By Mustafa Ali
In the more than two years since beginning this blog, we’ve presented many posts that have looked at what two decades of environmental justice has meant across the country. In our very first post, I said that we want to use this space to celebrate 20 years of environmental justice at EPA, as well as to discuss the future of the environmental justice movement in the next 20 years.
Over the past 99 blog posts, we have focused on highlighting those stories that often get overlooked in the dialogue about the environment and environmental justice. These are the stories of positive change that are helping to move many environmentally overburdened communities from surviving to thriving, as well as those stories that highlight the challenges that still exist. We featured an entire video series dedicated to powerful stories from environmental justice leaders who were on the forefront of the movement, advancing it with each innovative and tireless action that they took to defend their communities from pollution and harm. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of environmental justice at EPA, I want to go back to the beginning and share this video with you.
I love this video because it captures the passion and energy of the environmental justice movement 20 years ago. To be clear, 1994 wasn’t the beginning of environmental justice. Civil rights and environmental leaders had been working on these issues for decades. But twenty years ago there was a new momentum, there was a sense of togetherness, and it was exciting.
In the early 1990s the words of environmental justice had not yet been cemented in the public lexicon. But the concept was beginning to take shape, and things were changing. I’m sharing this story with you now because I think it is so relevant today. Everywhere you look, it seems like the EJ movement is gaining new momentum. Things ARE changing. And that is one of the things I think this blog has captured well over the last 100 posts.
One source of this new momentum is the energy from the multitudes of young people getting involved in the EJ movement. Worcester Roots’ Toxic Soil Busters program is a great example. The program employs the local youth in Worcester to clean up and remediate hazardous lead-filled sites. Another post highlighted the efforts of a group of students who were doing research on environmental hotspots and used the feedback from surveys filled out from over 150 readers on this blog to complete a list of case studies on environmental justice. And there are many more avenues being developed to engage with younger people about environmental justice, like Mayah’s Lot, the environmental justice comic book, or Tox Town, which is a great tool for teaching children about chemicals and chemical safety.
Another catalyst of momentum has been technology. For example, we shared stories like the one from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is utilizing smart phone technologies to enable residents to track pollution and associated health effects in their neighborhoods. The Jordon River Commission in Utah has been using smartphones to engage young people to help clean up the river and make it more accessible for community residents, many of them from more ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. And new tools being developed here at EPA (like the new community mapping tool C-FERST) and outside the agency (like the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas), are providing more information and data to residents to inform them of pollution problems and equip them with tools for protecting their communities.
More than anything though, the environmental justice movement is being propelled forward by the ingenuity and hard work of everyday heroes in towns and cities all across the country. One illustration of this hard work is from the Clean Air Coalition, which used EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory data and other monitoring technology to hold a company accountable for violating the Clean Air Act to the tune of a $200 million settlement. Another example comes from Nuestras Raíces, which is training young people how to weatherize houses and make them more energy efficient. This effort not only provides jobs in the local economy but saves money for community residents. These stories are just a sliver of the multitude of stories that demonstrate the breadth and depth of positive results led by environmental justice advocates around the nation.
When I first started at EPA as an intern, the term environmental justice was brand new. I remember the enthusiasm and excitement that was emerging across the country as the movement was taking shape and gaining ground. As I travel across the country I see similar signs of that momentum everywhere I go. There are collaborative partnerships where communities are joining with state, local, and tribal governments, faith based organizations, and business and industry to make a positive change. So let’s keep pushing for change. Let’s keep going forward and make the next 20 years even more exciting and impactful as we strive to build a country that is safe and healthy for all to live, work, play, and pray.
About the author: Mustafa Santiago Ali is the Acting Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.