Expanding the Coversation

Feed the Barrel: A tale of how small actions can change the world

By Lena Adams Kim

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he's pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he’s pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

It all started Thanksgiving Day 2013, with my daughters frantically yelling, “The basement is flooding!!!” A visit from the plumber, yards of ruined carpeting, and $900 later, it was clear that cooking oil clogging my kitchen drain was the culprit. And so I did what many do after experiencing the horrors of home damage – I complained to everyone who would listen.

My tale of woe reached Indah, a parent in my kids’ schoolyard. Indah, a journalist of Indonesian descent, mentioned how families in her immigrant Indonesian community in South Philadelphia were grappling with the same clogged pipes and costly repairs, yet unlike me, were often unaware of the cause.

She described how many had emigrated from rural areas of Indonesia, where every drop of precious oil is used, re-used, and then re-used again. Very little oil, if any, was discarded. And those first-world kitchen drains and sewer systems? Non-existent in the 17,000 largely undeveloped islands that comprise Indonesia. Those huge jugs of oil, available at low cost at grocery stores in the U.S.? Unheard of on smaller islands where budgets and resources are limited.

Yet things are far different in America, the land of plenty. Additionally, the cultural knowledge of what can and cannot, go down a drain is instilled in many of us from an early age. Not so obvious, however, to newcomers in a new homeland with new customs.

During my conversation with Indah, I realized there was a beautifully simple solution to this costly environmental issue of used fats, oils, and grease, also called “FOG”, which cause public health problems by entering the waste stream. Just last month, the New York Times reported on the impacts of food waste like oils entering waterways and landfills, ultimately decomposing to emit methane, a greenhouse gas. I wondered, “what if EPA worked with this community on proper oil disposal.” Could it make a difference?

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Today, two years after my basement flood, things are far different from the clogged pipes of the past. Thanks to connections made by Indah, this vibrant Indonesian community is now the first in the nation piloting a wildly successful residential oil collection program. Called Feed the Barrel, the program has gone far beyond just education on oil disposal. Now, they work with an oil recycler to collect and recycle used oil into biofuel, rich compost, and soap. The money made from the oil collected goes toward improving the community.

It would take pages to detail the unique ways this community tackled this environmental problem — how they insisted on using a local recycler, how they decided to empower children to help spread the word, and how they enlisted spiritual leadership to encourage neighbors in churches, temples, and mosques to become involved.

And it would be impossible for me to describe the pride I see in my neighbors in their newfound ability to spread environmental awareness — which they can give back to their new homeland that has given them so much opportunity.

News of their success in diverting more than 300 gallons of oil in the first year alone has traveled fast. They have been approached by communities throughout the greater Philadelphia area, and in New Jersey and Houston, Texas. Media coverage has been powerful in spreading the word, as their efforts have been highlighted on National Public Radio, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the city’s respected Grid magazine.

Imagine — Feed the Barrel started from a schoolyard conversation about providing people with something as simple as information. While EPA’s goal of “meaningful involvement of all communities in environmental decisions” might seem broad, its simplicity allowed, in this case, room to develop a creative solution to a nagging problem.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that, “when people are made aware … they are empowered to act.” To learn more about the possibilities of oil recycling, or to follow pilot progress, visit www.facebook/feedthebarrel. And join the rallying cry: Feed the Barrel to Fuel America!

About the author: Lena Adams Kim is a member of EPA Region 3’s Asian Pacific American Council, as well as a communications specialist in the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Division.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Addressing Crucial Water Issues in Our Communities

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Nancy Stoner

This year, we here at EPA celebrate the 20th anniversary of President Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to address environmental disparities in minority and low-income communities. We’ve certainly accomplished a lot since the order was signed, but sadly, too many people still breathe dirty air, live near toxic waste dumps, or lack reliable access to clean water. But we continue to make progress in all of those areas, and here in EPA’s Office of Water, I’m proud of how we’re helping communities across America—both rural and urban—addressing their most crucial water issues.

Last fall, I was in Laredo, Texas and visited a community near the U.S.-Mexico border called the colonias, which until recently did not have regular access to clean water. Thanks to funding from EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border Infrastructure Program, 3,700 people in the colonias now have access to a modern sewer system. We also have a program that provides funding for the planning, design and construction of wastewater infrastructure for American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Providing access to clean water to people who have never had it before is one of the most important things we have the power and resources to do.

In 2012, I traveled to Baltimore to help announce funding from EPA’s Urban Waters program that’s being use to educate residents in the Patapsco watershed about the benefits of water conservation and give people the know-how to reduce water usage at home. Urban waterways can provide myriad economic, environmental and community benefits, and EPA is helping dozens of communities across the country reconnect with these important, valuable resources.

Our drinking water program is also providing substantial funding to help improve small drinking water systems across the country, which comprise more than 94% of the nation’s public drinking water systems. Small systems, those that serve fewer than 3,500 people, face unique financial and operational challenges in providing drinking water that meets federal standards. Last year, we provided close to $13 million to help train staff at small systems and give them tools to enhance system their operations and management practices.

This year, I’m proud to celebrate 20 years of EPA’s work to make a visible difference in communities across the country. We’ve made so much progress over the last two decades, and I know we’ll make even more over the next 20 years.

About the Author: Nancy Stoner is EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Water. Since February 1, 2010, Nancy Stoner has been serving as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water. Ms. Stoner’s extensive career in environmental policy and law began in 1987 as a trial attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Most recently Ms. Stoner served as the Co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Water Program. Ms. Stoner is a 1986 graduate of Yale Law School and a 1982 graduate of the University of Virginia.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Looking Back and Moving Forward on Environmental Justice: Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society Hosts National Conference

By Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal


For decades, grassroots activists and their allies have worked to end environmental disparities between communities. The environmental justice movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement, questioned why low income communities and communities of color are beset by more polluting industries, suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, and enjoy fewer environmental amenities like parks and access to nutritious food.

Twenty years ago, government began to respond. In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which made Environmental Justice a national priority and gave activists hope that politically underrepresented communities overburdened by environmental harms would soon have a voice and vehicle for bringing about justice. State governments began responding, too. In 1994, only four states addressed environmental justice by law or executive order. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy, demonstrating recognition of environmental justice as a critical issue deserving government attention. For more details see EJ Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014, a report by the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order, the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society (HELS) will be hosting the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) 26th Annual Conference on March 28–29, 2014, with the theme “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?” The conference will focus on three themes: progress on the goals of environmental justice, the social justice aspects of today’s national, and international environmental movements, and strategies to ensure that environmental justice is a priority in future environmental work.


The two-day conference will feature speeches from leaders in the field, including former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice;” and Professor Gerald Torres, who, as counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, worked with communities to help draft the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. The conference will also feature seven panel discussions, each focused on an important aspect of environmental justice advocacy. Topics will range from strategies for achieving environmental justice to food justice and access to clean energy.

The EPA has been instrumental in helping HELS plan and prepare for the conference. In addition, EPA staff and other federal partners will facilitate breakout sessions on March 29. These sessions will engage conference attendees—students, academics, and community activists—in a productive discussion about milestones achieved in environmental justice and strategies for improvement and moving forward. We will share the outcomes of these discussions more broadly with federal representatives after the conference.

Although much progress has been made over the past twenty years, there is still plenty of work to be done. Living in an environmental justice community can have a severe impact on health and quality of life. Zip code is a strong predictor of health, and too often the heaviest environmental burdens and the highest percentage of low-income and minority residents are concentrated in the same zip codes. The California EPA reports that the 10% of California zip codes most burdened by pollution contain 32% of the state’s toxic cleanup sites. Meanwhile, a recent NAACP report notes that African Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009, but only held 1.1% of energy jobs and only gained .01% of the revenue from energy sector profits.

There is clearly a need for continued action to work towards achieving environmental justice goals. The 2014 NAELS Conference promises to make a valuable contribution to the conversation on environmental justice by reflecting on past challenges and successes in the movement, and by bringing together current and future advocates to plan for the next 20 years of work in the field.

To learn more about the 2014 NAELS Conference, please visit the HELS website for the conference. To learn more about environmental law at Harvard Law School, please visit the Environmental Law Program website.

About the Authors: Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal are students at the Harvard Law School, class of 2015.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Evolving Visions of Environmental Justice: An EJ Pioneer’s Reflections on EO 12898 after Twenty Years

New Image1

By Charles Lee

In 1994, I had the distinct honor of being invited to the Oval Office for President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order (EO) 12898 on environmental justice (EJ).  As one of the persons who played a pioneering role in the birth of EJ, I want to highlight some of EO 12898’s impacts after twenty years.  The EJ executive order was a product of community activism, which formed the core of the EJ movement.  An abiding truth of EJ is that this community activism played a leading role in inspiring and catalyzing many truly visionary developments.  This is an underlying thread for all the impacts highlighted.


Residents Installing a Rain Garden to Prevent Water Pollution for Green Zone Project in Kansas City, MO

First, EO 12898 helped to amplify the community action that inspired the EJ executive order’s development and issuance.  The EJ movement’s inherent vision is building healthy, equitable and sustainable communities for all people.  Communities of color, low-income neighborhoods and tribes led participatory democratic action that significantly influenced environmental decision-making.  The list of examples is endless — from relocating fuel tank farms in East Austin, Texas, revitalizing overburdened neighborhoods in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to building “green zones” in California and Kansas.  New models emerged, from local zoning ordinances to use of geographic information systems.  Activists, practitioners and scholars of all ages and backgrounds have joined the quest.  Among them was a young community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens housing project in Chicago’s polluted southside named Barack Obama.

Far sighted groups in all sectors of society have undertaken EJ initiatives.  The public health field has incorporated EJ in significant ways, especially through community-based participatory research.  Hundreds of universities now offer EJ courses or clinics, and a Ph.D. program in EJ now exists.  States and local governments have legislation, policies or programs that address EJ.  Whereas EJ was virtually unheard of in 1994, today it has an indelible foothold in the mainstream of society.

Over 100 EPA CARE Grants Have Been Awarded

Over 100 EPA CARE Grants Have Been Awarded to Communities

Second, EO 12898 provided direction on the integration of EJ in federal programs. Beginning in the 1990s, EJ advocates first articulated ideas on how to operationalize EJ in government programs. Through the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, they developed a public participation model plan and recommendations on using environmental statutes to address EJ issues.  Their recommendations on cumulative risk led to the CARE program.  They also laid the foundation for transforming brownfields redevelopment into community revitalization.


First-ever White House Forum on Environmental Justice convened in 2009 to re-invigorate the EJ IWG.

But it was not until the Obama Administration that EPA developed Plan EJ 2014, a comprehensive roadmap for ensuring that EJ is, in former Administrator Lisa Jackson’s words, “a part of every decision.” Plan EJ 2014 resulted from extensive input from communities and other stakeholders.  Through Plan EJ 2014, basic guidance and tools for integrating EJ into EPA’s rulemaking, permitting, enforcement and community action efforts are being completed.  The Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG), established by EO 12898, was revitalized.  Other agencies also issued important EJ guidance.  The IWG is now developing basic analytical resources for considering EJ in the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process.  NEPA is a touchstone of EO 12898.  In his Presidential Memorandum accompanying EO 12898, President Clinton identified it as an important tool for addressing EJ.


Click the diagram to learn about how each of these issues play role in the revitalizing neighborhoods.

Progress has been painfully incremental and the goal of integrating EJ in federal programs will take tenacious and long-term effort.  EJ truly remains the unfinished business of environmental protection.  It is also important at this time to frame a larger vision for EO 12898 that includes proactively providing benefits essential for building wholesome prosperous communities, such as health care, housing, transportation, jobs, economic development, green space and food security.  Moving in that direction will go a long way towards truly fulfilling the vision of EO 12898 by explicitly articulating how EJ is an integral part of the missions of all federal agencies.

Third, EO 12898 served as a catalyst for action by states on EJ. Today more than 40 states and territories have EJ legislation, policies or programs.  The executive order also provided a template for state EJ efforts, which typically include a tandem of lead office, interagency process and/or advisory committee with a focus on public participation, environmental health or model projects.

Notable examples of state action include California’s pioneering Environmental Justice Act (SB 115), sponsored by former State Senator, U.S. Representative and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.  This law led to efforts to address cumulative risks and toxic hotspots, including AB 1330.  The state also developed CalEnviroScreen to identify overburdened areas and promote equitable distribution of resources.  For example, it will help identify disadvantaged areas in which to invest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund proceeds under SB 535.  Minnesota passed legislation requiring cumulative risk assessment for an overburdened area in South Minneapolis.  New York State passed the Article X Powerplant Siting Law that requires analysis of disproportionate environmental impacts and the state’s brownfields legislation created the Brownfields Opportunities Areas Program.

Community advocates played a significant role in shaping these efforts.  These examples are harbingers of the future.  They reflect the evolving vision of EJ advocates and indeed the future direction of policy making.  EJ legislation or policy must go beyond EO 12898 and address substantive issues.  We must do the hard work of incorporating EJ in multiple types of legislation or policies.

In conclusion, EO 12898 is only one step in a long journey.  We must continuously evolve EJ vision and action to meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.  We have certainly come a long way since 1994 when most decision-makers were groping for answers to elementary questions like: “What is EJ?”  Incredible opportunities have been created by all the good work of all parties.  We must rise to the paradigmatic challenges created by climate change, increasing health and income disparities, equitable development, sustainable communities, globalization impacts such as goods (freight) movement, and other issues.~3045199Challenges with use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act persist.  EJ issues will be local, regional, national and international.  If we are to rise to these challenges, we must nurture new generations of EJ leaders—knowledgeable about how to work in both communities and institutions, armed with stellar technical and legal skills, and most important, guided by audacious vision and commitment.

Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice. He was the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. He helped to spearhead the emergence of a national environmental justice movement and federal action including Executive Order 12898, EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

It Doesn’t Take a Fireman to Spot a Fire: Fighting Pollution with Citizen Science


Shameika Jackson. Velma White and Ronesha Johnson are active reporters
to the map from Shreveport, LA.

By Molly Brackin

We have a saying at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB); “it doesn’t take a fireman to spot a fire.” Likewise, you don’t need to be a scientist to know something is wrong when you spot a black smoking flare that lasts an hour or you smell foul chemicals in the air. Since 2000, the Bucket Brigade has worked with communities and thousands of residents throughout Louisiana that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants. Our mission is to support our communities’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution.  To accomplish this, the Bucket Brigade model is to equip communities most impacted by pollution with easy-to-use tools that monitor their environment, inform residents, and can be used to improve industry accountability.

Untitled-1In early 2010 LABB introduced the iWitness Pollution Map to help Louisiana residents track pollution and associated health effects in their communities. Today there are over 11,000 reports of possible petrochemical pollution on the map.  The iWitness Pollution Map is an open-source online map that allows anyone with a phone to document and share their experience with pollution via voicemail, text, email or by using the online form.  Visitors of the map are able to see reports in real-time, identify possible pollution hotspots by viewing the geographic location of the reports, and sign up to get alerts.The map helps to validate a community’s experience with petrochemical pollution, but more importantly the map monitors incidents of the industry’s potential pollution impacts on the local community.

In a system that allows industry to self-report their emissions and accidents, citizens are extremely important watchdogs. There were over 1,200 citizen reports of pollution from the 17 oil refineries and two associated chemical plants in Louisiana in 2013 alone. Using the iWitness Pollution Map, citizens have reported smells, flaring events, roaring sounds coming from the facilities, and health effects among other things:

 “It’s extremely stinky outside right now, very chemically smelling.  I don’t know exactly what type of smell it is, but is very chemical and it seems to be coming from the plant off Scenic Highway.  I guess it is around 6pm in the evening.  It’s raining and no feel of anything but just definitely very smelly, very unnatural.  It’s thick outside.”– January 13th, 2013, Baton Rouge, LA

 “…That plant over there, that flare is going just like a train.   It been doing it all night long.  And I can hear it all on my porch on Broadway now.”-July 28th, 2013, Shreveport, LA 

“When I had gotten off of work at 2:30am there was a weird smell in the air. At 10am the smell woke me up it was all outside & inside my home, which brought on a migraine & nausea! I don’t know what the chemical is or if it’s even safe for us to be in our home right now. We live on the Westbank in Algiers. If someone could give us some information on this that would be fantastic. The news & fire departments are saying it’s a mystery & others say it’s coming from the Chalmette refinery.”– April 3, 2013, Algiers (New Orleans), LA

A mural painted by community members in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

A mural painted by residents in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

From consistent citizen reporting to the iWitness Pollution Map, the results of the data we have gathered provides crucial statements of real life everyday experiences from residents, which counter the claims of some local industries that their chemical releases have resulted in “no offsite impact.”  LABB triangulates the reports to the map with other available information (i.e. air monitoring data, facility self reports) and shares the analysis with impacted communities, federal and state enforcement officials, first responders and the media.

Some communities in Louisiana are overburdened by industrial pollution on a daily basis, but if no one reports it, it’s as if nothing ever happened.  Thanks to these innovative tools, communities impacted by pollution have a visible, public platform to get their experiences documented and their voices heard!

Molly Brackin is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, where she serves as the Monitoring & Evaluation Associate. She holds a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, where she specialized in hazard mitigation and disaster planning.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Knowledge is Key with Chemical Safety Policy

By Michele Roberts

 I grew up in Delaware, in an area that was commonly known as one of the largest chemical corridors in the world. Sure, that meant there were jobs and income for our residents, but it also came with a heavy cost to the personal health of some in my family and neighbors. Growing up, I saw members of my family die from all sorts of cancers: breast cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, leukemia, you name it. And cancer was only one of the many health problems that were ever present in our community. So when I made the connection between the chemicals that people in my community were being exposed to, and their tragic effects on our health, I decided that I was going to change my career to do something to address this grave problem.

Untitled-1 What I have learned over the years from my work is that there is still so much that we don’t know about the many chemicals that we manufacture in this country, and something needs to be done about it. Did you know there are over 80,000 chemicals are currently listed or registered under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and hundreds of new chemicals are introduced into the marketplace every year? Unfortunately, there is a lack of access to vital information about these chemicals, which is especially troubling for communities impacted by chemical exposures.

Untitled-2For example, in the wake of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, community activists ask how many “shelter-in-places drills” must their children practice and how much stress from feeling unsafe should they be asked to endure. Communities located in an area commonly referred to as “cancer-alley” want to know why they have to experience cancer at such a disproportionately higher rate than the rest of the country. Communities in the Southwest want to know why the most precious resource to their livelihoods, water, is being threatened by uranium mining. In the Northeast, communities located near toxic chemical storage areas want to know why severe flooding leaves them vulnerable not only to catastrophic disasters like Hurricane Sandy, but also to the potential chemical runoff that may wash over their homes and neighborhoods.

Luckily, I have found there are many advocates from across the country that are as concerned as I am about this dearth of information and want to do something about it. Today, on October 29th the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, consisting of delegations of community activists, youth, local elected officials, and environmental justice advocates from across the country will converge on Washington, DC to expand the dialogue towards adopting a comprehensive plan for the guidance, standards and regulations necessary for them to live safer lives with a sense of security. These reforms can better protect the health and well being of their communities and the workers inside the facilities. If this is an issue that you are concerned about and want more information, click here to find out what you can do and hear about proposed solutions for reform.

About the author: Since 1990, Ms. Roberts has provided technical assistance and advocacy support to communities regarding the impacts of toxins on human health and the environment. She received a master of art degree from the University of Delaware and a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Morgan State University. Roberts has co-authored reports on environmental justice issues. Her advocacy work has been featured in television, print news, and magazines.  Prior to being an advocate, Michele worked for 20 years as an environmental scientist for the government. She currently is co-director of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Reclaiming Your Environmentalism


By Fred Tutman

People ask me almost everyday why more African-Americans are not environmentalists. My usual answer is, “who says we are not?”  Yet everyday I meet people who seem to think that being an environmentalist of color is some sort of novelty. Nothing could be farther from the truth! My heritage with the environment like many other people of color sets a strong foundation for environmental stewardship. To my great fortune, I grew up in a rural stretch of Maryland’s Patuxent River corridor. The four corners of my world, and my playgrounds were collectively the wind, sun, sky, the forests and of course the nearby river. As a boy I gigged frogs, hunted imaginary wolves with tobacco sticks, and I collected and sold Japanese beetles to my great grandfather at a penny a bug. Among my warmest boyhood memories were at dusk with my great grandfather where he and I walked through the gloom of the woods, or sat on fallen logs waiting for deer; where the silence was a sort of like being in a church.

Untitled-1So my people and I were tied to nature and the earth’s rhythms on many levels. Were we environmentalists? Sadly, many do not regard indigenous people as such. But we had a heritage of self-sufficiency on the land, of growing our own food, of continuing a family tradition of being in grace with our surroundings. We were in a perpetually renewing contract with mother earth and thought of ourselves simply as those specially favored by nature.

Throughout my conservation career, I have worked around environmentalists eager to teach the rest of us how to live and love nature in their own image. And perhaps many of us from various walks do need to be reconnected to the earth—but there are just as many who happen to be absent from mass environmental causes who already have a rich heritage with the earth.

Truly we all have very different context for the environment. And it seems to me that is exactly what diversity means. There is no reason one must join a club or carry a membership card in order to claim status as an environmentalist. The many expressions of our individual environmental connections are as unique and as personal as our fingerprints and yet this truism easily gets overlooked. That is exactly why more ethnic and cultural inclusion is so desperately needed in the environmental movement. Because we each need to claim the full environmental heritage to which we are each entitled.


The stories of our individual ties to the environment are rich, layered, textured, powerful and empowering.  Much more layered than the simplistic and very misguided notion that “black people don’t care or know about the environment.” So in my view, the environmental movement doesn’t just need to embrace “diversity.” Instead people need to understand first and foremost that the many faces of environmentalism actually ARE diversity. Only then can we look at relative social justice and fairness with an honest and appraising eye. Deeper respect for the environmental context held dear by people of all walks and ethnicities is the only way environmental movements will ever reach their full inclusive potential.

Fred Tutman has served for ten years as the Riverkeeper for the Patuxent, which is Maryland’s longest and deepest intrastate river. 

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.