Clean Air Carolina (CAC), a Charlotte-based non-profit, works to ensure cleaner air quality for all North Carolinians through education and advocacy and by working with their partners to reduce sources of pollution. For the past two years, CAC has been distributing mobile and stationary air quality instruments and providing hands-on training to Charlotte residents as part of their AirKeepers program.

The AirKeepers program is designed to empower Historic West End residents and community leaders to build a community-level monitoring network that gathers real-time air quality data using free and low-cost citizen science tools, like the AirCasting platform and the AirBeam.

During the separate-and-unequal era of Jim Crow segregation, Black neighborhoods in Charlotte were concentrated on the west side of town, close to a major railroad line and one of the city’s main industrial areas. From the 1960s through the 1980s, as the nation’s growing web of interstate highways reached Charlotte, three major roads (I-85, I-77, and NC-16) were routed through the west side. In subsequent decades, public and private investment focused on developing suburban neighborhoods for well-off residents at the edges of town while Black neighborhoods received little to no investment.

This pattern of racial segregation wasn’t random. Black neighborhoods were intentionally marginalized through redlining, housing discrimination, and unequal resource allocation. Hand-drawn maps from the HOLC in 1935 show how neighborhoods were chosen for investment during the Great Depression. While white neighborhoods were given the highest rating, Black neighborhoods were specifically targeted and avoided. This affected access to credit, reduced property values for Black families, and prevented Black families from having a voice in how properties were developed and land uses were regulated. It also disenfranchised Black voters and created disparities in government representation among Black and white residents.

Today, this legacy of racial discrimination is reflected, in among other things, the disproportionate exposures to air pollution that Charlotte’s Black population faces. Despite this fact, Historic West End residents lacked the data needed to show that they were breathing disproportionately high levels of air pollution. Air pollution can vary by as much as eight times within the span of a single city block and the air quality data available from the nearest state-run monitoring station didn’t reflect what Historic West End residents were actually breathing. Clean Air Carolina established the AirKeepers program in the Historic West End to address this environmental injustice.

During the two-year project, Clean Air Carolina partnered with five Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in the Historic West End to educate students about air pollution and engage them in hands-on STEM learning. The project utilized the AirBeam and AirCasting to create maps showing variation in particle pollution levels in real-time. All participating schools received introductory training on understanding air quality measurements and undertaking citizen science investigations and monitored air quality around their school campus. Teams also learned how to protect their health from poor air quality and they were encouraged to think of ways to improve air quality at their respective schools.

This work has led to positive change. Historic West End residents were invited by the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners to present the community-level air quality data they collected. Before the presentation ended, the Commission committed to establishing an official air monitoring station in the Historic West End. Some schools elected to go one step further and study the effects of bus idling and carpool activities. One school, the Cannon School, had a student who presented his work to the administrators to get a bus idling policy in place. This resulted in a policy that instructs bus drivers to leave their engines off until all students are on board. Community residents are also calling for the establishment of a West End Green District. The Green District initiative will use education and advocacy to mobilize citizens, businesses, churches, nonprofits, and government agencies to reduce neighborhood air pollution. Solutions include reducing emissions from idling vehicles, using clean construction equipment in the district, planting trees, and the use of community benefits agreements to mitigate industrial air pollution.

To learn more about CAC’s air quality monitoring work in partnership with leaders from the Historic West End community check out this Storymap and report or watch the below video.