West Atlanta’s Watershed Alliance wants more Black residents to connect with nature

Destinee Whitaker (from left), Quanda Spencer, and Darryl Haddock with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance walk through the woods at the Outdoor Activity Center, which WAWA operates for the city. (Photo Courtesy of Madeline Thigpen/Capital B)

Credit: Madeline Thigpen

Credit: Madeline Thigpen

Destinee Whitaker (from left), Quanda Spencer, and Darryl Haddock with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance walk through the woods at the Outdoor Activity Center, which WAWA operates for the city. (Photo Courtesy of Madeline Thigpen/Capital B)

This story was originally published by Capital B Atlanta.

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks spent much of her childhood in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in one of the many Black communities along an 85-mile stretch between the city and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.” She said growing up in an area wracked by industrial pollution and the health problems that come with it put her on a path to working in environmental justice.

“We lived less than a mile away from a pollution generating facility,” Osborne Jelks said. “The water smelled and tasted bad coming out of the faucet, the air sometimes smelled bad, you would see the smoke from the smokestacks.”

It wasn’t until after she left Louisiana that she began to connect the environment with her health.

Throughout her years in Louisiana, Osborne Jelks said she dealt with a skin condition called hyperpigmentation, which causes dark and sometimes inflamed patches throughout the body.

Doctors could never figure out the cause or find an effective way to treat it, she said, even after she underwent allergy tests, changed her diet, started using topical creams, and changed her personal care products. Nothing worked — not until she left Louisiana and the condition disappeared.

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks is the executive director and co-founder of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental justice, stewardship, and education. (Photo Courtesy of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance)

Credit: West Atlanta Watershed Alliance

icon to expand image

Credit: West Atlanta Watershed Alliance

Osborne Jelks went on to earn dual degrees in chemistry from Spelman and engineering from Georgia Tech, and worked with community organizations serving residents in the West End and Southwest Atlanta while she attended college.

Today, she is the executive director and co-founder of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), a community organization originally founded by southwest Atlanta residents to stop the city from building a wastewater treatment plant in a local park.

“It just made sense that we build on the work that our community elders had done and make something a little more permanent,” Osborne Jelks said.

“What WAWA tries to do is create leaders”

Since Osborne Jelks co-founded WAWA in 1995, it has grown from an all-volunteer organization to an official nonprofit with employees dedicated to advancing their work in environmental justice, stewardship, and education.

Darryl Haddock, WAWA’s special projects director, said the organization sees itself as a community facilitator of education and knowledge.

“We don’t want to just hold all [the knowledge] in our own hands and be the talking heads. What WAWA tries to do is create leaders,” said Haddock, who has been with the organization for 18 years.

Southwest Atlanta has some of the city’s largest remaining tracts of forested land, like the Cascade Springs and Lionel Hampton-Beecher Hills Nature Preserves. WAWA helps as a steward of the two old growth forests while also hosting programming to connect Black families and children to the nature in their neighborhoods. Haddock says WAWA is cultivating the next generation of environmental justice advocates.

“We used to be connected to nature,” Haddock said. “When we came to this country, we had skills and knowledge about [the environment], and we never really got any credit.”

WAWA hosts a number of educational programs at the Outdoor Activity Center, which they operate for the city, their curriculum aligns with the Georgia Standards of Excellence set by the state department of education to encourage school field trips.

During school breaks, WAWA hosts O-Academy, a camp for kids ages 5-12. And each Black History Month, they have a “Harriet Hike” where participants hike and learn about the knowledge and techniques used by enslaved people for survival and to navigate their way north, away from enslavement.

WAWA also teaches participants to understand the social implications of environmental issues like housing, energy, health care, food, transportation and more.

The watershed is much more than just the water

Destinee Whitaker, a researcher at WAWA, joined the organization through a grant funded by Georgia State’s Community Soil, Air, Water initiative after she graduated from Spelman with a degree in environmental science.

“Before coming to WAWA I didn’t realize that the watershed was much more than just the water itself, it’s the overall connection with the environment. What impacts our air and land impacts our water as well,” she said.

Whitaker’s research work currently focuses on air quality through the AQ Earth project, in collaboration with another Atlanta environmental justice organization, CHARRS (Community Health Aligning Revitalization Resilience and Sustainability).

The partners distribute to residents handheld air quality monitors that detect carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other respiratory irritants. Part of Whitaker’s research work is leading trainings for residents on how to use the air quality monitors, teaching residents how to understand the data they collect and creating visual aids for the data.

WAWA also oversees creek cleanups and collects water samples for lab testing by the Chattahoochee River Keepers that allows them to figure out where pipe breaks in the city are leaking sewage into the water and to track the progress of pollution cleanup programs.

They often do these cleanups as part of public service projects that provide hands-on learning opportunities for community members, who they show how to collect water samples and other measurements in the field.

Osborne Jelks emphasized that WAWA’s environmental justice work is focused not just on policy but on practice — specifically, getting the government, at all levels, to be responsive to the issues and needs of communities in West Atlanta.

“We’re looking at how to try to safeguard our communities from hyperlocal impacts related to climate change, like flooding and extreme heat,” she said.

Osborne Jelks said these impacts are not just environmental phenomena but related to a community’s infrastructure. That’s why “we’re always advocating to make sure that our communities have a seat at the table.”


Credit: Capital B

icon to expand image

Credit: Capital B


Today’s story comes from our partner Capital B Atlanta, which is part of Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at atlanta.capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalB_ATL.

If you have any feedback or questions about our partnerships, you can contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams via email at nicole.williams@ajc.com.