Dr. Jennifer Carrera awarded the inaugural Faculty Outreach and Engagement Award for her work with the Flint community

April 27, 2021 - Karessa Weir

MSU Sociology Assistant Professor Jennifer Carrera may be the recipient of the first College of Social Science Faculty Outreach and Engagement Award but the honor was earned by the entire Flint-based research team, she said.

“I am a guest in Flint. I have been invited to work on issues that are important to community members. This is a win for all of us. It is a recognition of the team, the partnerships and the work of the community itself,” Dr. Carrera said.

This is the first year the award has been given. Selection criteria included making significant positive impact on the larger community, showing innovative outreach and having a lasting impact.

The selection committee all agreed that your efforts with respect to environmental justice in Flint embody the essence of this award,” wrote Carl Davidson, Interim Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs.

Dr. Carrera had experience as a water access scholar and spent her post-doctoral year in Boston working on sociological perspectives on environmental health. She came to Michigan intending to work on water access issues in Detroit but early in 2015, she began getting requests to weigh in on the Flint water situation. But she didn’t feel like she knew enough about residents’ experiences to speak from a position of detached expertise.

“I wanted to go slowly and make myself available as needed. I was not going to impose on the community,” she remembered. “In order to understand the full picture, I knew I had to talk to the residents.”

She worked with community members and other invited academics to attempt to shift the focus of the story that was getting international coverage to emphasize the residents’ narrative. The group wanted to be able to share a common, community-based vision. In 2019, Dr. Carrera was the lead author on a community science paper entitled “Community Science as a Pathway for Resilience in Response to a Public Health Crisis in Flint, Michigan” that sets a frame for community-driven research. It was important to the team to center research around communities rather than academics.

“Traditional community-based participatory research still emphasizes equity between academics and community members.  This creates a false dichotomy where non-community academics hold all scientific expertise while community members are seen to only contribute embodied knowledge.  Community scientists may include residents with little formal educational training who have significant personal knowledge about a community, but community scientists may also have college degrees and advanced degrees or even be members of academia themselves,” she said. “The center of our work is community. It is the core of understanding environmental justice struggles and putting power and control into community members’ hands.” 

The Flint-led research team organized focus groups of young people, African Americans, seniors, and Hispanic Flint residents. 

Dr. Carrera’s interest is in exploring how supporting community-driven research affects trust in science and finding ways to support residents in their efforts to collect environmental data to make decisions for themselves and their community about the safety and management of their water system.

“People go into sociology because they want to help people, but sociology offers few solutions to the problems it so well articulates,” Carrera said. “I want to find out how academics can leverage their resources to support the scientific inquiries communities want to explore. As a land grant institution, the benefits of research of the University should be available to all residents of the state, including marginalized communities.”

The sudden nature of the Flint water crisis meant that academics came from all over the country to have their voices heard on the hot topic issue.  This helicopter research is harmful to communities and residents feeling condescended to and framed as victims who can’t advocate for themselves, Dr. Carrera said. Trust in institutions will be rebuilt (or built anew) through putting residents in control of that process, validating their concerns as reasonable, and equipping them with the tools they need to answer the questions they have about their environment.

“Besides the actual water contamination affecting the health of Flint residents, the Flint Water Crisis also has produced a toxic environment of fear and distrust where residents’ own knowledge about their neighborhoods, homes, and bodies has been ignored, discounted, or challenged by governmental and scientific authorities.  Dr. Carrera’s project empowers Flint residents first by validating their experiential knowledge and second by providing them opportunities to co-create knowledge about the very toxins and contaminants that may be affecting their life chances.” said MSU Sociology Chair Aaron McCright. “Dr. Jennifer Carrera is exceedingly worthy to receive this award because of the quality of her community-engaged research project in Flint, which is having transformative impacts in this community.”

Her time in Flint has changed Dr. Carrera as a researcher. As part of exploring how to create capacity for more community-driven research, she has also been focusing on reflective listening techniques and a mindful facilitation process to lead difficult and vulnerable conversations around race, privilege, and accountability.  She has been using this technique with her students, community members, and academics who have invited her to share the process with their groups. 

Dr. Carrera joined MSU Sociology in 2014 after receiving her PhD in Sociology and an MS in Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana. She is jointly appointed with Sociology and the Environmental Science and Policy Program, and is affiliated with the Center for Gender in Global Context and Gender, Justice, and Environmental Change.

As part of MSU’s Global Water Initiative, Dr. Carrera was lead PI for a WaterCube research team which conducted a CBPR citizen science study investigating water quality associated with water shutoffs in Detroit.  This work was featured in MSU’s The Engaged Scholar Magazine.

 In 2018 Dr. Carrera was awarded a Transition to Independent Environmental Health Research Scientist Career Award (K01) from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to work with community partners in Flint, Michigan to develop low-cost technologies for understanding environmental risks and protecting public health.  She aims to establish evidence-based pathways for engaging with communities to enhance public health through the co-development of low-cost technologies to address unmet community scientific needs.