Good jobs — the unfinished work of environmental justice
I’ll never forget the words of Emelda West, a small but mighty grandmother and activist from St. James Parish, La. It was in the late 1990s, and we had just worked together to stop the construction of a plastics plant in her hometown. West put her hand on my arm and said, “Dr. Wright, I just love you. I appreciate the work you’ve done to keep the poisons out of our community. But what we really need now are jobs for our kids.”
In the last year, many Americans have awakened to the layered injustices faced by communities of color. There’s the routine harassment and violence at the hands of the police. The polluting facilities — from plastics factories to bus depots and coal-fired power plants — that always seem to land in our neighborhoods. The underfunded schools, inadequate health care, and, as West observed, the persistent and devastating lack of opportunity.
In St. James Parish and across the country, our communities are coping with deep-rooted, multifaceted harms. Yes, we need to stop those harms from happening — by stopping the construction of new poison-spewing facilities, for example. But we also need to repair and revitalize the places we call home. It’s a complex challenge that calls for a holistic response. It calls for environmental justice.
For years, the mainstream environmental movement focused on a series of separate issues — from saving the whales to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The remedies were also narrowly targeted, through policy measures like cap-and-trade, for example, or techno-fixes like carbon capture and storage.
But in the low-income communities of color where I have worked for 30 years, we’ve never had the luxury of focusing on one thing at once. Everything is an emergency. People are dying from rare cancers linked to the toxic soup of chemicals in our water and air. Our health issues — including COVID-19 — are compounded by the lack of access to decent medical care. Climate change brings historic floods and deadly heatwaves. And the scarcity of opportunity creates pervasive despair that feeds pathologies like addiction and crime.
These problems are inseparable from racism. Racism, as Heather C. McGhee has observed, is why Americans can’t have “nice things” that other affluent nations take for granted — like well-funded schools or reliable infrastructure. As long as they think the benefits will accrue to others who don’t look like them, some Americans will oppose programs that would actually help everyone. And as long as toxic wastes can be dumped in places where Black and brown people live, corporations will keep right on dumping.
Environmental justice is about connecting the dots between environmental problems and inequity, and addressing both in a comprehensive, holistic way. Indeed it recognizes that neither can be addressed effectively in isolation.
The good news is that the Biden administration has put an unprecedented focus on environmental justice. In January, President Biden announced the Justice40 Initiative, which would direct 40 percent of the benefits of a sustainable economy to communities that have been dumped on for generations. Just last week, the White House released interim implementation guidelines on Justice40 and identified 21 federal programs that will pilot the initiative.
Environmental justice advocates have the ear of the White House. I am proud to be a co-author of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, a groundbreaking plan that is helping to inform the administration’s policies. The administration has created the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, on which I am honored to serve. And the American Rescue Plan includes significant investments in environmental justice programs, including $50 million for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address disproportionate environmental or public health harms in underserved communities.
But there is so much more to do. We need to repair past harms and bring clean energy and climate-resilient infrastructure to disadvantaged communities. To that end, Congress must pass a spending package that includes transformative investments in legacy pollution cleanup, community improvements, quality affordable housing and pollution-free energy. All levels of government must center communities in Justice40 implementation, by working directly with community and environmental justice advocates to address community needs and priorities.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to make sure that these investments include job training and workforce development to create good jobs for those who have been left behind. It can be done: my organization, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, runs training programs that have launched dozens of young people from affected communities into environmental careers. Our students earn certifications in lead abatement, asbestos removal, mold remediation, hazardous waste operations and emergency response — and 85 percent have secured jobs in these lucrative and growing fields. The Biden administration could take this effort to scale, launching similar programs in hard-hit communities across the country.
Emelda West passed away several years ago, but I can still feel her hand on my arm and her voice in my ear. She reminds me that environmental justice is about more than keeping the poisons out of our communities. It’s about building a world of good health, good jobs and abundant opportunity for all.
Dr. Beverly Wright is an environmental justice scholar and advocate, and the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She also serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.