Part of an effort to empower residents in their Chicago neighborhood, long time friends Jeff Munie and Bill Vassilakis conceptualized a mobile, participatory research center that will capture the stories, opinions, and suggestions of the public. Combining their skills as an urban planner and industrial designer, they conceptualized “The Community Voice Box”; a trailer that will be manned by students, educators and environmental experts to collect ethnographic data accessible on a website. The mission is to allow political decision makers to facilitate change based on the insights gathered from the local residents in a community that also happens to be home to an air polluting coal-fired power plant.

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Munie and Vassilakis believe that “local environmental health issues are not solely a result of point source emissions, but a combination of political, economic and environmental issues, which combine to create overall inequalities in environmental health and morbidity.” Evidence of this message cannot go unnoticed as the view from their Pilsen apartment looks directly at the white clouds formed by the Fisk coal-fired power plant.

The Community Voice Box will build on the efforts of other local groups fighting against the plant’s pollution like P.E.R.R.O. (Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization). That group pressured the Illinois EPA to install an airborne lead monitors as part of a state wide program.

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The Community Voice Box will have its own pollution tracking technology, as well as enable several methods of data gathering. Residents who visit the solar and pedal-powered trailer can leave an audio, video, or written message about their thoughts on environmental advocacy in relation to their community. Because visiting the trailer site will be warm weather dependent, community members will also be able to add their thoughts via the website. The presence of the physical trailer is important though, since it will be staffed with students, educated on the available scientific information and operation of technical devices, that would act as docents and host the community involvement workshops.

The concept will become a reality later this summer, aided by winnings that the pair received from the non-profit group Design Makes Change. The Community Voice Box was awarded first place in the challenge to design a change agent for the Pilsen neighborhood because the idea embraces community-based participatory research, and it could be a model for communities everywhere to follow as a method of environmental advocacy. The concept development for the project will be on display at several Chicago venues this month, along with the other competition winners.

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