20/20 Vision: Inspiring Us to Act

By Jalonne White-Newsome

I’ve been wearing glasses since the age of five because my vision has always been pretty bad.  So I was surprised when my eye doctor told me during my last exam that my vision had actually improved and my eyes were getting stronger! I was shocked because I assumed my vision would get worse as I got older.  But, luckily, that was not the case.

While my physical eyesight has improved over time, my view and perspective about environmental protection and public health have changed as well.

When I worked as an engineer at a chemical manufacturing facility, located adjacent to a low income community of color in Texas, I saw the importance of environmental regulations, and I also saw the need for compliance and enforcement to protect communities that had been dumped on for years.  My vision sharpened when I moved on to work in state government, where I organized environmental justice meetings to foster multi-stakeholder conversations about re-building trust between government and citizens, and working to develop holistic, participatory solutions to solve complex environmental and economic challenges.  Later, as a public health researcher who used science and tools to unpack the cumulative impacts of climate change, poverty, and disease on the elderly, my vision became clearer again.

Little did I know that almost every element of my work at the state and local level to protect public health and the environment was shaped by EPA’s agenda.  Whether it was recognizing the importance of compliance and enforcement, building trust between government and communities, or using research to inform policy and advocacy, these elements – and many more – continue to be critical pieces of EPA’s agenda and the agenda of many advocates working for environmental justice across this country.

Now, as an environmental justice advocate who works on federal policy, I have learned the importance of vision.  EPA has a vision that’s 20/20.  What is laid out in its draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda Framework (currently out for public comment) builds on the accomplishments of Plan EJ 2014 to carve a vision for the work that will continue through the next five years.

But most importantly, EJ 2020 is about moving this vision to reality.  EPA’s vision has been sharpened by its experience with environmental justice leaders across this country who have continued to engage, participate, criticize, and push the Agency to work to eliminate the environmental injustices that persist in communities across this country.

It is time to be clear that the expectations from communities are greater. Affected communities must be engaged early in the game. Agency actions must include an adequate EJ analysis. All programs and efforts should be transparent and evaluated through a collaborative process with multiple partners.  The vision of this Administration and the EPA must be clear.

The time is now that the “frames” that seek justice – Executive Order 12898, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EPA’s guidance on considering environmental justice in rulemaking, EJSCREEN, and soon, EPA’s EJ 2020 Action Agenda – will allow the Agency to implement the priorities laid out in EPA’s draft framework.

The vision is clear and we know what we need to further environmental justice. EJ 2020 – coupled with intentional community engagement and accountability – is the framework that can get us there.

About the author:  Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is the Director of Federal Policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.  She is based in Washington, DC.

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