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Na’Taki Osborne Jelks Answers Call to Help Communities of Color

August 2019

Heather McTeer Toney, C'98, national field director of Moms Clean Air Force, recently penned The New York Times opinion piece, "Black Women Are Leaders in the Climate Movement." In it, she highlights several women of color who have been environmental activists and leaders in climate movement for years. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, Ph.D., C’95, a community activist and an assistant professor of environmental and health sciences at Spelman, was one of the leaders featured.

Who is This Green Leader?

na'taki-osborne-jelksDr. Na’Taki Osborne Jelks knows that she is blessed to be a blessing to others.

While sitting in the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance – the nonprofit organization she co-founded nearly 20 years ago in Southwest Atlanta – Dr. Jelks quietly contemplates the vast impact that her career and advocacy work has had on the African-American communities she serves.

A nationally recognized environmentalist, activist, educator and urban ecologist, Dr. Jelks is passionate about communities of color having access to clean water, clean air, and healthy foods grown in clean soil. This passion fuels her desire to make a difference in communities and the world around her.

“I feel blessed, and I’m just grateful to be used,” said the soft-spoken Dr. Jelks, a lecturer for environmental health and sciences at Spelman and a visiting professor of public health at Agnes Scott College.

Start of QuoteThis is a calling, and I am thankful God can use me to help my community End of Quoteand to help others. Even as a Spelman student, I felt that working with communities was where I wanted to make my impact.

Dr. Jelks has devoted her career to doing just that. Last fall, she received the 2017 Spelman College Local Community Service Award for her work in environmental justice and advocacy to improve the quality of life for people living in West Atlanta communities.

Widely known for her advocacy work with WAWA and other local and national organizations, Dr. Jelks began her pursuit of environmental justice issues at the age of 19, shortly after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, her family lived in a section of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, which was home to more than 150 petrochemical plants and a vast number of cancer cases.

It didn’t take long for her to connect the dots.

“That’s when things began to connect for me, and I realized that the quality of our environment could have an impact on our health,” said Dr. Jelks, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor. “When I learned there were so many other communities like that one, I knew there was potential for me to use my scientific training to make a difference.”

Evironmental Sciences Faculty Na'Taki Osborne Jelks

Dr. Jelks continues to work tirelessly to give voice and vision to residents’ concerns about discriminatory practices and environmental hazards in their Southwest and Northwest Atlanta communities. Collaborating with community residents and city leaders, Dr. Jelks and WAWA have championed several environmental issues, including the closure of a sewer facility in the Proctor Creek watershed and establishing community citizen science programs.

Her work with the National Wildlife Federation has garnered her just as much national recognition. During her 20-year tenure, she worked with communities to address environmental issues, developed education programs in communities and schools, and implemented K-12 STEM education initiatives.

“I loved that work, especially with getting young people engaged,” said Dr. Jelks, whose work with NWF led to her being named a White House Champion of Change in 2014 for her conservation efforts. “A number of students graduated from the program, came back, worked as peer mentors, and pursued environmental careers. That was meaningful work to impact the next generation.”

Just as Dr. Jelks has influenced future environmentalists, she, too, was inspired by individuals who profoundly impacted her life and career. As a student, Dr. Jelks credits Cornelia Gillyard, Ph.D., chemistry professor emerita, and Victor Ibeanusi, Ph.D., founding chair of the Spelman College Environmental Science and Studies Program and former Spelman professor, for their support and the foundation she needed to be successful.

“Dr. Ibeanusi helped me develop a strong environmental research background and was instrumental in helping me earn an undergraduate fellowship and internship with the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Dr. Jelks, whose parents are both professors at Mississippi Valley State University. “As for my chemistry professor Dr. Gillyard, she was my inspiration to excel. She was a powerful example of an African-American female scholar, professor and researcher. She was definitely a role model.”

According to Dr. Jelks, her Spelman professors’ influence proved priceless.

“They embraced my choice to advocate for environmental justice,” said Dr. Jelks, who considers her work as science in service of social good. “Even though their paths may have been more linear, my professors embraced the fact that research can be disciplinary, have social benefits, as well as answer scientific questions. I received the encouragement to do whatever it was I could to make a difference.”

Start of QuoteThat’s how Spelman had an indelible mark on my life, growth and development, and on the choice I made to make a difference. I learned that End of Quote it is our duty and responsibility to speak up, to stand for social justice. To me, it’s about making that change.

Dr. Jelks remains committed to making the environment a better place. “I’m very passionate about making sure that communities are healthy and that the environment is not impaired to the degree that it impacts people’s health and quality of life in a negative way,” she said.

By Alicia Sands Lurry for the Spelman College Messenger

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