By Vesper Hubbard
What is Environmental Justice (EJ)? According to the EPA, Environmental Justice is the 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 policies. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
This sounds pretty reasonable right? However, achieving this goal is made complex by many factors including geography, cultural identity, and socio-economic status. Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director at UPROSE, spoke about the issues with EJ and the power of community activism. She is also serves as the first Latina to chair the US EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She explained Environmental Justice is about developing indigenous potential for action on the ground. It is about people having the ability to speak up for themselves.
To start off the discussion, she spoke about growing up in the 70’s in a multi-ethnic community of Brooklyn NY, herself being (and proudly so) of African and Indigenous Puerto Rican heritage. She noted that there wasn’t much investment in communities of color at that time. She herself was and remains deeply connected to her Brooklyn community. In spite of many criticisms against her career aspirations growing up, she went on to earn her BA in Political Science from Fordham University and a law degree from Northeastern University School of Law. She attributes her success to her mother’s dedication to constantly introducing culture and literature to her family throughout childhood. After law school Elizabeth entered the field of civil rights law. She had not taken any environmental science course work but felt a desire to help people empower themselves by building community power and found her place in the field of EJ. Additionally, she knew that she wanted to create a place for women with a different dynamic than the male dominated environment she grew up in. Soon, she found herself at UPROSE, now the oldest Latino community based organization in Brooklyn, when it was about to go under. With the help of many youth volunteers, she was able turn the organization around and create an inter-generational association where members “don’t age out.”
In the beginning phases of UPROSE she mentored youth leaders and fostered a community coalition to defeat a 520 mega-watt power plant from being built in her local community. Youth are a big part of the organization’s work. Elizabeth expressed the importance of the involvement of the youth and their leadership. She explained that “leadership should be practiced with accountability and training, but does not need to be postponed because of age.”
In Brooklyn, one issue with engaging community involvement in environmental justice projects lies in perception. For example, some communities may believe that building more greenways can lead to increased property value and make their neighborhoods more expensive to live in. Elizabeth explained that residents and stakeholders in a community need good information and ownership in order to have a successful community driven campaign. For NGO’s, government agencies and activists looking to start EJ projects in local communities, in Brooklyn and elsewhere, the challenge lies in proving authenticity, clear communication, and valuing the voice of those local people. Also, she stressed the importance of keeping the science and math behind EJ accessible to non-scientist. Accessible science, in her opinion, can really foster diversity in the EJ movement. As she tells it, residents in Sunset Park –Brooklyn have learned how to use their phones to check for real-time data and map air quality in their neighborhoods. But these kinds of things do not happen unless engineers make their science accessible.
On an ending note, Elizabeth asserted that climate adaptation is happening now. Communities like Sunset Park are large “walk to work” communities and they are seeing the potential in EJ for creating community resilience by building greenways, planting green roofs and learning about environmental science and climate change.