Meet Dr. Jelks: Fighting for Atlanta's Environmental Justice

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Dr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks is an environmental engineer and activist with a passion for justice and a “bias toward action.” An assistant professor in Environmental and Health Sciences at Spelman College in Atlanta, she strives to empower her neighbors to safeguard their local ecosystems and environmental health. She shares with CircleAround that her work in this realm is deeply personal — driven, in part, by her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis after her family lived in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley Corridor. She’s also fueled by the enthusiasm of young climate activists.

Jelks, a Girl Scout alum, co-founded the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), a community-based nonprofit working toward “a healthier and more sustainable West Atlanta.” WAWA focuses on primarily Black neighborhoods that experience disproportionate environmental stressors and are often underrepresented in environmental decision-making. WAWA is taking part in UrbanHeatATL, a community science project mapping Atlanta’s hot spots and exploring the connections between extreme heat and institutionalized racism.

Jelks is a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee, and she has been recognized as a White House Champion of Change, a winner of the Catalyst Award from Rachel’s Network, and a Cox Conserves Hero for Atlanta, among other honors. She’s one of many Black women leaders in the Southern climate justice movement, and she's writing a book about women of color’s contributions to this field.

We spoke to Jelks about her personal interest in environmental health and equity, the role of citizen science in community empowerment, and what gives her hope. This is the first in a monthly series on CircleAround about the many ways women give back to their communities.  

Photo Credit: Na'Taki Osborne Jelks


How have your identity and background inspired and shaped your work as an environmental justice expert and advocate? 

I am a Black woman, born and raised in the Southern United States, deliberately contributing to the advancement of environmental and climate justice, and equitable development in this region. I have Mississippi roots but I spent a life-changing five-year stint in Louisiana's Cancer Alley Corridor that deeply shaped my personal and professional trajectories. After my family lived in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley Corridor, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I found purpose in my family’s struggle.

As a descendant of Mississippi farmers who reared a large family and owned, worked, and lived off their own land — 95 acres in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — I have a strong connection to family and sense of place, and a special kinship to the urban forests and waterways in my West Atlanta community.

I am a wife, mother, teacher, mentor, community leader, and scholar-activist who subscribes to the philosophy that “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it's ours.” I strive to elevate marginalized community voices so those most affected by environmental hazards and inadequate community engagement processes can access the decision-making tables where urban improvement strategies are being planned and developed.

What do you think is one of WAWA’s greatest accomplishments? 

One of our greatest accomplishments is our ongoing work to revitalize the Outdoor Activity Center (OAC), a former nearly defunct 26-acre urban forest preserve and nature center in Southwest Atlanta, into a leading urban ecology center and gateway to environmental education and outdoor recreation for youth and adults in surrounding underserved neighborhoods and all of Atlanta.

When WAWA moved into the OAC through a memorandum of understanding with the City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, we found the facilities in desperate need of repair, with overgrown trails, acres of invasive plants, and no environmental education or other community programming. Through a lengthy comeback, leveraging modest financial investments and significant sweat equity, WAWA has begun to turn the OAC around, sustaining its operations and providing quality, place-based, culturally relevant programs for more than 13 years. We’ve engaged thousands of volunteers in tens of thousands of service hours to help manage the grounds, develop successful programs, and become leaders in advancing nature for all — making sure nature access in Atlanta is not limited by race, class, or geography. 

How are you proud to give to your community through your professional work? 

I am proud to give to my community through my professional work as a researcher with a bias toward action. I collaborate with community members and organizations in community-based and community-driven participatory research and citizen science to monitor local environmental conditions, reduce existence of and exposure to environmental hazards, and develop effective community-based interventions that help revitalize toxic, degraded spaces into healthy ones. It’s an honor to be able to contribute directly to positive environmental change in my own community through this research and engagement with neighbors and community-based organizations.

It’s critical to elevate their expertise, lived experience, and local knowledge as important elements to holistically diagnosing challenges and implementing sustainable solutions. While this community-level expertise is sometimes dismissed in circles where only professionally trained scientists are deemed experts, I intentionally work to create conditions that enable community scientists to empower themselves to collect the data needed to push for actionable changes to improve environment, health, and quality of life, particularly in environmentally overburdened communities.

How are you proud to give to your community in your personal life? 

I’ll be honest: The professional crosses over into the personal. In fact, my engagement in and leadership on community environmental and climate justice issues has greatly influenced my professional work. My contribution to co-founding and growing WAWA into a viable and relevant community-based organization … is what I am most proud of in my personal life. It has been a labor of love, and my way to give back to and contribute to improving my own community on Atlanta’s Westside.

The environmental challenges in West Atlanta and other communities drive me to use every avenue, every letter I write, every conversation I have, to affirm my vision for a just and sustainable world. ... This work is very personal; I have done it completely on a volunteer basis. However, I have been able to apply my professional expertise to move it forward.

Can you speak to the role of citizen science in the current heat-mapping project you are involved with, and in environmental justice, in general? 

Citizen science, and, in particular, community-driven community science, is important to the UrbanHeatATL project and environmental justice efforts in general because it helps democratize science in a way that engages lay citizens and community members in collecting data about environmental conditions. This data helps to characterize their lived experiences. It also bolsters the potential to have those most impacted by environmental hazards and the associated health challenges to be closest to the solutions. When it works well, the integration of authentic community engagement in the practice of science can improve scientific inquiry and lead to more equitable outcomes in the implementation of policy, systems, and environmental change.

How is your book coming along? 

It is advancing on a slower track than I would like because there are so many exciting things happening in my other work that my hands have been overflowing. It has also felt necessary during this time to focus on the emergent needs of my own community and to be engaged in national-level discourse about health disparities and environmental and climate injustices in the context of the pandemic.

Although there is no immediate end to the pandemic in sight, I am looking to regain some momentum on the book in 2022. I’ll be shifting my practice of interviewing the women featured in my book in person to online modes of engagement … as one way to keep the research moving. Women of color environmental justice activists are leading grassroots environmental and climate justice struggles across the country in big cities, rural areas, and small towns, and my book is meant to elevate and celebrate their efforts and successes, and to sit at their feet to capture and share their wisdom with both existing and new generations of leaders who share in the struggle.

When it comes to climate justice, what gives you hope? 

Youth and young adults give me hope. They tend to understand the cross-cutting and systemic nature of climate justice challenges, and many are clear that the key to solving these challenges depends on addressing root causes like the glaring racial and economic injustices that have resulted in an unequal climate burden for Black and other communities of color as well as low-income populations.

Young people are more uncompromising about the necessity of treating climate change as a scientific, racial, and social justice issue than other generations. They also share my bias toward action. They are not waiting on older people to take action to heal the planet and safeguard populations who are disproportionately affected by a changing climate and who have the least available resources to recover from climate shocks and stresses, and adapt.

Tags: Black Women

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Julia Travers

Julia Travers is a writer who often covers social and cultural topics. Find her at NPR, Art News, YES! Magazine and other outlets. See Full Bio

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