At the end of 2020, we started sharing the story of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC), a POP partner since 2012, that highlighted their work in environmental justice and sustainability. It took a little bit longer to be able to schedule time to talk with Jerome Shabazz, founder and Executive Director of the OEEC – it was worth the wait! The following blog post is based on a conversation between Jerome Shabazz and POP Co-Executive Director Kim Jordan in February 2021.
The early days – people, partners, vision, values
In 1998, Jerome and his wife, Gloria Shabazz established JASTECH Development Services, Inc – a not-for-profit organization developed to ensure public health resources in urban communities, promote environmental justice, education and encourage sustainable design. In 2002, JASTECH applied for and received a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant under the Clean Water Act to establish the Overbrook Environmental Education Center (OEEC), a community-based center dedicated to preserving our built and natural environments.
In the early days of the center’s existence, their thoughts were focused on restoring and protecting land in the city. This focus was due to the history of the land where the OEEC was established: years of contamination from a quarry, supermarket, and building supply company that formerly occupied the site. The site was also designated a brownfield and the clean-up required was extensive, but the process their team undertook has since become a model for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Superfund Task Force Group visited in November 2019 to help establish best practices for former brownfield sites.
Once these clean-up efforts had been carried out to where the OEEC felt it was safe, they began to invite children and other community members onto the land. Community members then were able to look more closely at how they thought the land could be used. By creating the OEEC, JASTECH was able to provide an example of what can happen on land in an urban environment, and who can carry it out. The orchards, high tunnel/greenhouse, green stormwater infrastructure and gardens that now thrive in that space helps to debunk myths and reinterpret self-images that neighborhood residents may have.
Jerome recounts that over time, the OEEC evolved to enjoy numerous partnerships on various projects and programs however, when the organization initially started, their greatest supporters were individual, “people of good will” – they were called the “community of the willing”. Dozens of people from all walks of life, supported their efforts. This transition occurred gradually as the OEEC matured and defined their work as a systems-based approach to improving the environment, public health and community development. He noted that this progressive development is hard to see while you are in the moment, and it’s only in looking back that you can understand the impacts of your actions. For instance, the OEEC developed some of the city’s first plans for a green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) system on a commercial corridor, a program for which the city is now seen as a national model. His training as an environmental engineer helped him see the multi-faceted community benefits that would result from this type of infrastructure, described in more detail here by the Community Design Collaborative. The OEEC was also one of the first sites to install a high tunnel and helped get legislation passed to allow these greenhouses in the city’s zoning code.
Current OEEC projects, programs, and people
The OEEC has developed an impressive array of programs since it launched. Programming in recent years has included the Overbrook Youth Environmental Stewardship Program (O’YES), sponsored by the PA Department of Environmental Protection, which teaches high school students about environmental justice; Lead Aware Philly, a public awareness campaign to reduce exposure to lead in water, paint, and soil, sponsored by Philadelphia Water; and Overbrook NatureWorks, which engages students in science, technology, engineering and math, sponsored by PECO and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
Over the years, OEEC has continued to develop its programs and has broadened their view of what these efforts consist of, including two recent projects that take a more systems-based approach. First, their Philly Green Ambassador (PGA) pilot program is a limited expansion of the City’s – Philadelphia Taking Care of Business (PHL TCB) commercial corridor cleaning program. This special expansion supported by the William Penn Foundation, is a partnership with Impact Services and Esperanza, to incorporate an expanded green focus through land care and environmental stewardship activities, supported by new staff hiring and specialized training. Stakeholder groups, such as the Philadelphia Water Department, Academy of Natural Sciences and other University partners, along with the OEEC’s instructors: Dr. Adrianne Flack, Gennifer Rollins, Mary E. May and Delrico Fletcher are providing weekly training sessions on subjects related to cleaning and greening, climate change, environmental justice, stormwater management and workforce development.
Finally, a primary focus of OEEC and JASTECH in 2021 is the development of Overbrook Farmacy Philly, which will aim to address the underlying social, economic, and healthcare disparities in the surrounding 19131, 19139, and 19151 zip codes. This project grew out of earlier efforts that investigated community-based actions to identify barriers and benefits to healthy behavior, with the recognition that systemic inequities often stand in the way of access to healthy food: pathways to healthy behaviors are multidimensional and depend not only on geographic access but other economic, social, and personal factors.
Earlier studies showed that nearby hospitals were seeing patients accessing care via the emergency room rather than seeking preventative care, leading to poor health outcomes. The Farmacy, a play on words of “pharmacy” and “farmers market”, will be a wellness center where patient care, environmental education, and healthy food access become intertwined. Jerome thinks that it will be successful because its practitioners will focus on providing very specific advice: instead of “exercise more”, clients will be connected with a service facilitator that has a set schedule; instead of “eat healthier”, clients can sign up for healthy cooking workshops and access fresh produce on site.
Developing leadership and partnerships
Though Jerome has become the most well-known “face of OEEC”, he recognizes the contributions of many others to its success, from its early days to today. He recounted the need to continue developing talent and a strategy for succession planning, something he says is underemphasized in African American lead organizations. As the Overbrook Farmacy comes online, growing capacity becomes ever more vital. Once this new community wellness center is developed, with help from a remarkable $1 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant made in December 2020, it will provide an important type of infrastructure that is lacking in the African-American community. Jerome seeks to provide deliberate upstream-healthcare, nutrition and environmental-health related intervention strategies to community members who need this type of support. The Overbrook Farmacy will provide a holistic approach to well-being that invites people to enhance their mind, body and community.
Throughout our conversation, Jerome spoke with pride and humility about the development of the Farmacy center and other accomplishments and urges others to be confident in their ambitions, knowledge and ability to influence change in their communities. Looking back at the early days of JASETCH (which is an acronym for Juveniles Active in Science and Technology), many offered their advice, some encouraging and some not, but Jerome and his colleagues stayed focused on their vision, reaching out for help when needed, and crafting long-term partnerships that provided access to resources and expertise to benefit their work. One such area is in the OEEC orchard, first planted in 2012, which serves to inspire visitors and demonstrate not only what can be grown in the city, but who can grow it.
Jerome appreciates that he doesn’t need to become an expert in fruit production, and that POP’s support and partnership makes it possible to help them realize a vision in their community. Whether it is the longtime collaboration with POP on its orchards, ongoing environmental education and justice work with the EPA, or newer sustainability and green economy jobs in commercial corridors through Philly Taking Care of Business, it is clear that Jerome sees power in the Collaborative partnership model. Like the now-bare branches on OEEC’s fruit trees, these may take time to develop, but all will eventually bloom and produce fruit.
Additional Reading & Resources
- Finding Beauty in the Commonplace
- A Green New Deal for Philadelphia
- Shining a Light on the Dangers of Lead
- OEEC Urban Farm Initiative GoFundMe
This blog post was written by POP Co-Executive Director Kim Jordan.
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