How One Bus Ride Led Me To Public Service

By Elle Chang

“If you look to the right, you’ll see power plants and waste incinerators have been positioned next to elementary school playgrounds, where mercury and lead exposure are harming children, and little is being done to address it. These are environmental justice communities,” our guide explained. Ten years ago, I was on a bus driving through a neighborhood off of North Capitol Street, not too far from where I live now in Washington, DC. It was freshman year of college and that weekend, I had joined thousands of other social justice advocates, student government leaders, and other community representatives at a national conference about climate justice, environmental racism, lobbying, voter education, and becoming empowered citizens to inspire others to plug into movements they cared about.  

The images from that bus ride stick with me to this day as a reminder that we have much to accomplish in terms of protecting human health and the environment. Understanding the relationship between communities and their natural environments has been a theme that I have found myself attempting to understand in each major phase of my life. Seeing many environmental issues with health implications for communities made friends of mine so upset in college that they were willing to skip class to chain themselves to doors of buildings. Potentially telling my mother that I had been arrested for trespassing because I cared about protecting the environment wasn’t an option, so I took a less radical approach and began attending community meetings to listen and see where my intentions could be more useful. The intersection of public participation, good governance, sustainable development, and cooperative management models are what led me to get a degree in political science and work as a Peace Corps volunteer, graduate student, United Nations staffer, climate change researcher, and in my current role as an EPA analyst.

With a deep belief in public service, community engagement, policy and science-based facts, my role in the American Indian Environmental Office involves managing the partnership with the National Tribal Caucus that includes a national group of tribal environmental leaders who advise EPA on policies affecting Indian country. One of the best aspects about my job is that I get to work with the tribal offices in the regions, at headquarters, and throughout the federal family and it pushes me to continuously learn about new issues in highly diverse communities from a social justice and environmental policy perspective. Though the work can feel overwhelming, I am always inspired by the positivity, passion, and necessity to persevere and protect our shared environment by our tribal partners who are a reminder that our policies and actions here in Washington, DC have wider and deeper implications than we will ever experience.

Prior to joining EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs, Elle Chang graduated from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University with a master’s degree in International Development where she explored the intersection of integrated conservation solutions and indigenous issues as it relates to natural resource management. Ms. Chang served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in East Java, Indonesia where she focused on secondary school education and gender empowerment programs.

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