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When the health of a community is threatened by an environmental hazard, the outcome often depends on how different groups of people work together to fix the problem.

Community members experience the hazard directly and may organize to create change. Government officials contribute to human and environmental health by issuing permits to industry and regulating emissions and waste. Officials also study health and environmental effects to inform their permitting and regulatory function. Researchers investigate and monitor health or environmental conditions and try to link them to causes. Attorneys represent clients in legal processes that might seek to stop the hazardous production and provide compensation to any injured parties

Each group has different priorities and challenges when addressing an environmental hazard, and those differences can make it challenging to understand one another and work collectively toward a solution.

In his book, “The Magic of Dialogue,” Daniel Yankelovich has described “dialogue” as a conversation among equals based on empathy and questioning one’s assumptions. We believe that if community residents, researchers, government officials, and attorneys engage in reflection and dialogue with one another, they may find ways to change their interactions in order to foster greater trust and seek solutions based on common interests.

The Exchange Project was funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences to build a dialogue among communities and the professionals who serve them to improve their individual and collaborative work. Part of that dialogue is to better understand how communities perceive these professionals and the way they do their jobs. Building and improving that dialogue is our mission. Through genuine dialogue can come effective, collaborative action.