Peterson’s Quickie Interview with Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome of WE ACT for Environmental Justice

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Last month at the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) annual conference and lobbying days, I attended a workshop on Environmental Justice led by Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome. Like many environmental organizations, CCL is uncomfortably and almost exclusively white (oh, and heterosexual, but that’s for another post.) With CCL’s goal to place a fee or tax on greenhouse gases with proceeds of the collected fee given as a refund to households to help with the inevitable rising energy costs, CCL seems genuinely interested in looking out for the interest of poor and working class people while lobbying for pragmatic energy policy. In hopes of educating its members about the environmental concerns of  people of color, CCL invited Dr. White-Newsome to talk about justice and the environment and the work of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the organization based in Harlem, NYC for which Dr. White-Newsome works as their federal policy analyst. 

First a little about WE ACT for Environmental Justice:

West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT for Environmental Justice) is a Northern Manhattan community-based organization whose mission is to build healthy communities by assuring that people of color and/or low-income participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. As a result of our ongoing work to educate and mobilize the more than 630,000 residents of Northern Manhattan on environmental issues affecting their quality of life, WE ACT has become a leader in the nationwide movement for environmental justice, influencing the creation of federal, state and local policies affecting the environment.

Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of WE ACT with Chuck Sutton one of the first protests

Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of WE ACT with Chuck Sutton one of the first protests

Since its inception in 1988, WE ACT has grown to the point where it is now reaching out beyond its neighborhoods in Northern Manhattan to play a key role in national environmental justice legislation. Years ago when I attended City College in Harlem and lived on West 146th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, I saw firsthand some of the actions organized by WE ACT as they demanded justice in addressing the dangers of the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, a massive sewage treatment complex that stretches along the Hudson River from 137th to 145th Street. In the early 1960′s the city originally intended to build the sewage treatment plant near 72nd Street, but the white community there insisted it go elsewhere, so the city fathers dumped it on the citizens of Harlem.

In July 2011 the treatment plant erupted in flames and smoke from a fire in an engine room. In a News One story, Racial Backstory Behind Harlem’s Sewage Plant Explosion, Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of WE ACT, shared some of the history of environmental justice/injustice in NYC. Although hopeful that the city is responding better now than in the past, she also raised some on-going concerns.

Today, all of Manhattan’s sewage treatment plants are located above 96th Street, which for many years was “the line” that separated white Manhattan from Black.

The plant sparked the founding of the very first African-American-led environmental organization in New York, West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT). Peggy Shepard, WE ACT’s Executive Director, says that it’s always been difficult to track the exact effects of the plant on human health. “It’s hard to know now without doing certain kind of tests, but we know to be cautious because of bacteria and other human health issues.”

Wednesday’s fire and sewage discharge illustrates the continuing struggle to rectify the asthma, infant mortality other environmentally influenced statistics that are so high in poor urban areas. And yet, Shepard, hopes that things may be improving.

“I have found the Department of Environmental Protection to be pretty responsive. These events do occur but I think the city is handling a bad situation. It wasn’t that way when we started working on things in the Koch administration,” Shepard said of WE ACT’s early battles with the city to secure adequate measures. “The subsequent administrations have been very responsive.”

Last month in Washington, DC hearing Dr. White-Newsome speak about the work of WE ACT, the environmental justice (ej) movement, and her challenge to CCL, a mostly white, middle-class environmental group, I reached out to her for this interview.

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Question One: I heard you speak at the Citizens Climate Lobby annual conference. You are a brilliant presenter. From hearing comments from CCL members that day and the next, your presentation made an impact and opened up a number of climate activists to the reality of environmental injustice and the need to pursue solutions that will promote it. With all of the issues in the world that demand attention, what has drawn you to do environmental justice work and what sustains you?

I am a native of Detroit, Michigan and from a young age, I was intrigued by environmental science, specifically looking at urban pollution. As I progressed through school, and worked in the industrial sector, it became even more apparent that certain communities were worse off than others. That communities of color, and areas that were low on the socioeconomic spectrum, suffered more. It is ludicrous that in the 21st century, people in the US are living – in some cases – like they are living in underdeveloped countries. The fact that many of the challenges we started working on when the environmental justice movement began in the 70s, are still a challenge now, sustains me. The fact that people are still getting sick, dying, being forced to live with trash, breath in dirty air and live near toxic facilities – is unacceptable – especially when we have laws and regulations that are supposed to protect our health, life and welfare. So the quest for environmental justice continues on.

Question Two: In your experience working for environmental justice (ej) where have you seen meaningful partnerships develop in this work among groups or demographics who may not initially have had any engagement in environmental justice? What makes these partnerships successful?

I am a somewhat of a ‘newbie’ in the ej movement, so the answer to this question is totally dependent on perspective. What is interesting is that there are some ‘really authentic collaborations’ that have developed between unlikely partners.  However, there have been many moments in the past – on both the national and local level – where the strife between mainstream environmental and conservation groups, for example, have not included an ej perspective in their work and advocacy, purposefully. These past ‘ills’ in some cases, still breed feelings of mistrust from the ej community. However, in the time I have been engaged, slowly but surely, those in the environmental community – well, some – realize that you cannot have a WIN if ALL voices don’t work together. If the fight is ‘climate change’, well, you need those that are most impacted to help ‘make the case’ against those sectors/people/organizations that are more funded and more positioned to make more ‘noise’ that we can. Successful partnerships to me are founded on respect, authenticity and a common goal. I have had the opportunity to work with mainstream enviros, groups of faith, politicians and many others in my advocacy and it has been a wonderful experience. But there is still a long way to go.

Question Three: You shared some similar thoughts at the Citizens Climate Lobby, and I remember how striking your answer was then. I appreciate your honesty and directness. In fact, it is one of the main reasons I wanted to interview you. As you continue to lobby and organize for environmental justice, what does success look like for you and for WE ACT? 

Personally, success is pretty specific to me…and would include: getting environmental justice legislation passed in Congress; having mainstream environmental organizations, Congressional staff seeking out OUR voices to be a part of the policy making process; acquiring the resources to sustain a building and staff for our ej federal policy office, with a full staff in Washington DC; increasing federal Agency accountability through the development of a annual scorecard to assess how well Agencies are doing to adhere to the Executive Order on Environmental Justice.  

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We Want Clean Air - Community Protest

WE ACT members speaking out

Many thanks to Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome for taking the time to answer my questions. Please take some time to visit the WE ACT for Environmental Justice website. It has helpful and insightful resources including Principles of Environmental Justice, links to WE ACT publications, and the WE ACT theory of Change diagram (see below) Also, consider making a donation to contribute to Dr. White-Newsome’s and WE ACT’s vital work.

Come back soon for more Quickie Interviews and check out past interviews with Marlo Bernier and Rev. Nancy Wilson. Stay tuned for more  interviews soon; I have been talking to some pretty amazing people.

(All photos and graphics come directly from the WE ACT website.)
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This post has 2 Comments

  1. Jennifer A O'Brien on July 28, 2014 at 6:26 pm Reply

    This interview shines a light on WE ACT’s past and present and gives hope for the future of environmental justice. I will use it as a perfect companion to my TED-Ed lesson that highlights Vernice Miller-Travis’ work with WE ACT. Check out the lesson and video at http://ed.ted.com/on/L4BiLFst

  2. Peterson Toscano
    Peterson Toscano on July 28, 2014 at 9:50 pm Reply

    Thanks so much Jen! Your students are lucky to have you. Tell them I said so! :-)

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