National Environmental Justice Conference and Training 2015, Washington DC
Enhancing Communities Through Capacity Building and Technical Assistance
By Susanne Börner, 2015-03-26
The annual national U.S. environmental justice conference brought together representatives from U.S. Federal and state agencies, local governments, tribes, community groups, business and industry, public interest groups, academia, and other entities, in order to address the complex challenges of environmental and climate justice that affect minority and low-income populations in particular.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice can be defined as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. [...] It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work."

The different contributions from keynote speakers made clear that there is a major need for informed community leaders and participants in order to foster collective action for environmental justice, and in order to make actions more effective. On the one hand, environmental justice must be considered a community-driven process. Hence, co-partnering with (under-resourced) local communities should play an important role in improving community-outreach and education about environmental issues. On the other hand, apart from tackling environmental justice issues at the community-level, there is a fundamental need for systemic change at the meta-level in order to address underlying policy-structures.

Marking a historic momentum in time

Taking place just one year after the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Executive Order 12898 in February 2014, the 2015 annual Environmental Justice Conference marked an important point in time. The Executive Order, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations", had been originally issued under the Clinton Administration in 1994. The Executive Order directs federal agencies to make environmental justice part of their endeavour by identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority, low-income populations. The Order is intended to promote non-discrimination in federal programs substantially affecting human health and the environment. It also provides minority and low-income communities access to public information and an opportunity to participate in matters relating to human health or the environment. On February 10th, 2014, President Obama released a proclamation acknowledging the anniversary of the executive order, thereby recommitting the Administration's goal to realize a just and safe environment for all U.S. citizens.

Historical roots of the U.S. EJ movement and the present understanding of EJ

The historical roots of today's U.S. environmental justice movement can be traced back over several decades to civil movements against racial discrimination and poverty in low-income communities, the Black and Chicano liberation movement, the movement against nuclear power, the women's movement, among others. Hence, at its core the U.S. environmental justice movement is not only about environmental, but also about civil rights issues. Although defenders of the civil rights movement 50 years back were not conscious about the fact that they were fighting for what we now call "environmental justice", they played a substantial role in defending the rights of people of colour and the right to a healthy environment. Environmental justice in the U.S. today is therefore still fundamentally connected to civil rights and the struggle for a clean, productive and inclusive future where poor people can reach the middle class and strive. EJ is at the same time about the protection of people and about the preservation of resources so that people can live healthy and meaningful lives. It can be considered part of a larger struggle for justice, and should therefore form part of all processes.

Although the U.S. environmental justice movement has come a long way over the past decades, different inputs from conference speakers indicated that there is still a long way to go. It is essential to combine the lessons learnt with future challenges in order to address pressing issues such as Climate Justice. This however implies that the right tools are available "to do it right and do it right now", making it possible to address present and future challenges effectively. This also implies the need to work in more collective ways and to "give a hand up instead of hand-outs" to overburdened communities who are the key actors in the struggle for EJ. At the same time, there is a need to define an EJ vision for the future. Apart from changes at the community level, EJ requires a systemic, meta-level change which seeks to ensure the enforcement of policy regulations and which does away with structural layers of inequality.

Action strategies for EJ

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy made a particularly strong point for the enforcement of environmental laws in order to protect people from environmental pollution. At the same time, she insisted on the importance of addressing those communities that have been left behind and that are most vulnerable to environmental impacts. Not only should companies be held responsible for chemical incidents but, furthermore, problems should be identified and addressed together with the communities. Since the 2014 proclamation, the EPA has therefore embarked on a roadmap - Plan EJ 2014 - in order to integrate environmental justice into the Agency’s day to day programs, policies, and activities. In implementing the Plan, EPA seeks to meaningfully engage with overburdened and under-resourced communities and different stakeholders. The objectives of the strategy are to protect health in communities over-burdened by pollution, to empower communities to take action to improve their health and environment, and to establish partnerships with local, state, tribal and federal organizations to achieve healthy and sustainable communities. Although priorities have been superfund cleanups, tribal project, and urban pollution, there is an increasing need to focus on rural areas that still lack access to basic infrastructure such as waste water treatment.

My own conference presentation (Strengthening coping-capacities through community interventions: the importance of self-efficacy and resources) focused on people's coping processes in the face of environmental challenges. Drawing on a case study concerning environmental pollution with PCBs in the North of Dortmund, Germany, I explored the coping strategies of the affected community. In particular, I analyzed the self-perceptions of residents in terms of their agency to cope with environmental risks and their ability to play an active role in shaping their environment. Focus was on their self-perception of resources and social opportunities / constraints within a biographical perspective. Based on the case study results, I argued that community interventions for capacity building should pay heed to the self-perception of resources and self-efficacy in problem-solving in order to leverage community empowerment and to enable people to engage in environmental decision-making processes.

Other conference contributions furthermore illustrated the need to make environmental problems visible, as a first step to boosting communities. Although many communities tend to think that their struggle for EJ is a lost battle, it is important to recognize that once a problem is out in the open, different stakeholders and policy-makers need to have a discussion about it. This may then provide leverage to the communities. Furthermore, it was argued that new forms of participation are needed to scale-up community advocacy in order to address structural problems. It was for instance explored how community-based advocacy could be used to address systemic inequalities by identifying systemic barriers to just outcomes. One suggestion was the creation of a people's senate, which would allow to build relationships across communities, to understand shared problems to develop shared goals, to use political momentum to create opportunities, and to increase capacity through experiential learning.

Furthermore, it was explored how new Toxics Release Inventory Products (TRI) could enhance community awareness and capacity building. TRI is an EPA information resource that can help communities learn about toxic chemical releases from certain industrial facilities in their neighborhood by visualizing and mapping sources of pollution at community-scale. It was considered that TRI can make an important contribution to community awareness and capacity-building by helping communities understand and prioritize local environmental problems and pollution prevention activities. Yet, limitations to the use of TRI exist due to the digital divide across the population, which is caused by a lack of access to computers and internet.

Another issue that was addressed was the issue of how to communicate EJ issues effectively, in other terms: what will I say to make people care? In this regard, particularly social media can assume an important role in leveraging EJ communities. Finally, in terms of financing EJ, it was argued that there is a need for innovative funding mechanisms and partnerships in order to provide technology for resource conservation and to outreach underserved and under-resourced communities.

Environmental justice and health disparities: 2 sides of the same coin

The conference furthermore showed that there is an intersection between civil and social justice, EJ, and health disparities. As Grophilius once said: "When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself. Art cannot manifest. Strength cannot fight. Wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied." Health and environmental justice therefore must be considered two sides of the same coin. Both are about the conditions in which we live, work, and play. Furthermore, they are not only about the choices we make but also about the choices we had in the past and about the ability to have a voice as an individual and as a community.

Inequities in health and avoidable health inequalities for instance arise because of the circumstances in which people grow, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with them. The conditions in which people live and die are, in turn, shaped by political, social and economic forces. In the U.S. racism/ discrimination, the lack of access, poverty, and the lack of political drivers have been identified as the main roots of health disparities. Not only do 2/3 of primary care doctors in the U.S. still demonstrate bias towards African American patients, but in addition, African Americans are still more likely to lack access to early, surgery and emergency room care.

Furthermore, poverty remains both a cause and a consequence of poor health. In the U.S. 55% of the population still lives below the poverty line. At the same time, poverty goes hand in hand with issues of racial segregation and discrimination: racial segregation concentrates poverty and excludes and isolates communities of color from the mainstream resources needed for thriving. Still today, African Americans in the U.S. are likely to reside in poorer neighborhoods, whereas poor whites are still less likely to live in medium and high poverty tracts. Segregation furthermore restricts socio-economic opportunity by channeling non-whites into neighborhoods with poorer public schools, fewer employment opportunities, and smaller returns on real estate. African Americans are furthermore five times less likely than whites to live in census tracts with supermarkets, and instead, they often live in communities with a high percentage of fast-food outlets, liquor stores and convenience stores. Black and Latino neighborhoods often also have fewer parks and green spaces than white neighborhoods, and fewer safe places to walk or play, including fewer gyms and recreational centers. At the same time, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards. In 2004, 56% of residents in neighborhoods with commercial hazardous waste facilities were people of color even though they comprised less than 30% of the U.S. population.

Sustainable and healthy communities are the foundations of transformations. However, the creation of healthy communities requires different strategies: there is a need to improve food and nutritional options, to structure land use and zoning policy to reduce the concentration of health risks, to invest in education and early childhood development, to address academic barriers to higher education, to improve funding and teacher training in disadvantaged communities, to improve air quality and to expand the availability of open space, and to address disproportionate environmental impacts. Yet, creating healthier communities first of all requires political will. Inequities within the health care system and within larger social, environmental and economic structures mostly persist not because of a lack of solutions, but because of a failure of political will. Solutions are therefore very much dependent on how the political determinants of the social determinants of health are addressed in the first place.

Finally, it was stressed that the discussion about EJ and health disparities should also focus on occupational health (i.e. heat stress in an outdoor and indoor working environment), as well as on the interplay between non-climate stressors, climate drivers, social determinants of health, exposure pathways and their impact on health outcomes. Hurricane Katrina is only one example for illustrating the interrelation between race, social capital, and disparate health impacts in the light of environmental disasters.

The National Environmental Justice Conference 2016 will continue the focus on the interplay between EJ and health disparities in order to generate a national dialogue for building healthy and just communities.

For more information, please visit the conference's website

Conference sponsors: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Forest Services, and others.
Image: © Susanne Börner