Meet the founders of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative

At the end of a long pier in Cherry Hill’s Middle Branch Marina is the futuristic home of the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative. For years, during a weekly get-together with friends, its founders have discussed the lack of diversity in their respective fields – Rhona Koppel, a former journalist at Sun And the Bay magazine; Donzell Brown Jr. With a background in politics, community leadership and environmental policy.

How can they share their contacts and resources to get to the heart of this issue, they wondered? They started working after the death of George Floyd, and launched EJJI in January 2021, with the goal of creating an online platform for black and brown youth to share their own environmental stories, report on those that directly impact their neighborhoods, and gain skills – from editing and multimedia to scientific methods even through Group headquarters on the waterfront – for a variety of career paths. On a summer visit, an intern was testing the water quality of local oysters.

Tell me about the importance of this site.
You can really see all of Baltimore from this one place. Much of the city has become cut off from the water in one way or another, whether that is by highways or development. It’s very hard to get to, unless you’re very wealthy, and we hope this place can engage the community and better connect us with Baltimore’s nature and maritime history.

How do you see the intersection between journalism and environmental justice here?
Having this site to train young journalists on Baltimore stories is really special, because you are really able to see this panoramic view of both the city’s promise and its problematic past. I think there are a lot of stories that can be told just in this marina. When we think of seafood, we tend to write off the city’s black fishing community. There are men here who have been practicing crabs for decades and have learned how from their fathers or mothers.

How did you meet?
We have a group of friends who meet a lot every Friday. Politicians, professionals, scientists, journalists and community leaders. A lot of the time, we’ve been sitting around a table complaining about issues in Baltimore and across the state — about diversity, science, journalism, the lack of diversity in reporting on environmental justice. As I said, many ecological stories have been made about hunters with their white faces. But these stories affect these communities just as much, if not more.

In partnership with students through local schools and other environmental organizations such as the National Aquarium and the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), the concept has evolved beyond just a journalistic platform. How would you describe your goal today?
Maybe we weren’t thinking enough at first. We don’t just do the press. We are not trying to be a news organization. We are an environmental sanitation organization without any apologies. We have a point. We want better things for these marginalized communities. We want to help people find their voices and tell their own stories, rather than how traditional press wear works, where they come from top to bottom.

DB: Journalism will always be at the heart of EJJI, but [now] We’re treating it like a think tank… we’re trying to create a community and platform for a group of underprivileged people where they can share the work they’re doing, as well as a support system.

With the help of the EJJI Board, you plan to share your connections and resources with these students. How have you faced the lack of diversity in your career?
In many cases, I was the only one in the room who looked like me. This is often difficult. I empathize with these students because I know they have a long and bright career ahead and I know the room will be less and less diverse as they grow.

RK: It took me a long time to realize in my own reports that I was excluding people. As a reporter in the Chesapeake Bay, I have covered oysters, crabs, and water men. My stories were mostly about eggs. But over time, seeing that things like climate change and sea level rise have disproportionately affected black and brown communities, I wasn’t around to write that story and I should have been…these communities deserve sustained coverage on these issues. And I realized that my best goal was not to do it all myself, but to teach people the skills, which hopefully will lead to a richer story.

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