Environmental Justice is About Government Engaging with Communities on a Personal Level

By Edith Pestana

Edith Meeting with Community Members in Bridgeport, CT

I learned early on in my career in public service the importance of sitting down with communities to truly understand the environmental burdens they sometimes face.  It is extremely valuable for those of us who serve in government, like I do for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), to spend time with folks in their neighborhoods in order to hear and witness firsthand the disparities people sometimes experience in areas overburdened by pollution. You can’t be effective in government if you do what I call “arm chair environmental protection” which literally means that you never leave your office to see firsthand what communities experience.  You also deprive yourself of creating meaningful and rewarding relationships that improve services and benefit the neighborhood community members.

My DEEP colleagues and I have spent a great deal of time sitting with people in their homes, in their places of worship, and in their surrounding environments.  And, from these experiences, we have learned that meaningful communication is crucial to being effective, resolving issues in communities and doing good environmental and public health work.

I remember one particular case when agency management and staff met with people in their homes and learned that residents in their neighborhood couldn’t open the windows in their homes, have a backyard barbecue or hold a block watch meeting because of the terrible odors emanating from a nearby landfill. The visit led to state enforcement action and more importantly, the beginning of an understanding that affected policies and programs and changed the culture of the agency. Throughout the years, this cultural change in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has enabled us to have better communication with the public and a better understanding of and empathy for the issues faced in communities. We have also been able to successfully build long-standing relationships with environmental justice leaders in Connecticut.

In another case, when we heard about illegal dumping that was happening in the inner cities of Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, Conn., we visited the communities and saw firsthand how the trash was devastating these neighborhoods. It invigorated us to partner with the residents and other stakeholders to clean up the trash. This not only led to redevelopment and reinvestment, but the gains from these relationships included the early resolution of potential  issues before they become problems and a quicker response in the areas of enforcement, remediation, and permitting in these communities.

All communities have the right to be heard by their government representatives and to participate in the government process in ways that influence positive changes in the neighborhood and improve their quality of life. The best way for officials to ensure that local communities are being heard is to go into the communities and listen!

Edith Pestana, is the Administrator of the Environmental Justice Program for the State of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.  Since 1994, she has been responsible for the management of the state environmental justice program including design, policy and regulatory development and implementation. She serves on numerous boards and commissions’ including the State of Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and is a member of the USEPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.