civil rights

A Call to Public Service: Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

As a child growing up in the 1950s in upstate New York, my days were filled with school, baseball, and playing in the woods. In my early years, I was mostly unaware of the broader social issues of the time.

Coming of age in the ‘60s, all of that changed.

The 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist yet, and it took more effort to keep up with current events back then. But as a young teenager, I began to pay more attention—and in 1963 the world came crashing in. The March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, and President Kennedy’s assassination suddenly made me aware of a greater struggle beyond the world I knew.

As I started high school, I tried to understand how these events fit together—but I couldn’t comprehend why, in the United States of America, it was a struggle to pass a law to assure equal rights. But justice finally prevailed and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Like the civil rights movement, the environmental movement was made up of ordinary people who faced injustice and focused public attention to confront it. Unbearable smog in Los Angeles and a burning river in Ohio were a wake-up call to Americans that pollution threatens our health, and that we have a responsibility to fight it.

Our nation’s major environmental laws were passed in the early 1970s, but they too were a struggle, with many critics claiming they would kill the economy.

Now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, hindsight helps us appreciate where these years of struggle have led. As I got older, I came to understand that any problem worth tackling is difficult in the moment—but that we should do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Civil rights and environmental protection were hard-won out of the same desire for a stronger, more equal America. Both have transformed our nation for the better. Today, the air in Los Angeles is breathable. Fish swim again in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. And despite the naysayers, the U.S. has cut air pollution 70 percent since 1970, while GDP has tripled.

But there’s still more work to do.

We have less pollution than we did in decades past, but the benefits of our collective cleanup are still unequal. Poor and underserved communities are still unfairly impacted by pollution—leading to illness and missed days of school and work that disadvantaged families can’t afford. Whether it’s smog that causes asthma, toxic chemicals that foul our water, or carbon pollution that fuels climate change, our job is to right that wrong.

That’s where civil rights and environmental protection converge today, and it’s why EPA’s commitment to environmental justice is so important. This summer, our country took a huge step forward. Although we limit pollutants like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source. Under President Obama’s direction, the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan will cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030. At the same time, we’ll cut other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.

During this 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act, we must recommit to justice in all its forms, and for us at EPA, this means making sure everyone has equal access to the benefits of our work, regardless of who they are or where they come from. I know our team is up to the task.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Celebrating 50 Years of Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

The Environmental Protection Agency is driven by a fundamental belief that everyone has a right to clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthy land to call our home. At the heart of that conviction is our unwavering pursuit of equality and environmental justice for all.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EPA is celebrating with the theme Honoring Our Past, Embracing Our Present, and Building Our Future. I’m pleased to join with others to mark this enduring legacy as we work toward a more just future. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Dr. King’s Dream and Environmental Justice

President Obama will mark the anniversary of the March on Washington today at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech 50 years ago.  As we all reflect on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his influence on American society, let’s also celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of social and environmental justice.

Dr. King was a pioneer on many fronts. He fought to raise awareness about urban environmental issues and public health concerns that disproportionately affect communities of color – issues that are still relevant today. We have made tremendous progress in the past 50 years, but our work is not done.

As I reflect on this anniversary, my thoughts go to scripture. I am reminded of the passage from Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

This sentiment of stewardship is what led me to join the Environmental Protection Agency. At the EPA, we work every day to safeguard our environment – the environment with which we have been entrusted – for future generations.

Something we don’t think about often enough is that ensuring basic environmental protections for all is a civil rights issue – one that we have yet to resolve. Our low income and minority neighborhoods suffer disproportionate health impacts, like asthma and heart disease, due to harmful pollution in the air, land and water.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Black History Month: Administrator Lisa P. Jackson: Black Women in History and Culture

By Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

Every February, our nation marks Black History Month. In 2012 we have spent the month honoring the work of African American women who shaped our country and earned their place in American history.

As an African American woman, this has been a time for me to reflect on the women who ensured that my generation would have every possible opportunity. I grew up in the years after segregation ended. I was able to get good education and had access to the rights of every American. Rather than fearing that I would be denied entrance to college because of prejudice or unequal treatment under the law, my parents fully expected me to go on to higher education and use that opportunity to chart the course of my own life.

Without the work of African American women through the years, my life and the lives of millions of Americans would not be what they are today. That is why we take this time to share that history with others, and recognize that the stories of black women in American history – fighting against slavery, struggling for equality and voting rights, refusing to be silent in the face of violence and oppression – are stories that matter to every American.

Those stories begin as far back as the earliest days of our country, when a Massachusetts slave named Phillis Wheatley learned to read and write and became our country’s earliest black poet. They include Harriet Tubman and the women of the Underground Railroad, who put their lives at risk to bring their fellow Americans to freedom.

They are the stories of brave women like Ida Wells who, in the wake of the Civil War, used her writing to expose the brutality and intimidation of lynch mobs. They are actresses like Dorothy Dandridge and authors like Zora Neale Hurston, who broke through barriers to reach new audiences and give African American women new venues for expression.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts started with the actions of an African American woman: Rosa Parks, refusing to move to the back of the bus. Throughout the movement, women like Septima Clark, Coretta Scott King, Ella Baker, Myrlie Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and others marched and spoke and worked to make our nation a more equal place, where men and women of every race had the same fair shot. One of those women, Dr. Dorothy Height, started her Civil Rights work at 25 years old, and marched beside Dr. King in Washington. I met her not long ago, when she was 96 years old and still taking action to ensure equality and opportunity for every American.

Alongside these names from the history books are the mothers, sisters and daughters whose stories we may not have heard, but who played a critical role nonetheless. I think of my mother, her mother and my aunts, and the times they lived through. I know how important their perseverance has been in nurturing me and the women of my generation, and passing down the values and culture that give us strength.

As the old saying goes, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and for today’s generations the contributions of African American women through the years is both an inspiration and a responsibility. From them, we know that nothing will inspire future leaders like the example we set. It is important today that we nurture the talents of young women and empower them to confront the challenges ahead.

That is what celebrating Black History Month has always been about: remembering our past so that we can strengthen our future. The work of African American women through the years shows us how to fulfill the promise of this great nation, and move us all toward a more perfect union. Now it is our turn.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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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Say What?

About the author: Marcus Peacock is EPA’s Deputy Administrator.

Last week Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House. This reminded me of an encounter a friend of mine, Neil, had with Pope John Paul II several years ago. Neil and his boss entered the meeting room and approached His Holiness. A cleric standing behind the Pope quietly said, “Kneel.” “Hello,” answered Neil. “Kneel!” said his boss, shooting a glance at my friend. “What?” exclaimed Neil, shooting a glance back at his boss.

Sometimes we mean to say something but people hear something different. Sometimes that can get us into trouble.

As a young manager I occasionally asked job applicants if they were married or had kids. It seemed a good way to get to know the applicants better. After doing a joint interview with a colleague, she strongly objected to this. “That has nothing to do with their qualifications for the job,” she said, “Try putting yourself in their place.” It took me a long time to figure out she was right. The question I thought I was asking was not always the question people heard.

To do our job well, we need a comfortable, welcoming workplace. One way we measure whether EPA has such a workplace is by counting the number of EEO complaints employees file each year. “EEO” stands for Equal Employment Opportunity. Any EPA employee who feels they have been discriminated against because of their gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. can seek corrective action by filing an EEO complaint. Of course, not all complaints are bona fide and not everyone who could file a complaint does, but the change in the number of complaints is a crude measure of how well people are being treated in the workplace.

Here is our record over the past several years:

chart showing Number of Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints: 2001, 85; 2002, 104; 2003, 74; 2004, 71; 2005, 69; 2006, 76; 2007, 64.

First, you should know that EPA has one of the lowest “complaints per employee” rates in government (it appears only NASA is lower), although we think we can do better. Second, we have a low rate due to a significant drop in EEO complaints between 2002 and 2003 that we’ve been able to sustain, although it’s been pretty flat since then. When I examined this data a year ago with the Office of Civil Rights our questions were, “What caused the drop?” and “How could we make it happen again?”

We believe that drop happened because in 2002 every EPA senior manager attended mandatory EEO training. We also believe that if we repeat the mandatory EEO training, it will drop again. So the Administrator has determined that every senior manager at EPA will take two days of mandatory EEO training this year.

I went through the course two weeks ago. The many questions and lively interaction in the classroom showed me that the training was needed. I learned a lot and I wasn’t alone. The #1 lesson: you can’t have a good working environment without mutual respect. That doesn’t mean you need to kneel in front of anyone, but it does mean you may need to try on their shoes.

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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