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February 19, 2014

A Black History Lesson in Environmental Justice and What to Do Moving Forward

WE ACTA new generation of kids is becoming more dependent on "fast-food" and "smart phones," rather than understanding the importance of "perseverance" and "patience." I'm not alone in feeling that my generation have not taken the time to really to dive deeper into learning our Black History, enough to supplement the enormous gap that leaves the history of people of color out of our schools' lesson plans.

I have tried to impress upon my daughters that knowing your history is important -- even if it's just to recognize that you cannot take for granted the opportunity to attend school, the house and neighborhood you live in, and last but certainly not least, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the safe, green space we enjoy.

In 2014, we celebrate several milestones in civil rights. Sixty years ago, we desegregated our public institutions with Brown vs. the Board of Education, and 46 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the strike of the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, which was the civil and human rights movement that would soon become known to many as environmental racism.

Environmental justice is a movement that has fought to bring a solution to end environmental racism -- making sure that no person, despite, race, ethnicity, social status, political power, or the amount of income, will be disproportionately, or negatively impacted by environmental laws and policies that are not protective of public health.

Communities across the county began to speak out about all forms of racism. They were tired of living near hazardous-waste landfills, tired of waking up to the spells of the chemical manufacturing facilities that violate the comfort of their homes. They were tired of their family members getting sick and dying because of some chemical that infiltrated their water system. These were the types of harsh realities that engendered a generation of community activities and leaders that -- through pressure and persistence -- led to signing of the first executive order to mandate that all federal government agencies make their policies and programs in accordance with the principles of environmental justice.


February 11 was the 20th anniversary of the signing of that very executive order, the only executive order in our federal history to force agencies in the federal government to specifically consider how their work helps or harms low-income communities of color. It was through Executive Order 12898: Addressing Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low Income Populations that environmental racism was brought to the forefront. It is up to us to acknowledge the challenges by understanding the environmental racism of the past, but also to hold our leaders -- local, state and federal -- accountable to abolish environmental racism now and in the future.

You do not have to be an environmentalist to fight against environmental racism. Environmental JUSTICE is needed in many areas of our lives...

  • Where we work: Making sure that people have safe places to work and are not being exposed to harmful chemicals, and that good jobs are available in all communities.
  • Where we live: Lving in homes that are free of lead and are energy efficient.
  • Where we learn: Avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals and other air quality concerns in schools and ensuring that schools have the proper ventilation, cooling, and proper water quality.
  • Where we shop and what we buy: Promoting products that are not made from chemicals -- like bisphenol-A and phthalates -- that have been shown to cause health concerns in children; avoiding 99-cent stores that carry products that are banned outside of the United States but still sold here due to the lack of updated, meaningful regulations; and discouraging ethnic personal care products -- like perms/relaxers, cosmetics -- that are composed of unsafe chemicals.
  • What we eat: Addressing the lack of access to organic and fresh foods.
  • How we move: Providing adequate and clean transportation options that are safe and affordable; providing access to open spaces for play.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, I challenge you to take action!

Tell your congressional representative to sign-on to the letter directed to the president to tackle environmental justice issues in his Climate Action Plan and to support HRES479: Strengthening Environmental Justice Resolution

WE ACT's Washington, D.C. Legislative Office is spearheading, with sponsorship from members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a letter that will go to the president, to continue to put pressure on the Obama administration to develop a better plan to address the concerns of climate change felt by environmental justice communities, and a resolution that will codify the importance of the environmental justice movement. But we need your help.

While there have been some strides in "connecting the dots" between the overwhelming environmental pollution in certain communities of color and health disparities -- more asthma, more lead exposure, etc. -- we still have a long way to go. (See report on Environmental Justice Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014)

We need you, your colleagues, your friends, and family to call your representatives (ask to speak to the environmental staffer) and urge them to do two things:

  1. To sign-on to the letter directed to the president to tackle environmental justice issues in his  Climate Action Plan.
  2. Encourage their boss to support and vote for HRES479 "Strengthening Environmental Justice Resolution" (being circulated by the Congressional Progressive Caucus).

Getting the message out that environmental justice is important is our goal. And as we continue to recognize the 20th anniversary of  Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations during February and throughout the year, these next steps will ensure that the purpose and the intent of this executive order will move forward.

We need voices from across the country to get this successfully passed! Two minutes of your time, and your voice, can lay a great foundation for change! What we do the "day after" for environmental justice is just as important!

-- Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, Federal Policy Analyst for WE ACT


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