Community Engagement Core


CEC Events and Highlights

- Cosmetics, personal care products & women & children's health

- The dangers of cosmetics and personal care products

The Community Engagement Core (CEC) conducts and actively disseminates the Center’s cutting-edge, community-engaged environmental health research, making it accessible to community members, policy-makers, researchers and educators, public health practitioners, and healthcare providers through relationship-building and innovative dissemination of scientific findings via in-person and technology-based communication methods. Locally, the CEHNM has joined forces with community partners, including WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. (WE ACT), South Bronx Unite, and Little Sisters of the Assumption, all of which are well rooted within the markedly disadvantaged, medically underserved, environmentally burdened Northern Manhattan and South Bronx communities. The CEC has ongoing, successful partnerships by which we identify these communities’ concerns, provide information about CEHNM findings that can be used to address them, and engage community and other stakeholders in dialogues to promote sound personal and policy decisions about environmental health. We propose to realize broader national and international outreach through widespread communications via media and digital platforms.


The CEC’s ongoing efforts to promote healthy and resilient homes and communities meaningfully address a wide array of environmental health issues, including facilitating conversion to clean heating, reducing local vehicular emissions, climate resilience, and emergency preparedness among vulnerable groups. This focus fully leverages the strengths and expertise of our new CEC director, Dr. Diana Hernández, and is the ideal outgrowth for CEHNM’s overall strategic vision and organizational structure, which emphasizes the translation of scientific evidence into prevention. With new leadership and additional community partners, we have substantial momentum to support existing projects and begin new initiatives. Moving forward, the CEC will collaborate with numerous stakeholders, including those who serve on our stakeholder advisory board (SAB)—which features distinguished multi-sectoral advisors involved in education, the news media and communication, and local and regional government agencies—to provide community-engaged initiatives. Our specific aims are to: 1) foster effective collaboration between community members and Center investigators; 2) broaden partnerships to support environmental health policy and advocacy; 3) implement an active communications strategy; 4) engage in multi-level training and outreach and engagement activities; and 5) evaluate the impact of our work.

We accomplish these goals through:

a) Research and educational forums to address community concerns

b) Scientific training in community leadership programs

c) Scientific testimony at public hearings related to timely environmental health policy issues

d) Briefings and roundtables for policymakers

e) Youth mentoring

f) Communicating environmental health research findings to community organizations to improve the health of the communities we serve

Vision Statement

The CEHNM CEC will collaboratively develop and actively disseminate our Center’s cutting-edge, community-engaged environmental health research, making it accessible to community members, policy-makers, researchers and educators, public health practitioners, and healthcare providers through relationship building and active dissemination of scientific findings via in-person and technologically enabled communication methods. We will foster strong collaborations between Center investigators and community and government partners in order to more effectively communicate science and identify the needs and interests of key stakeholders. We define “community” at several levels: first, Columbia University’s neighbors in Northern Manhattan and South Bronx communities can personally connect with investigators and students to achieve local impact. However, because Center researchers engage populations across the country and around the world, and because environmental health issues affect people worldwide, we also subscribe to a broader sense of community that includes the city, state, national, and global scales. Hence, our CEC will pursue local community engagement as well as global community outreach, via the internet, social media, and traditional media. 

Core Director: dh2494 [at] (Diana Hernandez), PhD (MSPH/SMS)

Our Communities

Our community engagement has traditionally focused on four communities in Northern Manhattan closest to the Columbia University Medical Center: Washington Heights/Inwood and East, Central, and West Harlem. These neighborhoods, composed mainly of low-income people of color, are markedly disadvantaged, environmentally burdened, and medically underserved. Based on 2015 data, the percentage of residents who live in poverty in West and Central Harlem is 29%; East Harlem, 31%; and Washington Heights/Inwood, 27%. The racial/ethnic composition of Central Harlem is 62% Black, 23% Hispanic, and 10% White; West Harlem is 44% Hispanic, 25% Black, and 22% White; East Harlem is 50% Hispanic and 31% Black; and Washington Heights/Inwood is 71% Hispanic, 17% White, and 7% Black.

We have recently expanded our engagement to include the South Bronx. The environmental health needs in the Melrose and Mott Haven communities in the South Bronx are significant. Marked by socioeconomic disadvantage, 43% of South Bronx residents live in poverty and most are Hispanic (72%) or African-American (25%).

Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx

Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx are important areas of environmental health risk, particularly related to housing and air quality. In 2011, WE ACT, working with CEC and other partners, prepared an Environmental Health Report Card using both New York City public data and surveys of Northern Manhattan residents. Northern Manhattan received a C (below city averages because there were no remediation policies or practices in place) on 8 of 9 factors, including indoor and outdoor air quality (Northern Manhattan is home to seven diesel bus depots), lead, pests and pesticides, solid waste, healthy food access, recreational water quality, and open space. These factors contribute to high disease rates, including very high prevalence of asthma and asthma hospitalizations in Central Harlem and Washington Heights/Inwood and increased cancer rates. Cancer death rates in Central Harlem are 30% higher than in Manhattan overall and 40% higher than in New York State. Our CEC has established partnerships in Northern Manhattan/South Bronx to identify these communities’ concerns, provide information about CEHNM member’s findings that can address them, and engage community and other stakeholders in dialogues to promote sound personal and policy decisions about environmental health.

Although progress has been made, including: 1) strengthening of New York State laws banning flame retardants in children’s and babies’ products, 2) requiring schools to test their water systems for lead, and 3) the passage of two New York City laws to require the city to investigate and report on environmental justice issues in the city, we continue to collaborate with members of these communities to inspire further action.

Community Partners

The CEC has been in partnership with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. (WE ACT) since 1996. We have collaborated on community-engaged research and outreach programs and share a commitment to using science and educational outreach to improve health. Founded in 1988, WE ACT was New York’s first environmental justice organization created to improve environmental health and quality of life in communities of color.  With a staff of 17 experts in environmental issues and community engagement, and support from private and government funding, WE ACT has developed extensive partnerships with Northern Manhattan community organizations, and with environmental groups, regulatory agencies, and elected officials at the local, state, and national levels. In our partnership model, WE ACT is responsible for a significant portion of CEC activities. Approximately 60% of the CEC budget is allocated to support our joint activities, which include, planning programs and executing community outreach and engagement activities. For CEHNM, partnering with a strong organization like WE ACT has facilitated connections with a complex community in Northern Manhattan that we could not easily reach otherwise. The partnership with WE ACT allows us to more effectively learn about community environmental concerns and to disseminate CEHNM findings for community benefit. For WE ACT, partnering with the CEHNM provides a resource to support education and advocacy, and increases their access to scientific and government communities. Along with WE ACT co-founder Peggy Shepard, staff members Lubna Ahmed and Milagros de Hoz are also directly involved in CEHNM activities.

We have broadened our community engagement by establishing collaborations with two new community partners, South Bronx Unite and Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Services, Inc. Mychal Johnson is a founding leader of South Bronx Unite, a coalition of more than 50 environmental and community groups, as well as South Bronx residents and allies working together to protect and improve the social, environmental, and economic future of the South Bronx. They formed in response to the proposed relocation of a “Fresh Direct” online food distribution facility from Long Island City, Queens, to the Harlem River Yard in the South Bronx and have since advocated for improvements in planning and zoning and addressing pertinent social and environmental risks in the area. Ray E. López, MA, Director of the Little Sisters Environmental Health Program, works with East Harlem residents to combat poor air quality, insect infestation, and mold. He oversees the agency’s asthma program, educates families about how to control asthma triggers in their homes, and collaborates with Center member, Dr. Matt Perzanowski and Dr. Linda Weiss at the NY Academy of Medicine on a project studying mold in public housing.

Stakeholder Advisory Board

The SAB has undergone major reorganization and expansion and now plays a more important role in advising Dr. Baccarelli and the Executive Committee about CEHNM activities. The SAB meets quarterly, twice in-person and twice by phone/video conference, with interim communication via email and phone. They are also encouraged to attend the annual Center meeting. Joining our community partners—Ms. Shepard, Mr. Johnson and Mr. López—are the following new SAB members: Jared Fox, PhD, is an Environmental Science teacher at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), a New York City public school dedicated to serving students from the Washington Heights neighborhood in Northern Manhattan. Dr. Fox partnered with WE ACT to offer Environmental Justice Leadership training to students at WHEELS. Andrea Mata is the Director of Health Initiatives in the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships. Ms. Mata oversees health programs at NYCHA that range from smoke-free housing programs to tenant-driven urban gardens and recycling initiatives. She was involved in our Hurricane Sandy project and has partnered in research with other academic institutions. Carolyn (Cari) Olson, MPH, is the Director of Data Analysis and Communications at the Bureau of Environmental Surveillance and Policy at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). She has more than 12 years of experience in applied public health research and data communications and is currently working on various projects related to climate change and health, the use of air monitors by citizens’ groups, and other relevant public health topics. Roger Witherspoon has spent more than 40 years working in all forms of media, as a journalist, author, educator, and public relations specialist. He has written extensively on state and national politics, foreign affairs, finance, defense, civil rights, constitutional law, health, the environment, and energy. He is a founder of the Association of Black Journalists, which grew into the present National Association of Black Journalists, and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.