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Women in the Environment

2013 April 9

By Michelle DePass

EPA’s international work embodies one of the top cross cutting priorities of this Administration, which is expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice. At home, this means proactively reaching out to communities traditionally left out of the public dialogue including communities of color and low income communities and tribes, all of which are often disproportionately exposed to toxic emissions.

It impacts these communities in their pockets as well. Did you know that due to climate change, we are seeing increases in the “heat island” effect in urban communities, which is driving up electricity bills in areas where African Americans are twice as likely to live and costing black families an average of 25% more of their income than other groups? We face enormous challenges here at home to ensure that those communities are no longer neglected – and that they have support and a seat at the table. I am intimately familiar with the gravity of those challenges, as an African American woman who spent her early career as Executive Director for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and now as the Assistant Administrator in charge of building environmental capacity with Tribal Governments. But it is important to recognize that many of the challenges we face domestically are felt as well by the average person in many of the developing nations where EPA works in partnership with other nations.

In my office, expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice means working to ensure that a portion of EPA’s time, talent and resources are focused on helping those populations around the world that are most vulnerable to environmental risks.

I was first exposed to the idea of international environmental justice issues when I was a legal intern for the EPA. I went to a brownbag where a young woman spoke about environmental justice issues in the Caribbean. From that point on, I spent my life hoping that one day I would have the opportunity to tackle some of these most challenging and heart-wrenching issues. Everyday my office works to build strong environmental institutions and legal structures so that nations are considering environmental protection and the protection of human health while writing policies. Everyday my office works to coordinate technical assistance going to government and NGO partners trying to make a difference on the ground. Every day, my office works to help those who struggle. This nation was built on the struggles of strong, African American women and men who fought for basic human rights, for respect, and for equality. I have learned and grown from these struggles.

As we see this new economy growing, with green jobs, green collar, and green energy opportunities for all American citizens, my work must allow communities, in the US and abroad, who may have felt separate from environmental issues, the opportunity to have a real stake in the debate. To ensure that “going green” and being an environmentalist isn’t limited to the men of the past, but that decisions are made by a group that reflects the people it serves. Today, we have a chance to make change happen.

About the author Michelle DePass is the Assistant Administrator for Office of International and Tribal Affairs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim Cwanek permalink
    April 9, 2013

    Who are “the men of the past”?

  2. Marissa permalink
    April 9, 2013

    Thank you for continuing to push the concept of a healthy environment for everyone!

  3. Nick permalink
    April 9, 2013


  4. Simone Lightfoot permalink
    April 10, 2013

    Michelle, Michelle, Michelle: (Great name to have these days)

    Thank you for putting your thoughts to (pen) the web allowing fellow green colleagues across the country to know you a bit better.

    Excitement is abound here on the ground as it relates to urban and tribal green efforts. During this time in history, we have rich opportunities to ensure voices and communities of color are included. Your role as Assistant Administrator for Office of International and Tribal Affairs is a testament to that.

    Please continue to highlight the significant differences faced by communities of color.

    I concur with many points highlighted in your message. My work for the National Wildlife Federation includes the impacts of climate change on post-industrial urban centers and those cities impact on the Great Lakes (Toledo, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, Indianapolis and Buffalo).

    We can’t say enough about both the very specific challenges and great green works underway in these areas. From tackling sewer system overflow and downspout disconnects in Detroit, to alternative uses for the Gary/Chicago International Airport. From coyotes in the Cleveland area to its Sustainable Cleveland 2019 sustainability plan.

    Then there is the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee introducing and transforming urban youth in all areas green. Beneficial transportation efforts in Cincinnati are underway while great energy efficiency and solar work in Toledo is yielding very nice results… get the picture. Revitalization and economic vitality are where these former industrial urban giants must and in many cases have been inching.

    Thanks for sharing perspective through an urban and tribal lens and keep up the great work.

    Simone Lightfoot
    Regional Urban Initiatives
    National Wildlife Federation

  5. anny permalink
    April 25, 2013

    I have come to the conclusion that we all have a little blame global warming and its consequences and guilt even more politicians who do not slow down.

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