Healing Charlotte Podcast: Daisha Williams, CleanAire NC

Today’s guest is Daisha Williams who is the Environmental Justice Manager for CleanAIRE NC. CleanAIRE NC utilizes action, education, and innovation in their partnerships to restore the environment. They started in 2003 as CleanAIRE Carolina where volunteers banded together to improve air quality and noticed the link between that and climate change and public health. Their focus today is on climate change and air quality; addressing it through advocacy, education, and community-driven research and programs. CleanAIRE NC has 4 programs; health, policy, citizen science, and environmental justice. The Health program provides information to help health professionals talk to their patients about climate change, air pollution, and how it is affecting their health. The Policy program advocates for strengthening environmental policies to limit the factors that contribute to air pollution and climate change. The Citizen Science program uses air monitors in impacted communities to translate data for actions and improvements. The Environmental Justice program incorporates all of the other programs to make sure those who have been affected the most by climate change concerns are being included in efforts and decisions as well as empowered with knowledge. While CleanAIRE NC is based in Charlotte, NC, they assist communities all over North Carolina and have offices in Greensboro and Durham as well.

Before landing at CleanAIRE NC, Daisha received her Bachelor’s of Science in Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University and was interested in animals so she joined the Woodland Park Zoo in Washington. From there she learned she was more interested in working with people, so she got a job as a Legislative Assistant at the Washington Environmental Council where she worked with students in Title I schools in the Seattle area on the legislative process, who their representatives are, and how to use their voice for change. She was also part of a team that helped create a policy strategy that was passed to safeguard the environment. Next, she decided to get a graduate degree in Policy at John’s Hopkins University, and moved back to Charlotte where she got a job working with the Americorps’ Regional Stormwater Partnership of the Carolinas and began her work in the Historic West End. Because of her strong work in the community, it made sense to be involved with CleanAIRE NC as the new Environmental Justice Manager. She also has a graduate certificate in Geographic Information Science and Technology.

The Historic West End in Charlotte was subjected to red lining back in the 1930s which caused this area to have a lot of pollution due to the nearby highways and industries. Three highway systems cross through this neighborhood. The Airkeepers program through CleanAIRE NC was launched in 2017 which was the first one in the state. This system measured particulate matter. This is important as our lungs cannot remove certain sizes of particulate matter as it reaches deep into the lungs and bloodstream. The intention for this program was to arm the community of how much particulate matter is present and when it’s at the highest concentration. In 2018, community members and CleanAIRE NC created a report on pollution and health concerns to present to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioner’s in order to advocate for a federal EPA monitor which they received. The importance of the federal EPA monitor is that now the government is responsible for implementing programs to address the present issues. This also helped them formalize a Historic West End Green District which is designed to improve air quality, reduce emissions, and improve overall health. The community-led program started with 3 volunteers and now has 13. The health impacts of poor air quality are great and include issues such as inflammation, imbalanced nervous systems, can exacerbate diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. Recent studies have even found that poor air quality has a strong link to death by COVID.

“It really disheartens me that pollution touches this community and many communities like it in a cumulative way; it’s not just water quality concerns, it’s not just air quality concerns, it’s also a concern of a lack of resources, whether that’s lack of access to fresh and healthy food, lack of access to medical services, you also have concerns of displacement as Charlotte expands and grows rapidly and these communities are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods.”

The Historic West End Green District’s projects are chosen by the residents and have 3 main goals; strategic tree planting and maintaining of current trees as well as installing green walls and roofs, advocating for electric car charging stations and increasing access to more clean transit, and education on sustainability and solutions for clean air. The Historic West End Green District is working on Community Benefits Agreements which would work with industries in the area to help cut down particulate matter and pollutants.

“So building up those relationships because that’s where you start is just listening and building up trust and expanding this work and even connecting other environmental justice communities to each other because there is power in numbers and there’s also a lot of solidarity in listening and creating solutions with those that are experiencing the same things.”

If you would like to support CleanAIRE NC, Daisha recommends educating yourself first on the historical inequities, environmental justice, and the legacy it has left behind. From there you can speak out against it and vote for people who will support efforts. You can join their Advocacy program or donate to support them.

For self-care, Daisha enjoys spending time in nature, walks with her dog, and baking.

To connect with CleanAIRE NC you can visit their website here or email Daisha at daisha@cleanaire.org.