November 16, 2016 | Christy Perrin

By Christy Perrin, for the Watershed Stewardship Network

Image: A drawing of the Roger-Eubanks landfill shows the multiple effects it has on the surrounding community.

Everyone deserves clean drinking water.

Veronica Bitting

We were excited to recently partner with Veronica Bitting of the SE Rural Communities Assistance Project and David Caldwell of the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association (RENA) to present a case study on RENA’s work at our recent Steering Committee meeting. David is a lifelong resident of the Rogers- Eubanks Neighborhood, an African American community founded by freed slaves in the 1780’s. The community is in Orange County, in between Carrboro and Chapel Hill. David told a story of a tenacious group of people who received a landfill in their community, and who organized to find relief from the impacts on air, water and health that followed. When the landfill that served Chapel Hill was sited in the community in 1972, promises by the local governments to provide basic amenities, including connecting members to water and sewer, eased some of the concerns expressed. Years went by, and while concerns about surface and well water and air quality increased, the landfill expanded, illegal dumping regularly happened and the community amenities were still lacking. A water line was eventually extended into the community in 2002.  We asked David why weren’t people connected to water? We heard that not all residents could afford the connection fee. And when people aren’t organized and don’t trust the government, they fall through the cracks. Fear of government and retribution can be a powerful and silent force against progress- although septic systems were failing, increasing health and water quality risks, residents were fearful to report sewage spills. What if their homes were condemned? David commented that many in the community “thought we were alone.”

Organizing to Take Control and Empower the Community

David and his neighbors organized a grassroots movement to gain the power of a collective and build the capacity to find relief. They turned to UNC-Chapel Hill partners to collect the data and document community impacts in a way that would get the attention of officials. For example, a professor and students brought in “Baby”, a machine that sampled air for presence of hydrogen sulfide and provided surveys to residents to gauge air quality impacts. RENA got help evaluating their wells and septic tanks, and learned how to maintain pumps, how to create power points and how to influence, and collaborate with, local government officials. They hosted doable “50/50” service events- something people could do to improve the community in 50 minutes for $50 or less.

Years of work building grassroots organization, engaging university and local government partnerships, collecting data and speaking out and with officials has led to a number of successes in the Rogers-Eubanks community. Some of these include:

Participants discussed ideas and advice with David and Veronica for working with disenfranchised communities. Some ideas included:

The NCWSN has committed within its strategic plan to serving communities in historically underserved areas. The Chapel Hill discussion was part of our continuing effort to understand issues affecting underserved communities, and to consider how to increase the network’s capacity to engage and serve communities experiencing environmental injustices. The issue of environmental justice is deeper than what we’ve reported here and deserving of more time to unwind its complexities. Here are a few more resources to learn more about the RENA story in particular:

Visit the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association website at

Read Rogers Road, a book by Emily Eidenier

Visit the Historic Rogers Road Area  page at the Town of Chapel Hill’s website

January 2016 New Yorker article about the RENA community, Fighting Environmental Racism in North Carolina

Thank you to David Caldwell of RENA for speaking with us, to Veronica Bitting for helping with the RENA case study and discussion and to Mike “Muddy” Schlegel of the Whiteboard Academy for the graphic summary of the case study that is posted with this story.


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