Advocating for Environmental Justice to Protect People and the Environment
Recent and current protests highlight injustices experienced by marginalized communities in America. As a rising senior seeking a degree and career in environmental service, I recently joined as an intern to Greenleaf Advisors and Greenleaf Communities where environmental justice is central to the mission of advancing a healthy and sustainable planet. The EPA defines environmental justice as “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and polices.” Likewise, sustainability is rooted in equity through the improvement and protection of the environment and its resources; thus, sustainability is unachievable unless there is remediation of toxic and polluted areas for everyone.
In the United States, marginalized communities – especially Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities - face exposure to the worst aspects of industrialization. Due to the history of discrimination, red-lining, and segregation, these communities tend to be composed of minority groups and are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The environmental justice movement began in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 with protest over a hazardous landfill being planned for a primarily Black community. Nonviolent protests ensured for weeks, yielding arrests, but without stymying construction (National Resources Defense Council). For two decades, the landfill operated, exposing community members to harm before being shut down in 2003.
Environmentally racist practices are experienced worldwide and right here at home. Chicago remains one of the most racially segregated U.S. cities, with minorities concentrated on the West and South Sides where stresses include proximity to toxic facilities, insufficient green space, and food deserts. This map illustrates the disparate burden born by minorities (Natural Resources Defense Council, using data from the EPA).
The sustainability goals of Greenleaf are to support improved health outcomes for communities by protecting natural resources, in part by increasing resilience to extreme weather events and decreasing pollutants and carbon emissions. There is no way to achieve these goals without including all members of society in advancing solutions that address hardships faced by people who are disadvantaged because of the systems in place.
I’m seeing collaborative work that gives me hope for environmental justice goals. Greenleaf is working with partners to help address the effects of extreme heat caused by climate change, and associated air quality issues, to protect the most vulnerable communities in the region. A second effort aims to advance regional water management to optimize resources that benefit disadvantaged communities facing unsafe lead exposure, high water costs and flooding.
I see much room for education and shared learning on the topic of environmental justice. The current protests over racial injustices provide huge momentum to change the institutional and systemic oppression that minority groups in the United States face every day, including environmental racism. It is my hope that the sustainability community will continue to join together in elevating the practices of environmental justice for all members of society to promote safety, accessibility, and equity. The time for change is now; our community needs us.