ATLANTA—On any given day, Cherella Nicholson (M.I.S. in Urban Studies ’20) may find herself knee-deep in the weeds on an abandoned lot in Fresno, California. This scenario is not out of the ordinary for Nicholson, who champions environmental advocacy and brownfield remediation in her spare time.
Nicholson’s work advocating for environmental remediation, while solely in a volunteer capacity, is important to the Fresno community. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are more than 450,000 brownfields across the United States and approximately 300 of them are located within Fresno County.
“There are roughly 60 to 75 unidentified brownfield sites in the City of Fresno,” Nicholson said. “This is an understudied field, and that makes it difficult produce a comprehensive report of every brownfield site. However, much of Fresno’s land area is vacant because it is contaminated.”
Nicholson’s passion for environmental advocacy emerged in 2015 while she worked for the Building Neighborhood Capacity Program, an offshoot of the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative implemented under the Obama Administration that aids low-income neighborhoods in constructing a sustainable infrastructure and retaining equitable access to educational, employment and housing resources. Her passion traversed with Nicholson to the Andrew Young School, where she participated in the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition conducted by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration.
“We were given a mock city with seven districts, and we had to create and fix the city’s transportation infrastructure. It was a fast-paced, day-long simulation that gave us the real-world experience of working with policymakers and dealing with decisions that impact communities for generations.”
Soon after earning her master’s degree, Nicholson went to Fresno to begin working as a program officer with the Central Valley Community Foundation. She took with her the lessons she learned to improve the southwest Fresno area.
“I really got into it, and I wanted to continue studying the problem,” she said. “I see myself as an advocate. I speak about brownfields at any opportunity I am given. I find that many property owners are unaware of the resources available to them to help remediate their sites.”
Also an advocate for civic engagement, Nicholson is working to see an increased reflection of the city’s Black and Brown residents in its community development spaces. Despite African
Americans comprising only 8.3 percent of Fresno’s demographic, they make up about 24 percent the city's southwest area. To increase their representation, Nicholson plans to develop a civic engagement training program to equip all residents with the necessary tools to engage in community-building and accountability.
“I am looking to hold the city accountable, but it is hard to do so if many of the residents are not
aware of what needs to be accounted for,” she said. “As voters, as residents, we have the power to do that, and it is our responsibility. No one will hold the government accountable except for the voters. I want people to know that they have the right to call their local elected officials. As a community, we are well within our right to call and ask for status updates on funding that is intended for our neighborhood.”
Story by Victoria Bowden, M.P.P. Candidate