Mitchell Center expands its roles in equity initiatives

the word equity spelled out in scrabble lettersArticle originally posted in UMaine Research News on January 17, 2024

In 2006, an interdisciplinary group of faculty and senior leaders from across the University of Maine System laid the foundation for the creation of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine. Their vision was to connect knowledge with action to create a brighter environmental, social, and economic future in and beyond Maine.

Formally established in 2014, the Mitchell Center builds partnerships among interdisciplinary research teams and diverse stakeholders. Collectively, the center has supported more than 200 faculty and nearly 1,000 students from over 30 schools and departments at UMaine as well as every university in the University of Maine System. The Mitchell Center seeks to solve societal challenges that require balancing human well-being with protecting the environment. In pursuit of this mission, the Mitchell Center develops a portfolio of partnerships focused on a range of sustainability challenges, including natural resource management, climate resiliency, renewable energy, food insecurity, municipal planning and PFAS contamination.

“We often begin by trying to learn about the challenges that communities face, and exploring opportunities for collaborative problem-solving,” explained David Hart, a professor in UMaine’s School of Biology and Ecology who leads the center. “It can be as simple as talking with people in local communities, hearing what they are trying to get done, what is working and what isn’t, etc.” These initial conversations often lead to projects that join teams of faculty and students with community partners in efforts to build a better economic, social and environmental future.

Developing productive partnerships that can address the multifaceted nature of sustainability challenges requires identifying the expertise needed to understand and develop strategies to address communities’ needs. The Mitchell Center creates teams that combine the expertise of natural scientists, social scientists, engineers, and others. “For example, our solid waste management team includes researchers with expertise in anthropology, engineering, economics, and groundwater,” Hart said.

The Mitchell Center’s efforts to foster stakeholder-engaged, solutions-driven, interdisciplinary research contributed to UMaine’s reputation as a national and global leader in this approach. UMaine is one of the few universities nationwide with four active National Research Traineeship (NRT) awards from the National Science Foundation. These highly competitive grants, which are usually awarded to fewer than 10% of applicants, place a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research and the development of solutions to benefit society. Mitchell Center faculty play important leadership roles in all four NRT awards, including the newest award which focuses on both climate change and equity challenges in the Gulf of Maine.

From its inception, the Mitchell Center’s work with community partners has emphasized issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2009, it helped launch collaborations in which indigenous faculty and students worked with Wabanaki communities on strategies for protecting brown ash trees, which are threatened by an invasive forest insect. In 2020, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF) asked the Mitchell Center to develop a road map for strengthening the equity outcomes of Maine’s Climate Action Plan. 

GOPIF recently asked the Mitchell Center to assume a larger role in the next State Climate Action Plan through the Equity Engagement Project. The Mitchell Center-led effort will ensure that the populations in Maine most impacted by climate change are aware of, and have the opportunity to influence, the State’s climate programs and policies. The project will engage with tribal communities, people of color, immigrant communities, older adults, youth, people without reliable access to transportation, recipients of energy assistance benefits and other low-income and disadvantaged groups. 

The Equity Engagement Project is led by an interdisciplinary team that includes Sharon Klein, associate professor of economics; Caroline Noblet, associate professor of economics; Mitchell Center Senior Fellow Linda Silka; Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow Quixada Moore-Vissing; and Hart. 

“Our team is deeply committed to expanding equity in the climate planning process by actively recruiting and incentivizing people from disadvantaged communities to engage in a way that is meaningful to both them and the Maine Climate Council,” Noblet said.

The project team, which has nearly a century of combined experience with community engagement, will also collaborate with community-based organizations that have long-standing relationships with these populations. They will also provide climate and equity training and guidance for the Maine Climate Council and its six working groups to ensure they understand the importance of strengthening equity commitments. 

The project complements others led by Mitchell Center faculty. Klein and Noblet were recently awarded a $1.13 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in which their team will collaborate with Wabanaki and rural low-income communities to implement renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. 

The Mitchell Center’s enduring commitment to align its work with the concerns and goals of its partners will continue to foster university–community collaborations based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust. 

“If we hope to develop sustainable solutions that meet the needs of these communities, it is critical that we learn from them and work with them,” Klein said.