Women in the Environment

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.