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Who’s Your Environmental Justice Shero?

2014 March 19

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By Dr. Marva King

In 1994, I walked through the doors of the Environmental Protection Agency with my backpack full of graduate studies theory and my mind bursting with energy and eagerness to find meaningful work.

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Dr. Clarice Gaylord

Dr. Clarice Gaylord, the first Director of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, saw something in me to cultivate and she gave me an opportunity to work in her newly formed office. Through her mentorship I matured, networked, experienced, succeeded and found passion and purpose in my work. Dr. Clarice Gaylord changed the direction of my life and was my first environmental justice “shero.”

This past February marked the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice, as well as 20 years that I have worked at EPA. These anniversaries have made me pause and reflect on the leaders that have blazed trails to advance the cause of environmental justice. As March is also Women’s History Month, I think it is especially appropriate to honor the sheroes of the environmental justice movement, of whom there are so many within the EJ movement.

Throughout the years so many ladies — from all walks of life — advised, coached, mentored, and guided me in this field.  Some of them did not even know they were doing so.  Since there are too many to name in this blog and I would be afraid to leave out any, I will share what a few of these sheroes have meant to me in the various stages of my 20 year growth.

Early on in my career, I heard the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) public comment testimony of Ms. Zulene Mayfield, a community leader from Chester, PA.  Her moving testimony of the deplorable environmental and public health problems experienced in her community forced me to run from the public comment room straight into the ladies room to cry my soul out.  Wherever she is today, I will always be grateful to her for igniting the spark in my heart and cementing my determination to do all I can in this field to help communities like hers.

As I entered the 2000s, a community leader from Savannah, Georgia, Dr. Mildred McClain, impacted my life as I saw her struggle tirelessly to build trust and partnerships between residents with local government, business and industry. Initially, these groups refused to be in the same room with Dr. McClain, but her hard work and persistence led to incredible changes in Savannah. Dr. McClain always advised me to never forget that one of the reasons I was working at the EPA was to protect the people who were at times powerless to protect themselves.

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Vernice Miller Travis (left) and Peggy Shepard(right)

As I reach the stage in my career where I’m hoping to help pass over this torch of justice for the next generation, I am fortunate to continue receiving the professional collegial advice of well-known EJ leaders like Peggy Shepard and Vernice Miller-Travis, and business leaders like Sue Briggum.  These women inspired me to never give up and to always remember the obligation we all have to continue pushing EJ issues into the next generation.

To the next generation of women leaders, we are looking to you to continue carrying on this mission of justice for all.  As you arm your own backpacks with legal, technical, and policy tools and then fill your minds and hearts with passion and commitment, hold your torch of justice high!  One day when retired and I’m at home sitting on my deck surrounded by my roses, I expect to turn on my computer and read about how you are all continuing to push the envelope on these concerns!

And now I want to know: who is your shero? Sheroes in the struggle for environmental justice are around us everywhere. I hope you will join me in identifying and recognizing them for their work to improve the quality of life on the planet for all its citizens. Please post in the comments section below because I want to hear about the amazing sheroes who inspired you in your journey. Peace.

About the author: Marva King, is currently on a detail in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. previously she served as Program Co-Chair for the Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) Program. She also serves as a community expert on several EPA teams across the Agency. Previously, she worked for over 10 years as a Senior Program Analyst in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice managing the EJ Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D. in Public Policy at George Mason University.

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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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Cheryl Johnson permalink
    March 19, 2014

    My shero in my life is my mother, the late Hazel Johnson, who knew way before her passing that I will be continue her work. As I continue her work, I have the opportunity to meet great up and coming environmental leaders that are changing their communities such as Kimberly Wasserman, Kady McFadden, Peggy Salazar, Marguerite Jacobs and Georgia Curtis who are stomping down on EJ issues in Chicago.

  2. Janet Kluever permalink
    March 19, 2014

    My Shero is Hilde Maingay who lives in East Falmouth, Ma and has worked tirelessly
    first through The New Alchemy Center and now through The Green Center to bring
    sustainability to our Town. She is an advocate for eco-toilets, water reuse,
    recycling and conservation and continues to inspire me with her energy and commitment. She lives what she preaches and is a model for our society to follow.

  3. Judy Hatcher permalink
    March 19, 2014

    Thanks for this lovely blog, Marva!

  4. Marvin S. Robinson, II permalink
    March 19, 2014

    ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE SHEROE, would have to be organizer extraordinaire:
    Ms. LOIS GIBBS a survivors’ SURVIVOR: and second to none, Ms. Lois GIBBS of the Citizens for Health Environment and Justice.
    If the community, nation and global conscience movement really knew magnitude of Ms. GIBBS’ portfolio of shear; ‘Uninterupted Excellence’ they’d still be riveting from her portfolio of TRYING !!!

    And then there is Ms. LISA JACKSON, former E.P.A. Administrator for the beautiful service she extended to “turn IT uP” on the substantial importance of expanding E.J. to other federal government agencies.

    We are a more profound peoples because these two women and many count-less other females who continue to give LIFE, to one of the most important movements in the 21st century.

    Marvin S. Robinson, II
    Quindaro Ruins / Underground Railroad- Exercise 2014

  5. Sherry Glick permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Thank you Marva King for sharing your story about Clarice and others at EPA who have taken ‘ownership’ of their programs;led and paved the path for great things to happen at EPA and become our sheros! The job any of us do should “have our fingerprints all over it” so others can follow. It’s important for us all to take ownership of our job, any job we do, and really own it and also become sheros!

  6. Lara Lasky permalink
    March 20, 2014

    One of my sheros is Margaret Millard who fought tirelessly for over 20 years for underserved communities in the Midwest. She was so modest and never stopped to recognize her successes and she always put the people in the communities she worked with first. Many would never know how hard she fought behind the scenes within EPA to do everything she could and go above and beyond to protect the public health of so many people. Her passion and selflessness motivated me, especially in times when I was feeling down. After her passing (God took her as an angel) floods of memories and tales from others of her long fight and support for communities came through again and again. Articles of organizations monumental successes were dedicated to her, gratitude of her helping to organize organizations that have lasted 20 years and are going strong, and stories of her working into the wee hours to help give that extra push to a community.
    She was inspired by sheros, like YOU-Marva King, Dr. Gaylord, Vernice Miller Travis and many others. She spoke of the respect she had and tell amazing stories about people along the way and that inspires me to work even harder. The path Marva mentions about passing on the torch is definitely seen all across our region and I appreciate the dedication I see in everyone every day. Being able to lift up the women that are the backbone of this movement is crucial. Maggie would call them rock stars and that they are.
    Much Love.

    • Carlton Eley permalink
      March 20, 2014

      Thank you Lara. Margaret was one of a kind. Yes, Margaret would fight for you behind the scenes. She was a real “champion”.

  7. Veronica Eady permalink
    March 20, 2014

    I’ve been working in the EJ movement for 20 years. My first EJ job was with a mainstream environmental group that was doing good work, but was broadly criticized for the same reasons mainstream groups involved in EJ work are criticized today. I had no track record in the EJ movement then. I’d entered the movement after working six years at EPA, where I made the calculated decision to stay until I learned as much as I could about environmental law, so that I could use what I’d learned on behalf of EJ communities. It was Vernice Miller-Travis who believed in me, invested in me, and nurtured me in the process of becoming a soldier for environmental justice. Without her, I wouldn’t be who I am today or where I am today. (And I’ve been a few places, having chaired the NEJAC among other places.)

    I met my second shero several years later. This shero hired me to work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to develop its seminal EJ policy. I orchestrated a lengthy three year process, visiting communities, talking with activists, establishing connections with indigenous communities — ties that had never before been made. While I was busy in the trenches, this shero ran political defense. She was constantly called to the governor’s office to answer for all the ruckus my work was raising. She helped me pore over endless reams of demographic data, GIS maps, cancer data. When I gave her the first draft of the policy, something I thought the governor could live with, she sent me back to my desk ordering me to come up with something that pushed the envelope so far that there was no chance of getting it approved. Her theory was that if you don’t ask for more than you hope to get, you’ll never have anything to bargain away. This has been one of the most important lessons of my career. The EJ policy was issued in 2002. I’m often credited as its architect. The EJ policy would not exist without the support and wisdom of this shero. Who is she? Her name is Gina McCarthy, and she’s the current Administrator of EPA.

  8. Leslie Fields permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Thank you Dr. Marva for that wonderful blog! Dr. Gaylord is very inspirational!
    I have so many sheroes: Mrs. Laverde Baptiste, Beaumont, TX; Mrs Delores Leonard and Ms. Teresa Landrum of Detroit; Ms. Robin Cannon in Los Angeles, Ms Susana Almanza of Austin, TX; Dr. Earthea Nance now at Texas Southern Univ., Dr. Mildred McClain in SC, Ms. Elodia Blanco in New Orleans, Ms. Margie Richard and the late great Pam Dashiell formerly of New Orleans, Profs Eileen Gauna (NM) and Sheila Foster (NY). I’ve been blessed to work closely with other sheroes such as Vernice Miller-Travis, Jacqui Patterson, Kari Fulton, Dr. Beverly Wright, Veronica Eady, Deeohn Ferris, Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker and so many others. Then there’s my own mother Dr. Jackie Fields, who inspires me to do my best everyday. The EJ movement is very much a womens’ movement; countless other women strive hard everyday to protect and suppport their communities. Thanks OEJ for creating this space to lift up recognize the heart and soul of the EJ movement.

  9. Sharell Franklin permalink
    March 21, 2014

    Dear Marva, Thank you for the blog, your heart for the voices of those crying in the wilderness and for being my EJ shero! I have known you as a personal friend for over 25 years and seeing you live out your life’s passion in EJ is a blessing. I recall hearing about Dr. Clarice Gaylord from the time you went to EPA and I lost you as a co-worker but never as a friend. Although I do not directly have EJ connections and cannot name other EJ sheroes, I want to thank you and others in your blog for recognizing them and passing the torch. As I read today from a book given to me called “When God Thinks of You He Smiles”, I found it so appropriate that today’s message was from Psalm 19:1: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (NIV)
    God is smiling today Marva as the work that you and other EJ sheroes do to preserve the work of His hands! “Peace and Hugs”

  10. Ben Stout permalink
    March 21, 2014

    My shero is a woman of great strength and perseverance that nurtured me through the EJ process and introduced me to the wealth of the CARE communities. Her name is Dr. Marva King. So proud of you Marva! Humble to know you. Thank you for the inspiration.

  11. Kim permalink
    March 23, 2014

    Like so many others it is tough to name just one “Shero” with so many fantastic women who have made significant contributions to environmental justice. I would say that Mrs. Penny Newman has always inspired me, for her over 30 years of service to her community and many others. I feel that she is one of those often forgotten leaders who has been quietly saving lives for decades. Thank you to this blog for continuing to connect with those who are on the frontlines and for educating those who may be newer to the field of environmentalism and are looking for ways to assist.

  12. Celeste Greene permalink
    March 23, 2014

    Thank you Marva King for recognizing the work of the amazing woman, Clarice Gaylord. She is definitely one of my “Sheroes.” I feel fortunate to have known Clarice and had the opportunity to have her serve as guest speaker at one of my environmental justice courses I taught. I’m so thankful for all of Clarice’s hard work in the formative years of the Office of Environmental Justice, then called the Office of Environmental Equity. I’m also proud to know she is a fellow UCLA Bruin!
    Another “Shero” is Dr. Marion Moses for all of her work in the area of pesticide exposure and migrant farm workers. I was inspired by a book chapter she wrote in a book edited by Robert Bullard called “Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices From the Grassroots” and decided to write my doctoral dissertation on this subject.
    These are my two “Sherose” and I am so thankful for both of them!

  13. Donna Benton permalink
    March 24, 2014

    Sheri Akers with assistance from others has created a great community in the Mar Vista neighborhood in Los Angeles. We have an excellent green garden club that has a tour of sustainable yards that draws a huge crowd for the last 5 years. Plus they have workshops at the local farmer’s market. Our wonderful farmer’s market offers so many great organic foods and grain fed meats. Thanks Sher for being my Shero.

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