Environmental Justice in Action

Universal Periodic Review and Indigenous Issues: A Federal Servant’s View

Indigenous representatives at the United Nations

Indigenous representatives at the United Nations

About the Author: Eric Wilson is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. He has been a federal servant at the Department of the Interior for over 38 years. He is the former Chair of the UPR Indigenous Issues Working Group and the current Co-Chair of UPR Working Group 3.

A senior U.S. government delegation from the DOI Bureau of Indian Affairs met with U.S. indigenous representatives at the United Nations Office at Geneva one day before appearing before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to present its 2013 periodic report on the implementation of U.S. obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

A senior U.S. government delegation from the DOI Bureau of Indian Affairs met with U.S. indigenous representatives at the United Nations Office at Geneva one day before appearing before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to present its 2013 periodic report on the implementation of U.S. obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

I was initially reluctant to address environmental justice in Indian policy because I saw it as a distraction from our efforts to communicate about tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship between federally recognized tribes and the United States. Through the involvement of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), however, I came to see the importance and necessity of having a federal program that provides space and opportunities for all indigenous peoples to raise environmental concerns and have them addressed by the federal government, especially in the context of human rights obligations.

Back in 2009, the Department of State had some big ideas about how the federal government should prepare and report, for the first time, its work and accomplishments on human rights for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  We decided to host a series of meetings around the U.S. – and to do them in less than three months. This became known as “the road show.”

It was an ambitious schedule, visiting regions and engaging with civil society stakeholders: community groups and non-governmental organizations, local and state governments and officials, and, of course, tribal governments and their citizens.

U.S. Government Civil Society Consultation on Indigenous Issues hosted by the University of Oklahoma Law School, 2014

U.S. Government Civil Society Consultation on Indigenous Issues hosted by the University of Oklahoma Law School, 2014

For the tribal component of the UPR road show, the University of New Mexico’s School of Law agreed to host a session that was quickly augmented by the Navajo Nation offering a day trip to the Reservation for a meeting with their officials and citizens. Experienced federal staff, including representatives from the EPA’s OEJ, participated with these sessions.

Collaborating with EPA led to the first ever U.S. side event on “Environmental Justice and Indigenous Peoples” at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, this past May.  The event provided the opportunity for the U.S. to highlight our collaboration with both federally recognized tribes and all other indigenous peoples to address their environmental, public health and other quality of life concerns.  This served as a government “best practice,” demonstrating to other nations the necessity of governments to meaningfully engage all indigenous peoples, not just those officially recognized.

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, May 2016

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, May 2016

Our August 17th Civil Society Consultation marked the resumption of the UPR process. This consultation was organized by the interagency UPR workgroup that I co-chair. Our team set the bar a bit higher for coordination and for ways to help civil society participate in honoring human rights in our collective daily work.  I encourage you to join us in identifying ways that the federal government can more effectively work with all parties interested in providing for human rights and other quality of life needs (i.e. environmental, economic, social and cultural) of vulnerable populations, including indigenous peoples.  And, plan to participate in our future public meetings, which will be posted on the Calendar for UPR Working Group Civil Society Consultations. You can also engage with us on the UPR process as we work to implement the 2015 UPR recommendations.

A senior U.S. government delegation met with U.S. civil society representatives at the United Nations Office at Geneva one day before appearing before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to present its 2013 periodic report on the implementation of U.S. obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Press Release: geneva.usmission.gov/2014/08/11/u-s-delegation-to-the-com... U.S. Mission Geneva Photo/ Eric Bridiers

Navajo Nation Human Rights Commissioner meets with the US Ambassador to the United Nations

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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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Solar in Your Community Challenge: Apply Today!

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About the Author: Caroline McGregor is the acting Soft Costs Program Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

One million solar energy systems across the country are powering homes, businesses and communities with renewable, affordable and clean energy. And yet, nearly 50 percent of homes lack the appropriate roof structure to go solar. Beyond that, many homeowners simply can’t afford the upfront cost to install their own system and have difficulty accessing affordable financing options. These limitations are especially burdensome for many low income families who could benefit from lower energy costs, but don’t have the extra money to invest in home renovations.

Solar%20by%20the%20NumbersTo spur solar adoption by these communities, the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative launched the $5 million Solar in Your Community Challenge, which expands solar access to Americans who have been left out of the growing solar market.

In order to make solar energy more accessible for every American, the Solar in Your Community Challenge encourages the development of innovative financial and business models that serve low and moderate-income communities. Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the challenge supports teams across the country to develop projects or programs that reach underserved customers in their communities, while proving that these business models can be widely replicated and scaled up.

Solar%20Across%20the%20US%20MapTo ensure that communities with environmental justice concerns benefit from this challenge, we have designed the challenge rules with these communities in mind. Teams that successfully demonstrate new ways of opening up solar for low- and moderate-income communities will be eligible to compete for the grand prize of $500,000.

SolarDo you want your community to participate in this challenge?

We are hosting an informational webinar to provide further instructions on how to participate! Make sure you reserve your spot by registering today.

Date/Time: Wednesday, December 7, 2016; 2 to 3 p.m. ET

Register at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/solar-in-your-community-challenge-informational-webinar-for-communities-with-environmental-justice-tickets-29587689576 

If you have questions regarding the webinar, please contact Michele Boyd.

The early application deadline to participate in the challenge is January 6, 2017, and the regular deadline is March 17, 2017. Visit the Solar in Your Community Challenge website to learn more about the challenge and to apply today!

Given the current growth of the energy market, solar installations will continue to grow at an unprecedented rate. And we want you to be part of that bright future!

We look forward to speaking with all of you during the upcoming and we are excited to review your applications.

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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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Finding My Place as a Climate Justice Activist

About the Author: Hodan Hassan is a Climate Justice Organizer for Got Green. She gained skills as a political organizer while working on group of college and university campuses as a Washington Bus Fellow. 

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I was an underemployed college graduate looking for a job when I was invited to be part of the Climate Justice Committee, organized by Puget Sound Sage and Got Green. I had never really thought about climate-related work. I was much more concerned with racism and I wanted to work mostly organizing with black communities. Climate was not my thing and I didn’t see the connection between a warming climate and the immediate challenges facing my community and other communities of color, but I said yes.

Climate Justice Steering CommitteeIn our first committee meeting, I was in a room full of young people of color from all backgrounds. We immediately started talking about climate change: what it is, what it isn’t and what it means to live in the kinds of environments that many people of color live in around our country.

Still, I wasn’t ready to punch my ticket to “climate justice activist land” just yet.

As a black Muslim woman living in the United States, in my mind, there were things that were much more pressing than climate change.  And to be honest, every time I had ever heard the words climate change, I still couldn’t relate.

Then a fellow committee member explained to me how climate threatens our livelihoods, especially as communities of color. I learned that a majority of African Americans live near coal plants and other polluting industries, which hurts their health while contributing to climate change.

This was when I realized that climate justice was an important journey that I wanted to be part of.

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Led by young adults and people of color, Got Green is a grassroots organization that promotes movement towards an equitable, green economy as a strategy for fighting poverty and global warming.

I served as a member of the Climate Justice Committee for five months, learning new information every day, like how the environments where we live impact our health and opportunities. I was also growing as an organizer, working with different people on how to engage communities of color in climate work. In June 2015 the opportunity to work for Got Green as their climate justice organizer presented itself.

Climate Justice Steering Committee3Within Got Green I can incorporate all of the passions I care about under the umbrella of climate justice work. I can be a black Muslim woman who is concerned about racial disparities while also working on climate-related issues to prevent displacement of communities of color from things like a lack of preparedness to extreme weather events and inequitable development.

Our People Report

Read the report here!

Last year, Got Green launched the Climate Justice Project, a community-based participatory research project surveying individuals and communities about their climate change priorities. This project, contracted by the City of Seattle’s Equity and Environment Initiative, found that only 24 percent of participants thought people of color and low income people are most impacted by climate change. This tells us that the current climate activist narrative is not working. We are not talking about climate change in a way that’s culturally relevant to people of color.

Here at Got Green we are working to change that.

Like with our most recent work as a project partner with El Centro de la Raza. As a result of receiving an Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) Cooperative Agreement from the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, we will be assisting El Centro to improve the environmental health of the Beacon Hill neighborhood through educational outreach, engagement and capacity building.

Climate Justice Steering Committee Mtg1It is projects like these where we start by localizing the impacts and connecting people of color to what’s going on in our communities so that people, like me, can see themselves in climate work.

And it is this work that has taught me that only through an inclusive and diverse movement can we truly hope to ensure all people are protected from a warming and destabilizing climate.

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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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Bringing the U.S. Government Together to Improve Human Rights & Protect the Environment

 

A senior U.S. government delegation met with U.S. civil society representatives at the United Nations Office at Geneva one day before appearing before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to present its 2013 periodic report on the implementation of U.S. obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Press Release: https://geneva.usmission.gov/2014/08/11/u-s-delegation-to-the-committee-on-the-elimination-of-racial-discrimination/ U.S. Mission Geneva Photo/ Eric Bridiers

A senior U.S. government delegation met with U.S. civil society representatives at the United Nations Office at Geneva one day before appearing before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to present its 2013 periodic report on the implementation of U.S. obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

About the Authors: Priya Vithani is a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of International Organizations Affairs at the Department of State. She serves as the main point of contact for UN special procedures and works on coordinating the Universal Periodic Review Process. Sofija Korac is a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State. She works on various aspects of engagement with the UN, including the Human Rights Council, UN General Assembly and Universal Periodic Review process.

The United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, not well known to the American public, is a unique intersection of international human rights mechanisms with national and local laws and policies. This process, under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, asks each UN member state to report on its domestic human rights record once every five years, which provides an opportunity and a formal setting for fellow UN member states to make recommendations on how to improve human rights conditions in that state.

The UPR process is a tool that promotes respect for human rights in the United States and in countries across the globe. It encourages openness, honesty, and accountability. It is also an important way to showcase, on a multilateral front, America’s best practices, while honestly acknowledging those areas where more needs to be done.

The second Universal Periodic Review of the United States took place on May 11, 2015. The U.S. report was made public in February 2015 and is available via the State Department website: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/upr/2015/index.htm. The United States was represented by a large, senior multi-agency delegation jointly headed by Ambassador Keith Harper, U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council, and Mary McLeod, Acting Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. Statements by the U.S. Delegation: https://geneva.usmission.gov/category/human-rights/upr-of-the-united-states/ U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

The second Universal Periodic Review of the United States took place on May 11, 2015.

The United States made its first UPR report in 2010, and the second in 2015, which included a section on the environment and discussed environmental justice concepts and issues. In our second review, we received 343 recommendations from our fellow UN member states, which is the largest number of recommendations received by any country in the history of the UPR mechanism. We carefully considered every recommendation and we’re proud to say we accepted, in whole or in part, over 75 percent of those recommendations.

With nearly four years to go until our next review, we are now thinking about how to move forward with implementing the recommendations we accepted across the U.S. government. This includes recommendations focusing on climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as improved farmworker safety, improved water and sanitation services, and protection of indigenous lands and sacred sites.

Since our first UPR presentation in 2010, the National Security Council has created six interagency UPR working groups organized by topic, and comprised of various agencies, including the EPA, to consider the recommendations and to implement those we have accepted. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, in close collaboration with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of the Interior (DOI), has focused on the recommendations relating to economic, social, and cultural rights, indigenous issues, and the environment.

2016%20UPROn August 17, 2016, the EPA, HUD and DOI, along with a number of other federal government agencies, held a public consultation to discuss recommendations relating to these three topic areas, including environmental concerns, with civil society stakeholders. We made an extra effort to ensure that communities dealing with environmental justice issues were invited to participate in the discussion. Participants raised concerns regarding access to safe and affordable water and sanitation. During the consultation, we discussed the capacity of new technologies to provide clean drinking water as well as concerns about radioactive waste impacting drinking water, exemptions of aquifers from protection, and the removal of delegated authority from co-regulators who do not adequately perform their duties.

Representatives from the EPA discussed efforts to identify best practices for addressing these concerns. Additionally, EPA representatives indicated that the agency is seeking public input on the development of its National Action Plan on Drinking Water.

Our ability to successfully implement accepted UPR recommendations is heavily dependent upon the engagement we have with, and input that we receive from, civil society – including with those populations most vulnerable to environmental pollution and blight. Therefore, as we work with our domestic agencies to promote, respect, and protect human rights we look forward to your participation.  For more information on the working groups, their membership, and future consultations, please visits www.humanrights.gov

The second Universal Periodic Review of the United States took place on May 11, 2015. The U.S. report was made public in February 2015 and is available via the State Department website: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/upr/2015/index.htm. The United States was represented by a large, senior multi-agency delegation jointly headed by Ambassador Keith Harper, U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council, and Mary McLeod, Acting Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. Statements by the U.S. Delegation: https://geneva.usmission.gov/category/human-rights/upr-of-the-united-states/ U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

The second Universal Periodic Review of the United States took place on May 11, 2015.

 

 

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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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Promising Practices for Environmental Justice Methodologies in NEPA Reviews

By Suzi Ruhl

When President Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 12898 on environmental justice over 20 years ago, he singled out two federal laws that could be especially impactful for advancing environmental justice considerations throughout the federal government. One of those laws was the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. And for several years now, federal practitioners have been passionately working to make good on EO 12898’s NEPA mandate by furthering its use as a tool to positively impact the environment, health and economy of overburdened and under-resourced communities. A body of over 100 of my colleagues in the NEPA committee of the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) have been reviewing the federal processes detailed in NEPA to compile the best practices, lessons learned, research, analysis, training, consultation, and other experiences of federal NEPA practitioners to create the a report on “Promising Practices for EJ Methodologies in NEPA Reviews.”

NEPA requires that federal agencies practice informed decision-making by analyzing the potential environmental impacts of a proposed action prior to making a decision regarding that action. During the NEPA process, the agency should evaluate whether or not the proposed action has the potential to cause significant environmental effects. If the environmental assessment of this action illustrates the potential for significant impact, then the agency in question should offer alternatives and plans to mitigate, as well as to monitor the impacts.

During our work, we learned a lot about the forward-leaning actions that different federal agencies have pioneered in regards to how they consider environmental justice concerns throughout the NEPA process. In an effort to build on these achievements across the federal government, we are now putting into action the principles and practices outlined in the Promising Practices Report. The NEPA committee has briefed and trained nearly 1,000 environmental justice and NEPA federal government staff through sponsored events at the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Energy, and Agriculture, with more trainings planned for other federal departments and state agencies.

And, as a direct result of the Promising Practices Report and the accompanying trainings, federal agencies are taking action.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has appointed a full-time employee to serve as an Interagency Liaison between the DOE, EPA, and other federal agencies in an effort to advance the consideration of environmental justice in the NEPA review process. Through performing reviews of the DOE NEPA documents, opportunities have been identified to better engage low-income and minority communities in the NEPA process. DOE-specific community trainings and guidance will be available by early January 2017.

Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has established an Environmental Justice Working Group, which provides guidance to BLM staff and hosts regular trainings. Additionally, the BLM has developed a new tool that allows users—both federal agencies and communities—to better evaluate environmental justice concerns in a specific area.

I look forward to hearing from other agencies on how they are utilizing the Promising Practices Report to improve their NEPA processes. The value of this report is that, when utilized, it will improve the consideration of environmental justice issues and overburdened communities in the NEPA process so that these considerations are effective, efficient and consistent. It has been an honor to work with the NEPA Committee and I am excited to see how we continue to improve our meaningful engagement with our most vulnerable and overburdened communities.

About the Author: Suzi Ruhl is the Co-chair of the NEPA Committee of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG). She is also Senior Attorney Advisor to the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. 

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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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The Bottle Project: What are Youth doing to Reduce Litter?

Our first plastic bottle can!

Our first plastic bottle can!

About the Author: Gloria Li is studying environmental science and philosophy at the University of Florida. She coordinates the U.S. Green Building Council sustainable architecture club and hopes to use her passion for the arts and sciences to promote creative science-based management solutions to climate change concerns.

The sun is shining, clouds dot the horizon, and the ocean glimmers blue. A typical Florida day.

Yet, as you gaze across the picture-perfect scene, you have the nagging feeling that something is off. The answer lies in the sand: littered between dunes and beach chairs, dozens of tiny wrappers and cigarette butts rear their ugly heads.

Ensuring trash-free waters is an EPA priority and is an integral part of improving water quality is decreasing pollution in our waterways. Growing up in coastal Florida, I saw how our economically and ecologically important coasts and waterways were suffering from the steady buildup of human litter.

This uncomfortable awareness followed me into high school.

Costa Bottle Can

Plastic Bottle Can in Costa Rica

During a trip to Costa Rica, I saw a recycle bin that was made out of plastic water bottles. This inspired me to start a community initiative called The Bottle Project, which encourages transparency about plastic consumption. My friends and I saw that our society has an unhealthy addiction to disposable plastics and we sought to raise awareness of this issue— specifically calling into question the necessity of plastic water bottles— by marrying creativity and conservation.

The reason I am so drawn towards working with the youth is because they are the ones who will inherit this world and its injustices. Plastic pollution and any kind of environmental degradation is, in fact, an issue of environmental justice— protecting the environment is a prerequisite to protecting our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. Without a clean and safe environment, our ability to access these and other rights is simply not possible.

That’s the beauty. Finding where interests and skill-sets come together behind a common goal: to preserve our earth for future generations. One tool you can use to get people interested in recycling is EPA’s Save Energy by Recycling Page. The Waste Reduction Model tool featured there can be used to calculate how much energy can be saved by recycling, even just a few plastic bottles.

In the spirit of reducing, reusing, and recycling, throughout the year, we collected used plastic water bottles on our campus and stayed behind after school to work on building a recycle bin akin to the one I saw in Costa Rica.

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Outreach and education on plastic recycling

We also worked with local elementary and middle schools to conduct community and beach cleanups and then hosted recycled art workshops with these groups of students, using the collected litter to create artwork. I hoped that, in the act of repurposing what otherwise would be seen as just trash, we could imbue these disposable products with a new life.

Looking back at The Bottle Project, I realize that many different elements of art and activism came together to paint a picture of activism and social change. I had, almost unknowingly, united two of my greatest passions in life: art and environmental conservation. I am lucky and honored to work with other young people to help clean up our local communities, because it is our future and should we should be doing everything that we can to protect it.

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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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Making Room at the Table for Diverse Leaders

About the Author: Whitney Tome is the Executive Director of Green 2.0. 

Diversity Stats

Infographic produced by Green 2.0 with information obtained during inquiry for “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” report.

While working in oceans, fisheries and national parks for a decade, I noticed a pattern – I was often the only women of color. I often found it hard to offer any solutions because I, like many others, had to overcome implicit and often explicit barriers where people may think I am less qualified, less knowledgeable and less able to provide insight.

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2014 Green 2.0 Launch

Over the years, I found a bevy of colleagues of color with similar experiences.

In the summer of 2014, Green 2.0’s released a report titled “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” which studied workplace diversity amongst 223 organizations in the environmental movement. The results showed that while people of color make up 36 percent of the U.S. population, the racial composition of staff hovers at from 12 to 16 percent in environmental organizations and government agencies. Following the release of the report, a conversation was ignited, and many of these organizations started taking substantive actions.

But why does this matter?

Lack of diversity among environmental leaders is an issue because environmental hazards disproportionately impact communities of color.  Without people of color in positions with policy-making capacity, it means that the perspectives of people of color are less likely to be included in the deliberations or outcomes. This is an environmental justice concern because if we are not including the people most directly impacted by environmental inequity, then the best interests of their communities will not be represented.

Diversity Stats2

Infographic produced by Green 2.0 with information obtained during inquiry for “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” report.

With this in mind, my work with Green 2.0 has a simple mission: increase the racial diversity of the mainstream environmental movement.

Green 2.0 engages with environmental NGOs and foundations by calling on them to share their diversity data annually. Many NGOs and foundations are improving their hiring practices, assessing and addressing their work culture, and engaging diverse communities.

So where does EPA fit in?

AOB_0080 (1)At Green 2.0’s launch in 2014, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke about the importance of accountability and measuring diversity in government by explaining that “operating without a diverse workplace is like having our arms tied behind our backs.”

EPA has historically acknowledged diversity as an important issue for the agency. You can learn more about what the agency is doing to support a diverse workforce.

And you – no matter where you work – can ask what your organization or agency is doing on diversity. Depending on the answer, you can start a conversation about the diversity data, what diversity means to the organization, and how to create an inclusive culture for all.

Diversity matters, and as we continue to face increasingly complex environmental challenges, we will need diverse perspectives to create innovation solutions to these mounting concerns.

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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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Planting the Seeds of Change: how youth involvement feeds families and promotes environmental justice across the country

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About the Author: Maya Bernstein Schalet is a youth organizer with the youth-led nonprofit New York 2 X Coalition, a network of young people working together to combat environmental and food injustice through urban farming and community organizing. She attends Wesleyan University and works for the Green Belt Movement.

As a high school organizer with New York 2X Coalition (NY2X), it was challenging to successfully coordinate a non-profit organization while also being a full time student. After meeting Matthew Tejada, the Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, I felt reinvigorated because, in speaking candidly about the environmental injustices facing communities across the United States, he urged us to take action to protect and improve our communities.

NY2X is a youth-led organization that mobilizes individuals across New York City to take on local environmental challenges. Leadership is passed down annually from generation to generation. Every year, we organize service trips that support sustainable solutions to environmental challenges in New York City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Albuquerque.

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Far too often, low-income communities of color are burdened by sites such as sewage treatment plants, factories, and garbage dumps, which pollute the water, air, and land. The neighborhoods in New Orleans, Albuquerque, and North Philadelphia where we work are all predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods where fancy health food stores and green spaces like parks and gardens are rare. Through our work, we support these neighborhoods by working on urban farms and building green spaces.

Urban farms are places where community members can take control of their health and the health of their environment. The EPA hosts similar programs, such as the Urban Environmental Program or the Brownfields Community Supported Agriculture initiatives, which strive to enhance the quality of life for urban residents by building community capacity through urban agriculture projects.

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With these types of programs, people can grow their own food and turn fallow land into thriving green space. Additionally, urban farms serve as centers for community organizing. If one feels empowered by taking control of what they eat and the health of their environment, they can be empowered in many other ways to work for their communities in positive ways.

11850705_10204692876186139_506363181331348786_oOn any given day during a service trip, you could find us composting, harvesting, weeding, painting, or doing maintenance on the farm. In addition to making the environment a cleaner, healthier place to live, these jobs teach participants that it is possible to take real action to solve huge issues like food inequity. Our participants learn, while toiling over the compost pile and dividing a field of dirt into neat rows, that change is possible with determination and teamwork. We see with our own eyes that it’s possible for empty lots to become gardens that provide healthy food, employment opportunities, and safe community spaces to neighborhoods that are too often ignored by those in power.

IMG_7076It is extremely important to us that our participants understand the connection between urban farming and social justice, so the organizers lead social justice workshops every day with a heavy emphasis on how food injustice and environmental injustice relate to other social injustices.

We discuss how low income and minority communities disproportionally bear the burden of these environmental harms. And we strive to improve these situations by supporting local communities in identifying ways to make change and which methods will create a just society.

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By the end of one of our trips, each participant is equipped with both a deep knowledge of injustice and the tools to make a difference. Everyone involved in these projects plays a beneficial role, whether it be the youth leader or the community member, in helping to educate others. And in the end, I truly believe that it is the cross-generational collaboration that these projects inspire that is key to creating a sustainable model for achieving environmental justice today and tomorrow.

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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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A Recipe for Building Resilient Communities

About the Author: Elise Trelegan attended Hampshire College, where she studied photography and collaborative art, as well as fisheries conservation. She has worked with the Connecticut River Watershed Council, Inc. as well as the National Park Service. She currently works as the Marketing & Development Coordinator for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station.

STAR Interns (002)

SEA S.T.A.R. (Students Teaching and Researching) Interns at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station

What happens when you bring together middle, high school and college students, researchers, local families, and community members on a beautiful day along Virginia’s Chincoteague Bay, in a town that lies just two feet above sea level?  If you’re thinking a beach party, well, you’re not totally wrong.

This past June the organization I work for, Chincoteague Bay Field Station (CBFS), hosted its first of a series of community action days. This initiative of the Shore People Advancing Readiness for Knowledge (SPARK) Living Shoreline Project brings together the community to learn about ways to adapt to climate justice issues like sea level rise, extreme storm events, and other climate-related changes.  These issues can have a detrimental impact on coastal economies by harming the tourism industry and forcing human displacement. These impacts are magnified when communities are not prepared, which is why it is important that we host such events.

These efforts, funded by an EPA Environmental Education Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have helped us establish Accomack County, Virginia’s first-ever living shoreline. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, living shorelines are the result of applying erosion control measures that include a suite of techniques which can be used to minimize coastal erosion and maintain coastal processes.  Minimizing erosion in a community that sits just a few feet above sea level is critically important. With extreme storm events like Hurricane Sandy and Super Storm Irene, small low-income communities like Greenbackville, Virginia are most likely to catch the brunt of the damage.

Communities work to restore the shoreline along Virginia's Chincoteague Bay.

Communities work to restore the shoreline along Virginia’s Chincoteague Bay.

But, it’s not just staff like me from the non-profit who are pushing this effort forward. Many activities at the site are youth-led. All of the projects completed during the community action day were researched and organized by a group of undergraduate students and recent graduates. With the help of a few dozen high school students, local families, and other community members, we were able to implement all of the shoreline improvements such as oyster castle installation which uses reefs formed by oysters to create protective shore barriers.

One of the best parts about this projects was that I witnessed the participatory model of environmental justice – students and families of all backgrounds were able to meaningfully engage in all facets of the project. In particular, the SPARK Living Shoreline Team families came from across racial, socio-economic, and cultural lines, many of whom will be most affected by climate change. By using green techniques for mitigating coastal erosion, CBFS hopes to use their Living Shoreline as a buffer to the residential community and to model practices and collaborative partnerships that can be replicated on other properties.

Over the course of the next year, this cadre of local families will monitor the effects of the community action day projects to determine the success of the actions. SPARK families are challenged to think critically about their place in the environment – geographically, culturally, and financially – and work together to create community solutions.

Community members learn invaluable skills regarding climate adaptation and resiliency.

Community members learn invaluable skills regarding climate adaptation and resiliency.

CBFS will continue to host seven more community action days and more than 800 students will visit the Living Shoreline to complete service learning projects and learn about building resilient communities in the face of environmental changes.  These activities take students and families through the full continuum of environmental education – from critical thinking activities, team-based problem solving, and environmental stewardship.

The community action day projects have taught me so much, not only about the importance of restoring the shoreline to mitigate climate impacts, but also the importance of working with those who will be most affected by those impacts. And so, I am thrilled to be able to continue to work alongside the Greenbackville community to restore our essential shoreline while incorporating valuable education in the process of putting environmental justice into practice to protect our communities and make them stronger, more resilient places to live.

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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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Young Environmental Leaders in Action: What will they do?

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By Kevin Olp

There is such a thing as being too late – and when it comes to environmental injustices and climate change, that time could nearly be upon us. But, thankfully, there are young people who care very much about our future.

As I travel across the country, I am constantly inspired by the passions of young people who truly believe that if we act here, if we act now, and if we continue to look at the future, rather than our short-term interests, then we will not run out of time.

To me, this fervor is not surprising as this generation of young people is truly the first to feel the growing effects of climate change within their communities’ long prevailing issues with pollution and ecological degradation. As a result, young people are acutely aware of these impacts not only upon the physical environment but also upon the people who bear its burdens.

I am renewed with hope when I speak to young people about their passions because I see that they seem to intuitively know that at the intersection of social equity and climate change sits environmental justice, with its progress and passion and history of elevating issues of importance and improving the lives of low income and minority communities.

I have watched as young people have been propelled into action because they are witnessing firsthand how climate change and pollution are impacting the quality of the air they breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink, and the environments they call home.

2011-06-24_UrbanWaters_007And what is even more incredible is that I see how young people understand that there are communities across this nation that disproportionately suffer as a consequence. The first step towards progress is for all people to understand the issues at hand. Young people do. They understand that low-income and minority populations have consistently received the short-end when it comes to environmental protection. What I find truly most remarkable however is that young people are pushing forward and they are eager to do something about these problems – despite the fact that they did not create them.

I know that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy shares my sentiments as she has stressed on numerous occasions that “if we really want to acknowledge the fact that we’re doing this for our kids and it’s all about them, it’s certainly about time that they had a formal way of voicing their own opinion.”

With that in mind, the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is proud to announce our “Youth in Action” series, which will be published every Tuesday on the Environmental Justice in Action blog.

5937105034_2989bdffa0_bWe have been working with young activists to give them a platform to share their stories and the work they have been doing to promote environmental justice in their communities. Our young authors demonstrate that they are leaders who are taking charge of this movement! Their stories hail from Washington State to Texas to New York and they touch on a myriad of topics ranging from energy democracy to urban farming to climate refugees.

We are so excited to honor the incredible work of these young people. Their stories are truly incredible! I am certain that you will enjoy reading them as much as I have.

And, if you are a young person who is interested in having your environmental and climate justice work highlighted on the blog, then please contact Simone Walter (walter.simone@epa.gov) for further information.

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About the Author: Kevin Olp is the Director of Communications for the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.                                                                              

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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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.