Stories of Community Engagement: Christian Murphy, Ecology Coordinator at Bronx River Alliance

When was the last time you really thought about the air you breathe?

Breathing is biological process that is not something we consciously do—it just happens naturally, and we don’t have to think about it.

But if you are someone who suffers from asthma or other respiratory issues like COPD, you might not take breathing for granted. And if you live in an area with a legacy of air and other environmental pollutants, you might be concerned about the quality of the air you’re breathing as well.

The Bronx borough of New York City is one of those places. That’s why we’ve teamed up with a local community-based organization there called Bronx River Alliance, to deploy sensors to track particulate matter and carbon dioxide levels around their innovative new green building. (Learn more about the project here!)

Leading the work is Christian Murphy, Ecology Coordinator at The Alliance, who helps support the group’s mission to protect, improve, and restore the Bronx River corridor so that it can be a healthy ecological, recreational, educational, and economic resource for the communities through which the river flows. As part of our ongoing Stories of Community Engagement Interview Series, I spoke with Christian about his work in the Bronx, citizen science, and his hope for the future of the borough.

Jessica Califano: So the first question that I always ask everyone for these interviews is, when was the last time you felt like an engaged member of a community? And it can be really any type of community: online, offline, where you live, where you don’t live, anything.

Christian Murphy: That’s a couple of different things I could say here. I’m part of a group on Facebook, which I’m almost embarrassed to talk about, but it’s called Wild Green Memes for Ecological Friends. And it really is exactly what it sounds like. It’s literally from around the world, a collection of several thousand people kind of like me, who maybe do a green job or maybe they don’t quite do a green job but they are a naturalist and they go and spend a lot of time out in nature. It’s mostly meme sharing, sometimes facts and news updates about scientific things. It’s a community of fun-loving, easygoing, science nerds who geek out about dinosaurs and crabs and stuff. And it’s unbelievably wholesome and very welcoming. You’ll post something and people will respond to it, and it’s a good time. If I’m thinking a little bit abstractly outside the box, I would say that that is definitely a community. They share opportunities, and just different things and it’s a lot of fun.

May be an image of text that says 'Where are we going? You axolotl questions C'
Meme from the Wild Green Memes for Ecological Friends Facebook group.

JC: That sounds really fun and I love that you mentioned that it’s wholesome. That’s not a word often associated with online communities. But when it is I think people are really excited by it, and more eager to participate, rather than somewhere where you might get vitriol for something you post.

CM: Yeah, absolutely.

JC: So moving into your work with the Bronx River Alliance, tell me a little bit about how you got involved with them and what your career journey thus far has been like.

CM: Okay, I’ll try not to make that too long winded because there’s always twists and turns. So essentially, for a while out of college I was just out job searching and I kept finding things, and either just the timing was off and they were not hiring when I sent my application, or my resume wasn’t shiny enough maybe. Eventually I found a job opening a the seasonal position here for the crew. The crew are the people who go out and clean up the river—they take trash out of it, remove a lot of invasive species, and plant native plants and what have you. And so I was like okay well this is only for like maybe eight or nine months but that’s fine. It’ll get me experience and I will be able to use that and keep it with me for the rest of my life. And so I did that for the eight months, and met all the staff, I got to interact with our community partners during that process. It was great. I realized how much work that this one little organization is able to do.

And then I went on my way to an internship in Colorado. I was working with the Bureau of Land Management, which is a branch of the Department of the Interior, so a federal position. I was looking at rare flowers and like bats and fish in the desert, doing government work but, it was like a vacation for me. I was like, on a backpacking trip and it was amazing.

So I learned all these skills out there and came back to the city and the Bronx River Alliance reached out and was like we have a job opening. Are you interested in coming back, maybe for six more months with us until we maybe get more on our feet. I was like sure. I just came back from Colorado, got all these skills, maybe I’m more marketable. And I fell into this position so well that they hired me permanently and gave me a new title. Now I work with our partners, the ones I was meeting when I was seasonal. I collaborate with them and make events with them, I send them my data. And I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up I guess. I guess I’m still kind of figuring that out. But this is a huge stepping stone. The work I’m doing here, coordinating with volunteers, designing my own programs and events, keeping in touch with stakeholders, is just incredible.

JC: It must have been a really big change going from being in a city environment and being around people all the time to going into the desert and being a lot more isolated, and then going back to the city. So how did you manage that and what skills did you take from each of those places that were applicable to the new place?

CM: It’s interesting because some skills were the same in both places, like teamwork. Even team leadership here when I was seasonal—that was really helpful because when you’re a crew member you do some slightly dangerous work. You really need to be well coordinated with everybody around you, have good communication, good spacial and situational awareness, and trust.

Christian Murphy, Ecology Coordinator at The Bronx River Alliance

And it was the same in Colorado. Even though we weren’t in the public necessarily—we were in backwoods or backcountry areas sometimes—you trust the people that you’re with and know that you could depend on them if something bad happened because you’re very isolated. The hardest thing was the lack of socializing. New York is just such an easy place to interact and do things with people and out there it took more work. But I feel like what that did was it made the interns and other employees at that field office closer. People were naturally drawn to each other more because they just didn’t socialize as much outside of their work life, which almost sounds sad, but actually it was really, really nice, and it helped me assimilate into that culture a little bit more. It was great. And then I took all of that and came back here and was just ready to go as a team member. I already had the skills from working in the field, I had office culture and socializing skills that I developed out there, and it all worked really well as a new member of the team.

JC: Bronx River Alliance describes itself as a community-based organization. So, in your mind, what does it mean to be a community based organization and how is it different from other types of nonprofits?

CM: So other types of nonprofits have a service that they design, and they put it out, and anybody who wants it can come in and pay for it. Or maybe not pay for it, but more like if this is what fits for you and what you’re interested in, then come check us out.

A community-based organization isn’t thinking for itself. It’s working with the community to meet the community at the point of its need as much as possible. And so, while yes, what we do is restore the environment, bring back the Bronx River to be a healthy, natural space, the community has a lot of input. They have input on questions like where should the next resource dump go? Do we need to beef up this one park here that’s getting defaced with graffiti and maybe falling into a little bit of disarray, or do we want more programming over here because we have kids that need it?

So we still have a mission, we still have our objectives, which have not changed since really the 1970s when this was just a group of volunteers. But we also involve the community at every step of the way, as much as possible, because this is for them. Beautifying the river is so that the community to has a beautiful river. And so to me, being a community-based organization means that the community gets to tell you what to do, in some respects, and that’s kind of unique.

JC: Totally. It’s not necessarily solving hunger worldwide, it’s more like, what can we do to help hungry people in our community.

CM: Exactly, yeah.

JC: So how do you how do you approach that? How do you get the community involved, and excited, and engaged?

CM: Recently it’s been a lot of social media outreach.

JC: I guess it’s a lot harder because of COVID.

CM: Yeah, definitely. Back in the day there used to be tabling events. There used to be people from our team physically being out in the park and just stopping and talking to people they were mingling and going by and sharing what’s happening. People could ask questions as we were like walking around and doing things.

Now we’re putting out as much content as possible. Doing a lot of virtual events that people could join, like chatting with us on Instagram Live or something like that. But we’re just trying to give people a sense of what we’re doing and why we’re trying to do it and we want them to share our passion. I think that speaks to a lot of people, especially those who have seen parts of the river and their neighborhoods and decades in the past and it was just not something that the Bronx could be proud of. So even just seeing that transformation is such a worthy positive. I think it ignites a little something in a lot of the people that we interact with. So it’s finding a way to guide them to our programming and to forums where they can tell us what they’re interested in seeing. Nowadays that’s mostly on social media but back in the day, it used to be physically tabling.

JC: One thing that you work on is community science. You have some of those efforts that you’ve built into your programming, and with the project we’re working on together we’re bringing that in as well. Why do you think community science is so important, and how does it fit in with the work that you do on the Bronx River?

CM: Community science is important because it’s part of where you get people like me to step into these positions. So really, the idea behind community science is to foster stewardship, which is where community members feel like they ought to step up and take care of their surroundings, and not just lean on people like us or some other organization to do the work for them. It’s to inspire them to be like okay well this is my neighborhood, this is my river. I’m upset by what I see and not only do I want to help clean it up, and I also want to talk to other people to make it better and start this change. It’s great for us because we get manpower to do what we don’t have the bandwidth to do. At the same time, it educates and inspires the community.

JC: Can you tell me more about one of the community science projects that you’ve worked on? How did it go? What what did you learn? What were the good things about it and what were things that maybe you would do differently next time?

CM: We can talk about what we call Project Water D.R.O.P. which stands for Detecting River Outfalls and Pollutants. It’s a program that investigates sewage pollution in the river, both in the Bronx and Westchester County, which is where the river flows. And because the river is 23 miles long, and we have all these sites along the length of the river, it’s really hard for staff members to go out and do all that. So as a way of fostering that sense of stewardship, and also taking care of our on bandwidth issues, we have volunteers adopt sites for a season. We give them the materials and they go out and actually collect water quality samples, which eventually get processed for bacteria levels.

A steward collecting water samples near a CSO pipe in the Bronx River.

Volunteers always seem to like it. It’s pretty straightforward and it doesn’t take very long to do, but they get to go out and collect data which we then can use to talk to legislators and municipal officials. It’s their data, it’s the data that they collected. And so they love that aspect.

It can be difficult to wrangle so many people over such a long distance, because we can’t be everywhere at once if they have an issue. We’ve had problems in the past where someone’s like, oh no this park is locked, I can’t get into access my site, what do I do? Or I’m missing this material, can you give me a spare? You have to kind of pick and choose. One of them maybe you can deal with it but if multiple issues happen on the same day, someone’s just gonna get left behind sometimes. And that’s never fun, because they’re not having the experience that they were looking for, and then you miss data. That’s one of the drawbacks of this kind of community science programming.These issues don’t often come up, but when they do, there’s often not much we can do about them.

So, when I first came into this position and that was my experience, I even didn’t really know exactly what we were asking them to do. I wasn’t totally familiar with the program. I hadn’t yet been cleared to drive. And so as I was fielding these communications it was like, I don’t even know where this person is! Even though they’re describing this problem, I don’t even know what I would do to help them. Now at this point I think I could probably take that on pretty well. I could probably say look I’m going to meet you here or I’ll do the sampling today and you can do it next time. So I feel like I’m more prepared now to handle that.

And we have veteran samplers at this point who’ve been doing this for such a long time now. They’re already trying to step up into “supervisory” positions where they are willing to pair themselves up with new volunteers to show them the ropes. I just got an email last week from one of our longtime samplers, she’s been with us for I think three years now, and she’s like, Hey I just reached out to a couple of new people asking if they were interested in tagging along and they were like, Yeah, let’s buddy up. And so that really took a lot of pressure off of me. If you curate this kind of program really well, there’s a self-sustaining aspect of it that’s really beautiful.

JC: That’s great, to be able to be sort of hands off almost and just let it grow and flourish on its own. That shows that it’s working well and because people are excited people are just gonna keep doing it on their own. One thing I would love to talk about is our specific work on air quality together. Why is air quality such an important issue in the community in the Bronx?

CM: Air quality is a legacy issue in the Bronx, from decades of environmental injustice. It’s a result of a lot of different things. One of the biggest ones is redlining. Back when the Bronx was outlined with all these boundaries designating which neighborhoods were high quality based on the people that lived there and which neighborhoods were to be ignored and forgotten based on who lived there. Big, big portions of the Bronx were designated as forgettable, because of the color of the residents’ skin. And so what that meant was that the land was cheap and worthless, and so they put up all these factories and different industrial facilities, and a lot of them still exist. We have a lot of bus depots here because they put bus depots on our land and now that’s part of the transportation infrastructure of the city. We’ve got many different facilities that nowadays we wouldn’t want here, but they’re already here, so you can’t just pick them up and move them. As part of our city infrastructure we depend on those services.

Christian and I deploying air quality sensors at The River House, the new solar-powered, rainwater-harvesting, green building that houses the offices of The Bronx River Alliance.

So as a result we have a pretty chronically unhealthy population who suffer from, in large part, asthma, and different respiratory illnesses like COPD, and that’s because the air here is not good. It’s not healthy. It’s the worst air in the city, and some of the worst air in the country. You could compare it to Los Angeles and other places in the Rust Belt. And most people know about it. Some people are not totally aware of it but really no one thinks that they can do anything about it. So we wanted to introduce people to an actual physical number they can look at, at a location that they can visit. The River House is a place that they can literally stand next to and look at the sensors and look at the data that it’s collecting.

We want to introduce people to letter writing campaigns, introduce people to town hall meetings that they can attend, if they’re not already aware of the forums. We can arm them with actual numbers and they can say listen I have a neighborhood community organization which is providing us with this service which is telling us that the air that we breathe is dangerous to us. As my elected official, I want you to think about it. Now we’re empowering people to really take some of these ideas into their own hands and give them a platform for their voice to be heard. To me, as a community organization in a really diverse but also really vulnerable population that suffered so much, that’s one of the best things that we can do. Really help people as much as possible. We can’t necessarily shut down bus depots and factories, but we can help to spur a movement to make changes in this place that’s often been neglected.

JC: Absolutely. That’s totally the idea behind the bottom-up approach that we’re working on here. How do we make it as accessible and understandable as possible for anyone who’s looking at this data to be able to say okay, I’m not a scientist but I can tell that the air is bad here, and I need to get my elected officials to fix that. That bottom up approach is so important.

Looking to the future, what do you hope to see for the community that you work with in the Bronx?

CM: I guess in some part, I hope to see behavioral changes. I do sort of hesitate to say that kind of thing. But we get a lot of litter on the ground. We open these spaces for the community and the community uses them, the community loves them, but some of our members will not treat the space the way that we thought they would. If I could just look into the future, my perfect future would be everybody pitching in to clean up after themselves. Everybody pitching in to encourage one another to take care of a space and see it for its full potential and it’s true beauty, and to think about the fact that other people use that space with them.

The Bronx River is 24 miles long and is the only freshwater river in New York City.

But I also see it as kids coming out and having fun, playing sports and stuff, but also looking at the trees and learning about the natural aspects here. Looking at the infrastructure and seeing how amazing it is, and also where it’s faulty, and where it needs to be fixed. Inspiring them to become educators, and legislators, and engineers, and city planners who helps make the Bronx more and more incredible, because all these different parts work together. I really see the Bronx and in particular the Bronx River corridor as this amazing laboratory classroom, not just a sports center. It’s just an amazing space for people to just feel that sense of community, feel pride in where they live, and feel inspired to continue to make it more and more beautiful every day.

JC: Living in the city and growing up in the city, which is something that you’ve gone through, access to nature and wildlife and the beauty of it is not something you necessarily get a lot of as a kid. So I think the work you’re doing to provide that space for for children in the Bronx is so important, because there’s just not a lot of that opportunity out there for them.

CM: We have people who are like, I didn’t even know that there was a river here! I thought the Bronx River Parkway was a pretty name for a highway. And I’m like yeah, it cuts the Bronx in half. They have no idea this resource is literally so close to them, sometimes and they just don’t know how to find it because there’s not good access to the river right now.

JC: It’s a big river, it goes all the way to Westchester!

CM: Yeah it goes up to White Plains.

JC: Is there anything else that you would want to say about work that you’re doing or community engagement work that we can share with our audience?

CM: I want to mention that, because of our relationship with the New York City Parks Department, that’s why much of this work is possible. The uniqueness of the relationship means that we get a lot of support from them. And it’s amazing that they allow us to take jurisdiction over big sections of Parkland that abuts the river. Because that gives us a lot of opportunity to do the revitalization work that we want to do with their support. We don’t take that relationship for granted because it’s quite unique, and parks and recreation they’re huge, they cover the entire city. So it’s great to have that as our back end support.

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