In the 1990s, Partners for Environmental Justice (PEJ) and Triangle Community Foundation developed a partnership that has continued to deepen ever since. One of PEJ’s first initiatives as an organization was funded by the Foundation, marking the largest grant awarded at the time.
PEJ grew out of its community of origin south of the Walnut Creek wetland. Built in the mid-1950s, Rochester Heights was the first planned Black subdivision in Raleigh, now known as Rochester Heights and Biltmore Hills since the development of Interstate 40 bisected the neighborhood. Built in a floodplain, the neighborhood has long been subject to inundation from backed-up infrastructure and from the surrounding creek. After Hurricane Fran in 1996, however, this flooding reached unprecedented levels when over ninety percent of the homes in Rochester Heights—the half of the neighborhood located north of I-40 and south of the wetland—were flooded. And although disaster relief funding was made available, much of it ended up flowing to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods just blocks away.
In the wake of this destruction, members of the community from three local Episcopal churches gathered to discuss three serious issues of environmental injustice involving the Walnut Creek wetland which runs adjacent to the neighborhood. The first was the frequent and demoralizing flooding of homes. The second was the longstanding dumping problem in the wetland, a problem that included everything from industrial waste to trash, tires, and household appliances such as washers and dryers. Third, the group discussed strategies to improve the wetland’s ecology, allowing it to serve its natural role as a sponge and filter. Between the dumping, upstream urbanization, and proliferation of invasives in the wetland, the wetland’s health was suffering greatly.
A Deep Connection to the Wetland
After the hurricane, it was clear more support was needed, also that the Walnut Creek wetland was in danger. Community members continued to gather and began further educating themselves about the wetland’s function. They developed connections with philanthropists, scientists, and student groups. The overall goal was straightforward: figure out a way to get the city to protect this natural gem, in partnership with the community.
These efforts were successful. The community began advocating for support and eventually helped funding get to their neighborhoods, too. And in 2008, almost a decade later, the city broke ground and the park opened the following year. Dresden Hasala, PEJ’s Board Secretary, describes the Walnut Creek Wetland Park as one of the “crown jewels of the Raleigh Parks System.”
Entering a New Era of Community Engagement
While the root of PEJ’s work has remained steady, their scope and engagement in the community has expanded and deepened. PEJ continues to address historical and current environmental justice issues in Southeast Raleigh, to advocate for equitable development and policies that improve community resilience, and to promote the benefits of green infrastructure for communities and the watershed.
“PEJ is designed to be a community organization in the most fundamental sense. We grew out of community,” Dresden explained.
PEJ is currently working with community members and local nonprofits to find out what they want PEJ’s focus to be and which projects they want PEJ to prioritize. With new Executive Director George C. Jones, Jr.’s strong acumen for growth, there is a vision of turning the organization into a vehicle for ownership and to be more direct stewards of the resources they offer to the community.
With the goal of empowering and educating the community, the Walnut Creek Watershed Learning Network was created to help teach neighbors how wetlands work and to help them more about the development and water resource management process. The goal is for participants to leave the program feeling empowered. As PEJ deepens their focus on the rezoning process with many Raleigh land development projects (which include Kane Realty’s Downtown South project, several potential projects around Dorothea Dix Park, and others likely to directly affect the wetland’s health), they have received both local and national exposure.
This past April, the Walnut Creek Watershed was designated the nation’s 21st Urban Water Federal Partner Location in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Urban Waters Federal Partnership. This federal program focuses on helping urban communities, particularly those that are overburdened or economically distressed, connect with their waterways and work to improve them. Through the program, communities gain economic, environmental, and social benefits. The designation also comes with funding to hire a Community Watershed Ambassador to manage the work.
With George, Rochester Heights native, in the Executive Director role alongside a dedicated Board, PEJ is poised to continue its legacy of a being a community-rooted organization delivering important environmental, economic, and social benefits to its people. “Through our community-centric approach, our goal is to be a hub for people—whatever resources people need that we have, we want to provide them.”
The mission of PEJ is to promote understanding and protection of urban wetlands, enhance community pride, and encourage economic development.
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