Grassroots Mojo

by Fred Tutman

The recent 50th Anniversary commemoration of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights brings to mind the long history of grassroots organizing, and the role the local Selma freedom movement played to help raise the civil rights conversation to national prominence.

In making the connection from Selma to today, we need to remember that there is a power, an inspirational wallop, that flows from small grassroots movements, like those that served as the foundation of the civil rights movement and today’s environmental justice movement. The civil rights movements not only achieved their own local goals but served to pursue larger ones as well.

The grassroots have a powerful “mojo” with a deeply inspirational history of achievement. Grassroots causes have a track record of success that channel the raw energy needed to change the world in order to make it more just. Grassroots causes are also inherently democratic, compassionate, equitable, empowering, and diverse! The fact that such movements generally lack money is unimportant, as their lack of cash is more than made up for with their zeal, ingenuity, and passion. Grassroots causes can produce charismatic and highly effective leadership. My own grassroots heroes include people like Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ. Nobody paid them lots of money to be change agents.

A true grassroots movement generally draws its strength and vision from rank and file participants, while empowering the people and communities from which that same power and initiative flows. These mostly unpaid and localized grassroots groups often have intensely active and engaged members who control the priorities of their movement.

So while grassroots groups build coalitions and campaigns around mutual self-interest and shared moral commitment, top down ones often do so around issues that can rally more people and more money. And why not? These groups surely have more expenses and compete with other similar groups on national and international stages for both members and resources. But the key is that while both forms of advocacy can do vital and worthwhile work, they rarely do exactly the same work, nor should we always expect them to! Recognizing distinctions between top down organizations and grassroots movements is vital when understanding how true community-based advocacy works, and how such work occasionally clashes with well-meaning institutionalized environmentalism.

Despite these differences, if there is one thing of which I am certain, large top down movements need grassroots partners as well as a deeper appreciation of the rich potential of grassroots work and environmental justice.

I have heard it argued that these distinctions are unimportant because, regardless of the business model, grassroots and big environmentalism “all want the same things.” But it’s important to realize that communities don’t usually band together simply because “everybody” wants clean air and water. They do so more forcefully because their sense of place is threatened by dirty air and water. The reality of attacking a local threat is a much stronger motivator than an issue that is a diffuse and amorphous threat that attracts empathy and donations. The momentum generated by a movement serving actual communities and local constituencies presents an enormous advantage in terms of the payload it can deliver.

That is why it’s especially important for large, well-funded environmental groups to explore fresh ways to jump on local bandwagons, instead of the other way around. And the fastest way to satisfy the need for diversity in environmentalism is to build stronger connections to grassroots advocacy.

So how do we forge stronger bonds between the larger and more nationally influential organizations to invest more deeply in local work? One way is to better understand that local advocates are drivers and not passengers along for the environmental ride. It is important to remember that the civil rights movement was really a series of grassroots efforts, like the Selma march, of ordinary citizens determined to end racial injustice, not only locally but across the United States. Success came when they banded with others, locally and with other like-minded souls from around the country.

There is no greater calling than doing grassroots work that helps real people and real communities, as well as the nation and the planet.

About the author: Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, has served more than 11 years as the Riverkeeper for Maryland’s longest and deepest intrastate river. Fred also is an adjunct instructor at historic St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he teaches an upper level course in Environmental Law and Policy.

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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Climate Justice

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Charles Lee

Untitled-1Climate change is impacting our lives today, including record high temperatures, reduced air quality, extreme weather, severe droughts and sea-level rise, just to name a few examples. While we all share this burden, these impacts greatly exacerbate the many environmental and public health challenges in minority, indigenous and low-income communities. That’s why EPA promotes “climate justice” – a movement, building on more than 20 years of commitment to Environmental Justice, to protect disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by climate change.

The impacts of climate change on our lives, families and communities are felt by everyone. In low income communities, these impacts are often devastating, including compromised health, financial hardship, and social and cultural disruptions. Often they are the first to experience heat-related illness and death, respiratory ailments, infectious diseases, unaffordable rises in energy costs, and crushing natural disasters.

At the same time, these communities receive less support and experience greater obstacles when trying to influence decisions about mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts. Their voices, concerns and ideas can easily be discounted. We must develop processes that make them active participants in developing solutions.

I know from experience that these communities want their voices heard and valued. They want to participate meaningfully in climate change negotiations and help to develop solutions that will affect their lives and their children’s lives for generations to come. Indeed these communities have much to contribute. For millennia, many indigenous communities have survived through cycles of environmental change using “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK). This can be immensely useful in developing adaptation and mitigation strategies. For example, TEK may assist in predicting weather patterns, identifying medicinal plants, and adapting new plants to a changing ecosystem.

A 2010 study from the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that “in many cases, minorities are equally as supportive, and often more supportive of national climate and energy policies, than white Americans.” In particular:

  • 89% of blacks supported the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant
  • 70% of Asian-Americans consider themselves as environmentalists
  • 60% of Asian-Americans prioritize environmental protection over economic growth

recent poll shows 74 percent of Latinos believe climate change is a serious or very serious issue, and 86 percent of Latinos support the President taking action to reduce carbon pollution.

As part of EPA’s focus on climate justice, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to EPA, is preparing advice and recommendations on how EPA can help improve community resilience in or near industrial waterfronts with environmental justice concerns. This project highlights the efforts of former NEJAC Chair Elizabeth Yiampierre to strengthen community resilience and emergency planning in her overburdened Brooklyn, NY community. NEJAC also embarked recently on a project to provide advice and recommendations for EPA’s individual program and regional climate adaptation implementation plans.

In 2012, communities in California took climate justice to a new level. Their advocacy resulted in legislation that ensures that resources go to communities most hurt by climate change. SB 535 calls for 25 percent of proceeds from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund go to projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. By using CalEnviroScreen to identify disadvantaged communities, the state will make both socio-economic and environmental factors important considerations for determining where potentially billions of dollars of climate change resources will go.

It’s evident that minority, indigenous and low-income communities not only care about the impacts of climate change, but have been leaders in creating solutions. They believe strongly that as a nation, we can address climate change with common-sense, comprehensive strategies. In that process, they will help us build healthier and more sustainable communities, as well as a stronger more inclusive economy beneficial to all citizens.

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, as the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.

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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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.

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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.

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Injecting Knowledge to Cure Injustice

By Dr. Sacoby Wilson

Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I had a fondness of the Big River and the love of the environment.  Unfortunately, I was aware that some communities did not enjoy the same level of environmental quality that others did.  I grew up near a concrete plant, waste water treatment plant, oil facility, and power plant in the background.  My father was a pipefitter who over the years worked at nuclear power plants, oil refineries, coal fired plants and was exposed to many contaminants.  These experiences, combined with my diagnosis at age 7 with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, really drove me to explore why some communities were burdened by hazards and unhealthy land uses and how exposure to environmental stressors can lead to negative health outcomes.


I was inspired to use my interest in science and environmental health for environmental justice after meeting Drs. Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard in the early 1990s. These professors taught me the value of getting out of the ivory towers of academia and getting into communities to spread knowledge to push for positive change. Since then, I have been a passionate advocate for environmental justice working in partnership with community groups across the United States. Through this work, I have learned that the use of science to empower through education, paired with community organizing and civic engagement, is the key to alleviating environmental injustices.

One of those individuals who helped me understand the importance of getting communities into the research process was Omega Wilson.  Wilson’s Group, the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) has  fought against environmental injustice, infrastructure disparities, and the lack of basic amenities for the last twenty years.  WERA leaders have used a community-driven research approach known as community-owned and managed research (COMR) to address environmental injustice in their community.  COMR focuses on the collection of data for action, compliance, and social change.  In combination with EPA’s collaborative-problem-solving model, WERA’s work provides a blueprint for other communities to use partnerships, stakeholder engagement, action-oriented research, and legal tools to achieve environmental justice.

Untitled-2As a professor who learned through my mentors, I also firmly believe in inspiring the next generation of academics to take their tools and research into communities that need it the most. Currently, I am building a program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) at the University of Maryland-College Park. CEEJH is building off existing work of leaders in the DC Metropolitan region to address environmental justice and health issues at the grassroots level; we use community-university partnerships, capacity-building, and community empowerment to address environmental justice and health issues in the Chesapeake Bay region.  Following in the footsteps of WERA, I plan to inspire young people to be bold, courageous, and become advocates for environmental justice.

About the author: Dr. Wilson is an environmental health scientist with expertise in environmental justice and environmental health disparities. His primary research interests are related to issues that impact underserved, socially and economically disadvantaged, marginalized, environmental justice, and health disparity populations. He is building a Program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) to study and address health issues for environmental justice and health disparity populations through community-university partnerships and the use of CBPR in Maryland and beyond.

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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