As a Black woman, scientist, mom, and advocate for equitable access to safe, healthy, and sustainable environments, I am proud of the contributions that Black Americans have made to science, technology, and environmental advocacy. However, the history of systemic racism and oppression in the United States has made it difficult for communities of color to access safe and healthy environments. This reality is unacceptable, and it’s up to all of us to work together to build a more just and sustainable future.
For far too long, systemic structures such as racism and classism have prevented communities of color and low-income communities from accessing environments that are free from contamination. For example, zoning laws imbued with segregationist ideals have funneled families and people of color into areas with higher concentrations of polluting and health-damaging facilities. Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Southeast Asian, and other groups targeted by oppressive systems most heavily shoulder the burden of environmental degradation – robbing these communities of their abilities to access health, wealth, education, and other forms of social and political well-being. The suffering faced by these communities does not remain within their geographic boundaries, however. An erosion of the dignity of our neighbor is an erosion to our own dignity as well.
As a scientist, I have seen the devastating effects that environmental contamination, such as lead in drinking water, can have on communities that oppressive systems have pushed to the margins. This is why I have dedicated my career to using research and analysis to highlight, and more importantly, fix, the imbalances in access to healthy bodies, homes, and environments.
But I am not alone in this fight and exist only because of the giants that have come before me. I am deeply honored to work with and learn from Environmental Justice pioneers like Drs. Mildred McClain, Beverly Wright, and Nicky Sheats through our collaborative work on the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. Dr. McClain is an environmental justice advocate and founder of the Harambee House/Citizens for Environmental Justice, an organization that works to empower and mobilize communities in Savannah, Georgia, to address environmental injustice and promote sustainability. Dr. Beverly Wright is a sociologist and founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, an organization that seeks to empower communities to resist environmental degradation and promote sustainable practices. Dr. Nicky Sheats is the director of the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University and is a long-time advocate for the environmental justice community at both the state and national levels.
To create a more equitable and sustainable future for all, we must work together to address the systemic structures that perpetuate environmental injustice. This requires policy change at the local and national levels, to ensure that communities are protected from environmental hazards and are given tools and resources necessary to make their environments more sustainable. Individuals and groups can participate in policy processes by providing public comments and/or testimonies on specific topics like zoning and the allocation of federal resources for supporting community-led efforts to prevent or mitigate climate and health risks.
We should support organizations that work to address environmental injustices in their communities and beyond, like the Harambee House and Deep South Center, through donations and spreading the word about their work via social media and other networks. We must deepen our own understanding of the connections between history, our environments, and our present moment to more see the mechanisms that have led to our current condition. By increasing our awareness, supporting the work of others that are developing solutions for these problems, and identifying the active roles that we as individuals can play in driving systems change, we can all ensure a future where the human right to clean air, water, soil, and environments are available to us all.
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