trusted intermediaries between local government and neighborhood residents, engendering in communities the more commonly understood definition of the word 'trust': the trait of believing in the reliability and honesty of others."
Over a Zoom call, Kerr tells me that he sees the role of Groundwork extending to include commerce and education, too, to create a space to "get real about what people — kids and adults — need to understand" when it comes to their relationship to their natural and built environments.
On March 22, Kerr and the Groundwork Erie transitional board met, and approved the organization's inaugural project: provide "on the ground" outreach and remediation of vacant property where the city is pursuing a Greenway Trail running from 12th Street to Sixth Street on the east side. That outreach to neighbors translates to inviting in their voices to the planning process to hear their ideas and listen to their concerns, Kerr explains.
This will include youth-involvement, according to Kerr, pointing to Groundwork USA's emphasis to engage and employ the community's younger residents. "All of this will be done with a central educational component for the employees, which will assess both technical and intellectual competencies with an eye toward development," he tells me. "Summer employees will be able to say that because they worked for Groundwork Erie, they have these skills and knowledge moving forward into other employment. In general, workers will be assessing neighborhoods with an eye toward future projects, which will enhance climate resiliency in the Erie watershed."
The Erie Community Foundation has provided $15,000 of startup funds, and the city has four-years-worth of funding through the American Rescue Plan Act at $35,000 per year through 2026. Part of Kerr's work moving forward will be to raise funds to increase resources and therefore increase capacity.
Other parts include finding office space, building a team, and getting the word out.
"I'm a gatherer," Kerr tells me. "My goal is to be that person who helps people to belong to a process and gathers people together who otherwise are up in their silos, worried about their own survival."
When I ask Kerr on the call what becoming a part of the Groundwork USA network means to Erie, the former philosophy professor becomes philosophical.
"There's a new movement that addresses the concurrence of environmental racism and the degradation of nature, because of our economic system," Kerr tells me. He goes on to ponder: "How do we undo the normalizing of litter on the streets as just something we've come to accept; how do we jolt people out of the perception that it's OK to have plastic in our waters; how do shootings happen just blocks from beautiful parks, or at all, anywhere, for that matter; how does a house with a caving in roof sit next to another with a well-manicured lawn; how … do we invest in that paradigm shift that takes hard conversations, boots willing to tread the ground to get the work done?"
"This," Kerr tells me, as if to raise his chin and wave his arms around, "is not normal. Why have we grown used to it in this era? We've got to get out of it. We've just got to start saying, 'It's time. If not now, when?' for intergenerational justice."
Kerr tells me he's a grandfather. He hopes his grandchild can live in Erie for decades well into the future. "It's time to stop talking and start demonstrating some connection between human beings," he tells me.
What better way to start than by including residents, and what better place to start than from the ground up.
Ben Speggen can be reached at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.