Equity: A Strong Model for Environmental Justice

 

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By Makara Rumley

Our country’s immigration boom has been sustained by the dream of opportunity threaded with equity. When community residents have access to an equitable standard of housing, occupation, education, and healthy and safe environments, this idyllic dream becomes reality and creates a space where people can thrive. But what do we really mean when we talk about equity? How is equity distinct from equality?

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Equity can be used to describe the quality of fairness and inclusion that people receive.  Equity attempts to deliver justice without partiality, while equality seeks to deliver homogeneity across recipients. This idea can be portrayed with a simple anecdote. If I give two children, Sally and James an apple, it may appear that the distribution of both apples is equal. However, if James has not eaten in several days and Sally is on schedule to receive a small snack, James’s degree of satisfaction received from consuming his apple will be much less than Sally’s.  Not only does equity seek to level the playing field, it also ensures runners are prepared to race when they kneel at the starting blocks.

The objective of the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas (MAEA) – the first equity mapping system of its kind in the Southeast – is simple. MAEA seeks to make clear the ways to unlock regional prosperity and growth. This only occurs when communities have equitable access to a range of highly interconnected resources; see www.atlantaequityatlas.com for more information.

As  a new regional online data tool, MAEA was designed to connect local stakeholders to timely, accurate data. By examining eight key areas of community well-being –demographics, economic development, education, environment, health, housing, public safety and transportation – the MAEA offers fascinating insight into the state of our region, particularly as it relates to issues of access and opportunity. The MAEA also provides local change makers with the information they need to provide vital facts and data to enhance their community efforts.

By browsing the site’s nearly 200 maps, it will become increasingly clear how “place matters.” In other words, where you live has consequences for where you end up in life. Georgia suffers from a range of environmental challenges. These challenges impact the quality of air, land, and water.  Equity can be used to filter these challenges through an environmental justice (EJ) lens.

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Map: Life Threatening Asthma Attack Rate in Atlanta

As an EJ Attorney for GreenLaw, I use this equity paradigm to serve the counties surrounding the city of Atlanta. It assists me in communicating with policy makers to help them understand that minorities are disproportionately exposed to pollution. Other EJ and equitable development stakeholders can use these multitudes of maps and data to make the case for fairer development, or providing new resources to communities based on the conditions of specific neighborhoods. A neighborhood saturated with pollutants creates barriers for residents from contributing 100% of their efforts to the economy by producing capital.  Visits to the doctor, missed days at work, and children’s absence from school are all examples of non-economic and economic costs. These costs all lead to a less productive society and the Equity Atlas can be a vital instrument for helping account for these costs in planning and public policy. 

Equity is a wonderful lens through which to view regulatory issues such as air pollution permits and industry siting decisions.  Let’s use the lens of equity to remove this heavy burden on some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities!

Biography:  MaKara Rumley serves as the Environmental Justice Attorney for GreenLaw, a non-profit environmental law firm. Using the law to reduce disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution has been maintained her enthusiasm since 1996.