Strengthening coping-capacities through

community interventions:
The importance of self-efficacy and resources
National Environmental Justice Conference and Training 2015
Washington D.C., USA
March 11th, 2015

Susanne Börner
Postgraduate Researcher/ PhD Student
Department of Political Sciences
Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
Research group “ Sustainable Development“
boerner@em.uni-frankfurt.de
3/16/15

Overview
1. Vulnerability
2. Approaching environmental injustice: distribution, participation, and agency
3. Research questions
4. Coping with environmental injustice
5. Methodological considerations
6. Presentation of the study area
7. Case study: coping narratives from the harbor district, Dortmund, Germany
8. Lessons learned for empowerment and capacity-building in environmentally
burdened communities

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2

Vulnerability
Vulnerable communities are often disproportionately
affected by environmental burdens.
(exposure to polluting facilities, noise, air pollution and
hazardous living conditions)
Vulnerability = ability or inability of individuals or social
groupings to respond to, in the sense of cope with,
[…] any external stress placed on their livelihoods
and well-being.

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Kelly and Adger (2000)

Approaching environmental injustice

“Whenever some individual or group bears disproportionate environmental risks […] or has
unequal access to environmental goods […], or has less opportunity to participate in
environmental decision-making” (Shrader-Frechette,2002:3)
“One cannot talk of one aspect of justice without it leading to another” (Schlosberg, 2007:73):
unequal distribution and constrained participation both work towards constructing claims for
injustice.

Distributive justice
Agency of people
to cope with
environmental risks
and to play an
active role in
shaping their
environment.
(Sen/Nussbaum:
well-being, realized
freedoms, and
flourishing)

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Procedural justice
equals

Capabilities

We should focus
on promoting
empowerment
and enabling
people to
participate in the
first place.

determine

Perceptions
of individual resources
and social opportunities

Sen (1999a/1999b); Nussbaum (2006); Schlosberg (2010)

Assuming the perspective of
the affected population

Research Questions

How have affected residents coped with environmental burdens
in their neighborhood, and how are their self-perceptions of
the ability to cope shaped by biographical experiences? 
Which lessons can we learn for interventions aimed at building
community capacity?

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Coping narratives
Model On households’ Vulnerability towards their local Environment
attitude towards

Perceptions
of social
opportunities
/ external
structures

Biographical
experiences

the behavior

copingintention

subjective norm
(social pressure)

coping
-behaviour

everyday
coping
institutional
coping

perceived
behavioural
control

TPB

(ease / difficulty of
performing a behavior)

Coping Capacity
object resources
condition resources
personal resources
COR
energy resources
Coping narratives: coping as a life-long process
Biographical
perspective

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Current selfperceptions

Individual
experiences

Narrative
approach

Adapted from Köckler (2011; 2014). The model draws on Ajzen‘s Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) and Hobfoll‘sConservation of Resources Theory (COR)

Methodological considerations
„There is a need for research that better deals with the procedural
and recognition dimensions of environmental justice using
research methods that are more likely to be qualitative,
experimental and participatory“
Residents who are
engaged in a
community-based
protest group

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Walker (2012:218/219)

Narrative Interviews
Open narratives
Giving a voice to those affected
Participatory research process
Understanding individual experiences
Avoiding generalizations
Allowing room for complexity
Understanding environmental justice
as a process

Residents who are
not engaged in a
community -based
protest group

Case Study : Dortmund harbor district

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Basic facts: a stigmatized area
• Ruhr-area in Western Germany, formerly known for mining and heavy industry
• Northern part of Dortmund, an area with multiple social and environmental burdens
• Noise and air pollution
• Lack of cleanliness, increased littering of the area
• An unemployment rate of up to 24%
• A high crime rate, alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution

Perception of
stigmatization

• Up to 60% of the population has a migration background

„All the bad and problematic
things end up in the
Northern city of Dortmund“.
If there is no room anywhere
else, they just end up
there.“

• High turnover rate of the population (33% per year)
• “Transit” district

Urban planner, Dortmund

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Expert interviews with a neighborhood manager, an urban planner, and a parish priest in Northern Dortmund

Contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls
(PCBs): causes and impacts


PCBs were released into the environment due to the
inappropriate disposal of large transformers containing
PCB by the recycling company Envio.

• 17.000 residents live in the harbor district

• Approx. 5.000 workers in the harbor
PCBs may remain there for long periods of time in the
area
affecting
environment cycling between air, water, and soil.
• 1.200 people underwent blood
testing
Adverse health effects of PCBs: cancer, negative effects on
• 320 people with very high PCB levels in
the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, etc.
their blood

Until now, the contaminated area has not been cleaned up

Community protest group formed in 2010 with the aim to
shed light on the scandal
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• Contamination of nearby
allotment gardens, schools,
kindergardens and local holiday
spots (parks, green space, canal)

EPA (2013); Bürgerinitiative gegen den PCB Skandal in Dortmund (2015); sources of photographs: former Enviro website (no longer in use)

Fighting an invisible enemy




PCB is an invisible noxious agent
An “abstract“ risk
You can neither taste it, nor hear it, nor smell it.
Lack of clearly reliable threshold values
Later reconstruction of impacts is difficult (various sources of
PCB: cigarettes, fish, …)
• Long-term health impacts (higher cancer risk, etc.) but no
immediate visibility of impacts
• But: PCB has an impact on the quality of life

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Source of photograph: Julia Unkel

“Those who came to the assemblies were better informed [than
others]. But those who did not read the newspaper had
absolutely no clue. I talked to many people in the park. They
had really no idea what I was talking about. Nobody had
informed them.”
Former resident and activist

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Coping actions (preliminary results)
Coping through
suppression

Looking
towards
the future
„Business
as usual“

Coping through daily
adaptation

Coping through
participation (community
protest group)

 Avoid daily activities

 Protest actions
 Distributing flyers
 Collecting signatures
 Attending public
hearings
 Engaging with other
stakeholders
(roundtables): put the
issue on the agenda
 Researching facts
 Engaging with
politicians and the
media

such as planting
herbs or swimming in
the canal

Coping through moving

Mostly families with
small children moved

Changing coping behavior over time is possible
“First you ask yourself ‘Should we still go [to the park] now? […]‘ But I think it wouldn‘t make sense to

avoid the park now. We already were affected by the pollutants earlier, when we went to the park a lot
to go for a walk in the past.“ (resident and activist)
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Motives for participation (preliminary results)
Feeling personally affected
Geographical proximity to the polluting company
Concern for the well-being of the family
Frustration with the lack of reaction in the
neighborhood

"I felt truly fooled: On
the one hand, it was
already said that this
was a big
environmental scandal.
But at the same time,
they played down the
impacts when it came
to a concrete level.“
Resident and activist

Destruction of the environment in an already
burdened area
Perception of the lack of action of authorities and the
attitude of down-playing the issue
Criticism of the lack of information and lack of
transparency
Biographical experiences
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" I was living very close
to the [industrial
complex]. […] I also
had a garden in front of
my house and my
children were always
playing there. After work
I always spent my time
there.“
Former resident and activist

Preliminary results

Active residents

Non-active residents

Growing up in a clean or a polluted area

Negative prior experiences regarding participation

Upbringing / education (care for
others, being a fighter)

Experiences of cultural and social exclusion

Parental values and experiences
(critical attitude, etc.)

Biographical
experiences

Prior political activism
Related prior professional
experiences
Positive experiences of engaging in
community action („things can be
changed“)
Experiences showing the importance of
pro-social coping

Stigmatization due to migration
background
Experiences of powerlessness,
perception that nobody really cares
(ex.: prostitution and criminality)
Experiences of political pressure (i.e.
garden plot holders)

Frustration with legal proceedings

Having successfully coped with stigmatization

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Some activists quit the pressure group over
time due to an increased feeling of
powerlessness, loss of resources,
disagreements within the group

“ ‘I have tried it, and I haven‘t reached anything. […] I have tried
it once. But it hasn‘t worked out. You can do whatever you
want. You don‘t get through‘. There are many people who
think this way. Many migrants therefore do not dare try to do
anything, and they do not say no to anything.“
Former resident and activist from Turkey

3/16/15

Perception of individual resources
Typology of resources according
to Hobfoll

PERSONAL
RESOURCES
personal characteristics, skills,
communal mastery (social support)
age, health, language

time, money, knowledge

ENERGY
RESOURCES

RESOURCES

house, car, etc.

OBJECT
RESOURCES
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Hobfoll (1989); Hobfoll and Buchwald (2004)

CONDITION
RESOURCES

Preliminary results
No children / grown-up children

Urban planners
Retirement

Time
Housewife

Part-time job
Self-employment
(flexibility)

Non active residents: lack of
energy resources
•Lack of time
•No income/ unemployment
•Fear of the future and
everyday survival issues
•Lack of knowledge

Political
processes

Community organizing

Expertise
Party affiliation

Energy
resources
(they aid the
acquisition of
other resources)

Medical expertise

Low/medium

Income

“The only option for us low-paid workers
is to find a cheap environment, apartment,
to live in. You need to provide a living for
the children. As a single parent you do not
have any other choice [...] The financial
problem is always there.“
Turkish mother, former resident and activist

3/16/15

And then I am thinking that maybe this is not so bad. I have no
expertise, I am not a Chemist who can give precise explanations. I
am not a party member either.
Actually, I do not have any particular skills and I am not much of a big
talker. But maybe that is particularly good. I am simply a resident
who lives here.
Then nobody needs to think , ‘Ah, she is trying to win support for her
party. She is a Green, a Left-Wing, a Right-Wing, whatever.
It is simply that she lives there together with her family. And she is is
simply affected like many others.‘
Maybe it is quite good if somebody who is a rather neutral person,
forms part/, if you can say that. So maybe it is good that I am there,
too.“
Resident and activist

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Preliminary results
Courage

Being a „troublemaker“
Ability to grasp
complexity and technical
issues
Being a
talker

Ability to confront
others

Characteristics
and abilities

Optimism
Organizational
skills

Networking skills
Research skills
Non active residents: lack
of personal resources
•Indifference
•Pessimism
•Afraid of personal
consequences
•Perceived lack of necessary
skills

Support from friends
Give a voice to the
individual in a group
Cultural
community

Personal
resources

Support from neighbors

Communal
mastery
(supportive
social networks)

Support from
family
New contacts
but loss of old
friendships

Pro-social
orientation

"I do not go there just for myself. I go
there for all the people who live there.“
„There are good things where you need
to give your support. But there are also
bad things where you need support
others.“
Former resident and activist

3/16/15

" As as a single person you feel that this makes you angry. But
what can you do? Nothing, apart from getting angry.
And then I read this announcement in the newspaper saying that
people wanted to form a pressure group.
And then I thought, “Great, apparently I am not the only one who is
angry and feels that something should be done about it. I really
found that great. And then I immediately went to the first
meeting.“
Active resident

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Preliminary results

Concern for small
children (moving)
Age
Loss of energy due to
advanced age

Less concern for
personal health at a
higher age (staying)

Non active residents: lack
of condition resources
•Language barriers
•Poor health
•Leaving the neighborhood
because of small children

Health as a precondition for
actively shaping life
Health

Condition
resources

Health problems as a reason
for leaving the protest group
Language
skills

Ability to
communicate

„I would not have ended up in the
Envio group […] if it wasn‘t for my
knowledge of the German
language. Nobody can translate
how I feel.“
Former resident and activist from Turkey

3/16/15

Changing attitudes and perceived behavioral
control over time (preliminary results)

Anger and
frustration
(lack of action
&
information)

Running
against a
“rubber wall“,
„participation
trap“,
repression

“Our hands
are tied“
lack of
support

We are not
enough to
make a real
change

Difficult to
reach people
in the
neighborhood

What else can
we do now?

Group still
remains
active

We cannot
give up
(restoration,
avoid future
scandals,
seek justice)

Some quit over time: frustration, powerlessness.

Success
occurs in
small, small
steps

Information
has improved,
„we have
annoyed
them“

Uncover ing
deficiencies,
keeping the
issue on the
agenda

People from
different
backgrounds
were brought
together

Some remained: personal satisfaction, fun, small victories.

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Recommendations for capacity-building
1. Take account of people‘s perceptions of resources and self-efficacy.
2. Value, recognize, and encourage in order to boost people‘s self-image.
3. Provide transparent and accessible information.
4. Approach people “at street level“ - personally and individually.
5. Provide real and concrete possibilities for participation at eye-level.
6. Foster collective action and togetherness.
7. Think small! Make empowerment tangible.

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Thank you for your attention!

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References





Bürgerinitiative gegen den PCB Skandal in Dortmund (2015). Bürgerinitiative. [cited 28 February 2015]
Retrieved from: http://www.pcb-skandal.de.
EPA, Environmental Protection Agency (2013). Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) Basic Information. [cited
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Esri, i-cubed, USDA FSA, USGS, AEX, GeoEye, AeroGRID, Getmapping, IGP (2012). World imagery.
[cited 28 February 2015] Retrieved from: http://www.arcgis.com/home/item.html?
id=a5fef63517cd4a099b437e55713d3d54.
GeoBasis-DE / BKG( 2011). Verwaltungsgebiete 1:250,000. Staat, Bundesländer, Regierungsbezirke,
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Copingmodell – eine innovative Stresstheorie. In P. Buchwald, C. Schwarzer and S.E. Hobfoll (Eds.).
Stress gemeinsam bewältigen. Ressourcenmanagement und multiaxiales Coping. Hogrefe.
Kelly, M. and Adger, N. (2000). Theory and Practice in Assessing Vulnerability to Climate Change and
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Köckler, H. (2011). MOVE: Ein Modell zur Analyse umweltbezogener Verfahrensgerechtigkeit.
Umweltpsychologie; 15(2):93-113.

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References

Nussbaum, M. (2000). Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge,

MA Harvard University Press.

Schlosberg D. (2007). Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford
University Press.


Sen, A (1999a). Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. (1999b). Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor.

Shrader-Frechette K. (2002). Environmental Justice. Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. Oxford
University Press.
Walker G. (2012). Environmental Justice: Concepts, Evidence and Politics. Routledge.

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