Public Health Resources for Understanding Environmental Racism
February 19, 2020
For Donele Wilkins, president and CEO of the Green Door Initiative in Detroit, public health education plays a major role in her approach to addressing environmental racism.
Once during a community presentation for parents, she explained the link between living in an area with poor air quality and the likelihood of developing asthma. Afterward, a woman approached her and shared that she, two of her children and many of her neighbors were asthmatic. She also expressed the frustration she felt when talking to healthcare providers.
When people with certain chronic diseases go to the doctor, the focus is “only on the victim and their decisions,” Wilkins explained. “They ask, ‘Are you smoking? Do you let people come to your house and smoke? Do you have roaches?’ But oftentimes, what is absent is the bigger issue…that is outside of the control of the individual.”
Why Environmental Justice Is Important
Environmental racism refers to the intentional discrimination in infrastructural and environmental policymaking. The environmental justice movement was created to address health disparities in low-income communities and communities of color caused by unfair policies and decision-making.
Wilkins’ goal in educating her community is to make them aware of the links between environmental health and racial inequities in hopes that they will join the fight for policies that benefit the safety and health of marginalized communities.
If you are interested in learning more about environmental racism, the following resources can help you become informed and learn how to take action.
Based in Massachusetts, Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) is an organization that “builds the power of communities of color and low-income communities…to eradicate environmental racism and classism, create healthy, sustainable communities, and achieve environmental justice.” In addition to providing legal support for local policy decisions related to environmental justice, the organization also provides educational resources including speaking engagements, webinars and “toxic tours,” which educate attendees on the history of environmental racism.
With a focus on the Gulf Coast Region, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) seeks solutions that help communities affected by pollution and climate change. The organization does so through “research, education, community and student engagement for policy change, as well as health and safety training for environmental careers.” Their website also includes an environmental justice news feed to help readers stay informed.
Greenaction aims to mobilize communities to “protect health and to promote environmental, social and economic justice” by addressing government and corporate policies. As a grassroots organization, Greenaction focuses on helping individuals within low-income and working class urban areas, as well as rural and indigenous communities. The organization has engaged in movements for environmental justice in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Utah and Native Nations, with plans to expand their reach. The website also features a newsletter focused on the front lines of environmental justice.
Based in Detroit, the Green Door Initiative believes in ensuring that “every person is environmentally literate, capable of practicing and promoting sustainability as a lifestyle.” With a heavy emphasis on public health, the organization focuses on the ties between environment and chronic health issues such as asthma and lead poisoning. Their initiatives include a partnership with childcare centers to improve indoor environments to reduce asthma flare-ups, a clean energy job training program and community health literacy efforts.
The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) is an alliance of Indigenous peoples who fight for environmental preservation with a focus on “respecting and adhering to Indigenous Knowledge and Natural Law.” Their key issues include climate change; the protection of sacred land; building sustainable communities; and equipping Indigenous peoples with strategies and tools to protect the environment, their health and all living things. The IEN’s current news section of the website provides insight to ongoing issues affecting these communities.
Moms Clean Air Force is a community of more than 1,000,000 parents who aim to create a healthier environment for children by “[fighting] for justice in every breath, recognizing the importance of equitable solutions in addressing air pollution and climate change.” They provide information through online resources on health impacts of air pollution,articles on climate change and more and action tools; build support for policies and initiatives that battle climate change; and focus on bringing diverse voices from their membership to decision makers at local and national levels. Moms Clean Air Force also has 24 state chapters across the United States.
The Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project “inspires and engages in transformative action towards the liberation and restoration of land, labor and culture.” The organization offers a number of learning tools, including a podcast, curriculum tools for educators, the “Just Transition” Zine and other online resources about how to organize social movements.
The National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) aims to improve the lives of Black communities and other communities of color with four areas of focus including “safe and healthy communities; sustainable development, climate justice and clean production; civil rights and equal protection laws and policies; and international human rights protection.” The network’s membership consists of organizations and individuals, allowing for collaboration and support in community organization initiatives. The NBEJN blog covers current issues related to environmental justice to help keep individuals informed.
With a focus on empowering young people, the Power Shift Network strives to “mitigate climate change and create a just, clean energy future and resilient, thriving communities for all.” The network connects young individuals, organizations led by young people and organizations focused on empowering young people with the aim of building a “bottom-up movement” to make lasting change. The Power Shift Network blog provides updates on relevant issues as well as the organization’s ongoing initiatives.
Environmentalism looks more broadly at climate change and other environmental issues that affect the earth and the wellbeing of the humans, animals and plantlife living on it. The following resources from environment organizations specifically acknowledge environmental justice and the importance of intersectional environmentalism.
Earthjustice is a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization. Its mandate is to protect the environment and people’s health by addressing policies and legislation that counter these values. This resource page on their efforts to fight for healthy communities provides information on their core concerns, including clean air, clean water and protecting communities from pesticides and toxic chemicals.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) brings together experts from a variety of backgrounds—including ecosystems, climate, economics, health and advocacy—to lead efforts to make the environment safer and healthier for all. Their health initiatives, which revolve around on clean air and safer chemicals, focus on strengthening laws and policies that protect vulnerable communities. This information page gives insight to their efforts, as well as links to related blog posts.
Founded in the United States in 1951, The Nature Conservancy has grown to be a global environment nonprofit. Their Build Healthy Cities initiative focuses on creating healthy, sustainable and equitable urban environments as city populations continue to grow. This page includes information on how to contact decision makers and find volunteer opportunities in your area along with articles and other resources.
Touting more than 3.8 million members, the Sierra Club is a national nonprofit focused on protecting the environment. By partnering with other nonprofits and organizations, the Sierra Club is making an effort to address how environmental issues and social justice are connected. This page of resources includes information on the organization’s environmental justice program as well as videos, articles and news about issues related to environmental racism.
Racial justice broadly addresses the inequities that exist for Black, Indigenious and people of color (BIPOC), including civil rights, social justice, fair housing and economic issues. These racial justice organizations offer information and resources on how environmental health issues affect BIPOC populations.
Impact Fund “uses impact litigation to support social justice for marginalized communities,” including civil rights, environmental justice and poverty law. The organization’s Clean Water Project aims to help underserved communities in the San Joaquin Valley in California gain access to clean potable water. The project page breaks down the organization’s goals and plan of action, providing insight to how laws and policies can impact environmental justice.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the largest and most preeminent civil rights organization in the nation. Recognizing how environmental issues disproportionately affect BIPOC, the organization created its Environmental and Climate Justice Program to address the inequalities that communities of color continue to face. The program page includes helpful information on understanding environmental injustice and how climate change and other issues are linked.
The National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) “is a human relations organization that promotes inclusion and acceptance by providing education and advocacy while building communities that are respectful and just for all.” This bulletin on the organization’s website provides an introduction to the topic of environmental racism, including definitions, history and statistics. They also provide links to external resources on environmental justice.
Based in Washington, D.C., the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) is a civil rights law and policy organization that strives to “address structural inequality and disrupt the systems that disadvantage low-income people of color.” The organization’s environmental justice page provides a host of resources, including articles, links to recent advocacy work, policy briefs and materials on transportation-related issues created by PRRAC.
Race Forward works “in partnership with communities, organizations and sectors” to build strategies to advance racial justice. In 2020, the organization released a report titled “Energy Democracy: Honoring the Past and Investing in a New Energy Democracy.” The report provides specific recommendations for how philanthropic partners can invest in solutions to support BIPOC communities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created its Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1992 to address the environmental burdens faced by marginalized communities. To help individuals get involved with environmental justice, the EPA website provides information on the basics of environmental justice, including an interactive timeline of the environmental justice movement, as well as resources for a variety of stakeholders. Resources include fact sheets, grant opportunities and an online learning center.
The EPA is responsible for working with tribes and Indigenous peoples to improve environmental and public health. This resource page explains the policies for collaboration that are currently in place, how they were developed, and how plans are implemented. This information can help individuals interested in learning about how Indigenous peoples are affected by environmental injustice.
The mission of the Department of Energy (DOE) is to fulfill its “post-closure responsibilities and ensure the future protection of human health and the environment.” Accordingly, the DOE is tasked with addressing environmental justice. This resource page shares information on how the DOE implements environmental justice within the Department.
Published in TIME, this article explains how the broader environmental activism community is starting to embrace environmental justice advocates and consider the intersectionality of environmental and social justice.
This article, aimed at business leaders, provides actionable advice on how companies can adopt environmental justice into their decision-making. With companies looking for ways to be more sustainable, this article explains how social justice should factor into their plans as well.
“The communities that are most impacted by racial injustice are the same communities that are most impacted by climate change and climate injustice,” said Yerina Mugica in an interview with the NDRC. This blog post highlights how people can practice intersectional environmentalism and advocate for systematic change.
For those who do not know about environmental racism, it can be challenging to make the connection between racial and economic inequity and environmental issues. This post from the World Resources Institute provides specific examples of environmental racism in the United States to help illustrate how low income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution.
Compiled by Somini Sengupta for The New York Times, this reading list includes articles, essays, books and other reading materials that can help individuals understand the link between racism and environmental issues.
This article includes a detailed list of areas affected by environmental issues and how environmental racism manifests in the United States. The list includes locations such as “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River in Louisiana that is lined with oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Residents of the area are predominantly Black and 50 times more likely to develop cancer.
The Black Youth Project seeks to empower young Black people by giving them a voice. In this contribution, Teju Adisa-Farrar shares an experience growing up with asthma in West Oakland and how environmental racism has affected the area. The article also touches on the disconnect between white environmentalists and the BIPOC-led environmental justice movement. “With climate change becoming a more widely accepted truth, bridging these issues is going to be the only way we can save ourselves,” Adisa-Farrar writes.
In a presentation for a TEDx event in Cherry Creek, Colorado, science educator Cristal Cisneros shares her story about growing up in an area affected by environmental racism. Her experience, along with her love of learning, inspired her to create an environmental justice curriculum for schools so young people can join the conversation around environmental issues.
David Lammy is the first Black MP to hold the Justice post in British Parliament. In this TEDTalk, Lammy explains the importance of including BIPOC leadership in climate issues as well as the need for broader awareness that racial and social justice must be addressed in the fight against climate change.
Leandra Mira, a Pittsburgh-based environmental activist, explains how air pollution is linked to racial disparities in America. “Our zipcodes can really determine our quality of life and how long we live,” she said.
Environment communication specialist Leah Thomas shares how she became interested in environmental justice along with the importance of intersectional environmentalism, a topic that she found lacking in her education.
This explainer video features an interview with Anjali Waikar, staff attorney for the NRDC Environmental Justice Program. Waikar discusses the basics of environmental racism and ways individuals and organizations are fighting for environmental justice.
Considered by many as the “father of environmental justice,” Robert Bullard used his work as a sociologist to show that BIPOC communities in Houston suffered most from pollution. In an interview with PBS, Bullard talks about his past work and the environmental justice movement today.