By Mustafa Santiago Ali
Realizing environmental justice for all people, regardless of their race, income or educational status is a long journey. It will not come overnight, but EPA made an important step forward recently with Plan EJ 2014. That five-year strategic plan laid a foundation for integrating environmental justice in EPA’s programs by developing basic guidance in rulemaking, permitting and enforcement, and basic tools such as EJ Legal Tools and EJSCREEN. Now it is time to build on this foundation and expand collaborations with our partners toward making a bigger difference in the overburdened communities we serve.
That is why we are developing EJ 2020, our next strategy to advance environmental justice in EPA’s programs. EJ2020 will:
- Deepen environmental justice practice within EPA programs
- Strengthen our collaborations with partners
- Demonstrate progress on outcomes that matter to communities
Today, we start community and stakeholder engagement on EJ 2020. We are already learning from the initial input on areas that we have yet to fully address. By engaging our partners at the state, tribal, local, and federal levels we’ve developed ideas like integrated and area-wide planning, green infrastructure, and advanced environmental monitoring. They’ve helped us understand the need to meet the challenge of climate change, and ways to demonstrate progress that matters to communities.
We have heard from local governments who have identified best practices in how they are addressing environmental justice. Communities from Santa Barbara, California to Bridgeport, Connecticut are coming up with solutions in areas such as green infrastructure, brownfields, climate adaptation, health disparities, reducing air emissions from the movement of freight, and issues in rural communities.
We are benefiting from everyone’s robust experience learned over several decades of work.
There are a number of powerful examples of what can happen when collaborative partnerships come together between federal, state, and local governments, communities, and other stakeholders. One of those inspiring stories is the Salt Lake City Children’s Environmental Health & Environmental Justice Initiative which is working with nine neighborhoods in central and west Salt Lake City, Utah. This project brought together more than a dozen local, state, and community-based organizations with the purpose of making a visible difference in their communities. They designed a unique community engagement model to fit the needs of the neighborhoods, created a profile report characterizing community environmental and health concerns, and created an environmental data map for the West Side community. This work has allowed the community to play an important role in the design of the West Salt Lake Master Plan. As a result of the community’s active participation in the process, they have been able to increase attention on:
- Supporting/funding community initiated ideas through the Community Implementation grants
- Creating increased mobility and transit use options through a city-wide discount transit pass
- Aligning city and school district opportunities through a Community Learning Center Strategy
- Increasing understanding of affordable housing choices through a Housing needs assessment
By honoring the culture of a community and including their voices and ideas in the planning process, we can create healthier and more vibrant communities and truly make a visible difference that is rooted in the values and priorities of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.
This effort shows how critical it is for EPA to strengthen our collaborations with the communities we serve, our government partners, and all stakeholders. We hope that everyone committed to achieving the goals of environmental justice will work with us to produce a vision and plan for EJ 2020 that is relevant to the opportunities and challenges of our times.
Several years ago, I learned that we cannot solve all the intractable problems associated with environmental justice right away, especially during a period of rising demands and dwindling resources. I am reminded of the old adage that if it was so simple, it would have been solved a long time ago. Therefore, we must be strategic. We need your best thinking about key things we should focus on to most effectively and realistically advance our common goal of achieving beneficial outcomes for our most overburdened communities.
About the author: Mustafa Santiago Ali is the Acting Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.