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Equity: A Strong Model for Environmental Justice

2014 January 9

 

By Makara Rumley

Our country’s immigration boom has been sustained by the dream of opportunity threaded with equity. When community residents have access to an equitable standard of housing, occupation, education, and healthy and safe environments, this idyllic dream becomes reality and creates a space where people can thrive. But what do we really mean when we talk about equity? How is equity distinct from equality?

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Equity can be used to describe the quality of fairness and inclusion that people receive.  Equity attempts to deliver justice without partiality, while equality seeks to deliver homogeneity across recipients. This idea can be portrayed with a simple anecdote. If I give two children, Sally and James an apple, it may appear that the distribution of both apples is equal. However, if James has not eaten in several days and Sally is on schedule to receive a small snack, James’s degree of satisfaction received from consuming his apple will be much less than Sally’s.  Not only does equity seek to level the playing field, it also ensures runners are prepared to race when they kneel at the starting blocks.

The objective of the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas (MAEA) – the first equity mapping system of its kind in the Southeast – is simple. MAEA seeks to make clear the ways to unlock regional prosperity and growth. This only occurs when communities have equitable access to a range of highly interconnected resources; see www.atlantaequityatlas.com for more information.

As  a new regional online data tool, MAEA was designed to connect local stakeholders to timely, accurate data. By examining eight key areas of community well-being –demographics, economic development, education, environment, health, housing, public safety and transportation – the MAEA offers fascinating insight into the state of our region, particularly as it relates to issues of access and opportunity. The MAEA also provides local change makers with the information they need to provide vital facts and data to enhance their community efforts.

By browsing the site’s nearly 200 maps, it will become increasingly clear how “place matters.” In other words, where you live has consequences for where you end up in life. Georgia suffers from a range of environmental challenges. These challenges impact the quality of air, land, and water.  Equity can be used to filter these challenges through an environmental justice (EJ) lens.

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Map: Life Threatening Asthma Attack Rate in Atlanta

As an EJ Attorney for GreenLaw, I use this equity paradigm to serve the counties surrounding the city of Atlanta. It assists me in communicating with policy makers to help them understand that minorities are disproportionately exposed to pollution. Other EJ and equitable development stakeholders can use these multitudes of maps and data to make the case for fairer development, or providing new resources to communities based on the conditions of specific neighborhoods. A neighborhood saturated with pollutants creates barriers for residents from contributing 100% of their efforts to the economy by producing capital.  Visits to the doctor, missed days at work, and children’s absence from school are all examples of non-economic and economic costs. These costs all lead to a less productive society and the Equity Atlas can be a vital instrument for helping account for these costs in planning and public policy. 

Equity is a wonderful lens through which to view regulatory issues such as air pollution permits and industry siting decisions.  Let’s use the lens of equity to remove this heavy burden on some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities!

Biography:  MaKara Rumley serves as the Environmental Justice Attorney for GreenLaw, a non-profit environmental law firm. Using the law to reduce disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution has been maintained her enthusiasm since 1996.

 

 

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.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Devorah permalink
    January 9, 2014

    Very interesting tool that I can see a lot of application for. I’m going to share it with my mayor and county commissioner.

  2. Devorah permalink
    January 9, 2014

    Ms. Rumley I also wanted to ask if there are other municipalities using a similar tool? Have you or others shared this with organizations like the “United States Conference of Mayors”? I think there are others who would see vaue in this as I stated in my first comment.

    • MaKara Rumley permalink
      January 13, 2014

      Denver, Portland, and Boston are the only other cities which have a similar tool.

  3. Liam permalink
    January 9, 2014

    I just finished watching the video and reading the blog and really found them helpful in expanding my understanding of how these multiple factors come together to either create prosperity and growth or create wastelands. I think with the new technology, it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to ever say that disproportionate impacts in low income and minority communities is not a reality but we also have the ability through new technology and success stories to address the past and not make the same mistakes in the future.

    Liam

    • MaKara Rumley permalink
      January 21, 2014

      We have now shifted our efforts to make sure that the people that will most benefit from this information know that it exists.

  4. Rhonda permalink
    January 11, 2014

    Very interesting information on the eight key areas of community well-being –demographics, economic development, education, environment, health, housing, public safety and transportation. These will come in handy as there is some proposed community development in my area and this info will help me be more prepared for the public meetings.

    • MaKara Rumley permalink
      January 21, 2014

      I am glad that you will be able to use this information to further your worthy cause.

  5. Justice is relative permalink
    January 21, 2014

    This is interesting but not all that useful in the end. Companies will put their plants where it is cheap, efficient, and viable. Two things bother me in this article. James will LOVE that fact he now has anything to eat compared to Sally; this sentence makes no real sense. And “It assists me in communicating with policy makers to help them understand that minorities are disproportionately exposed to pollution.” Not minorities but poorer neighborhoods. This is not about race, as the focus of this article promotes, but the relative wealth of neighborhoods that dictate where industrial focus will occur. Cheap land and generally politically irrelevant residents will be primary drivers.
    Will any lawyer, politician, or even well connected environmentalist allow a chemical plant to move in next to their brownstones? I think not. But, cheap land brings in people who cannot afford to build anywhere else so you have multiple drivers affecting equity and equality. People generally know when they move into a neighborhood what the risks are. This is why good environmental regulations are important to protect those on all rungs of the economic ladder.

  6. Robert permalink
    January 25, 2014

    I definitely see a lot of value in the information that is shared in the Maps. I have been to many community meetings where communities have been dismissed because of what was perceived as anecdotal evidence. on another note I respectfully disagree with the previous commenter that most people know the risks before they move into a neighborhood. I seriously doubt that most would know what is in their water, what chemicals may be in the soil of a local business or what there house may have been built on 50 years ago. I have worked in the medical field for years and when I purchased my first home I know I didn’t. We and I say “We” because everyone all have a role to play in assuring that Equity does not just flow to some and occasionally trickles down to others.

    Robert

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