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.
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.
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.