Collaboration on environmental justice issues leads to stronger, more inclusive action

Marcelo Norsworthy

This post was co-authored by Lucía Oliva Hennelly, with contributions from Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Presidential Executive Order calling for Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which prompts us to ask: What would the environmental movement in the United States look like if there were genuine cross-pollination, collaboration, and feedback between large, national-scale organizations and locally-based, environmental justice organizations?

Last week, we at EDF had a chance to experience a small glimpse of what this would be like when we delivered comments at EPA’s public hearing on new carbon pollution limits for new power plants alongside other Latino representatives and environmental activists. Among these activists was Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Air Alliance Houston (AAH) is the region’s leading air quality and public health non-profit, working in the most diverse city in the United States. With a population that is more than one-third Latino, Houston is a majority-minority city seated in Harris County, the fastest-growing county in the country. It’s also ground zero for the environmental justice movement. The distribution of health risks is unequal, as air pollutants that pose a definite risk to human health are found in greater numbers in several East Houston neighborhoods adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel.

EDF and AAH both work to curb air pollution, address climate change, and protect public health. From this vantage point, we have shared goals. We also face some of the same challenges. Yet, as a community-based organization, AAH connects directly with the communities it serves and receives real-time feedback about the impacts of local issues, like the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site. Similarly, as a national organization, EDF has been able to play a significant role in advocating for major federal-level policies, including defending the Clean Air Act and supporting the President’s Climate Action Plan.

If each organization chose to function solely at the level where it is based, we leave a gap between our respective work and miss out on opportunities that emerge when local and national groups work together. Working together, we go beyond simply closing that gap; we also cultivate new wealth by fusing together two sides of a single coin.

Last week’s opportunity to provide public comment to EPA became much more valuable when EDF called on local activists to present a diverse set of perspectives that supported the proposed carbon pollution limits. By working together, AAH and EDF amplified local concerns and created an opportunity for those concerns to be heard at the national level. By delivering comments with a broader coalition of Latino activists, both of our organizations were able to connect this process to a population that is usually greatly underrepresented in national-level dialogues, but highly affected by these issues.

Similarly, through our collaboration, an EDF staff member delivered in person comments that Mr. Shelley could not be present to offer. In this way, EDF and AAH created an opportunity for Houston’s environmental justice concerns to be heard at EPA’s federal agency headquarters. At the same time, we at EDF were able to better connect the carbon pollution standards to real communities, improving our own ability to communicate their importance by communicating their real impacts. As we shared from Mr. Shelley’s comments:

“When [the new carbon pollution standards] are finalized, they will put the first-ever national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that power plants can emit. That’s a major step toward protecting our communities from the damage caused by climate change. In Houston, these are communities that are surrounded by our city’s petrochemical industry: refineries, chemical plants, tank farms, and the like. Some estimates have suggested that 1,400 tanks in Houston are at serious risk should a 25-foot storm surge occur. …[T]hese are lower-income residents, including many Latinos, who are less likely to have flood insurance.”

As we engage in these collaborative processes, we also encourage mutual feedback: both EDF and AAH become more effective organizations when we are given more opportunities to elevate the issues we work together to address. For a national organization like EDF, this is an opportunity to better understand and assimilate the diverse, local perspectives affected by our environmental work. For AAH, it’s a chance to broaden the scope and impact of its environmental work without leaving the community behind. These are just two outcomes of engaging as partners in a creative way around a single event. There is immeasurably more potential to be harnessed by looking for similar opportunities in the future.

Considering the 20th anniversary of the Executive Order on environmental justice, it’s clear that for both federal agencies and for the environmental community there remains much work to be done in truly addressing issues of environmental justice. But this work is not just a hypothetical possibility. It is happening now, and our collaboration shows that it can continue to influence our work moving forward. Collaborations within the environmental community can help cover the full spectrum of our work and compound its effectiveness.

As we think about how much progress has been made on environmental justice issues in the last 20 years, we have to remember that some of the most valuable work comes from supporting our own allies. This means staying in touch at the local level, and reaching out nationwide. If we want to truly establish an ethic of environmental justice, we have to remember to address these issues at every level.