Environmental justice is a global movement challenging the disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental degradation borne by communities of color and low-income people, and the egregious racial disparities health linked to these exposures. This issue of Race, Poverty and the Environment explores a theme of science, health and environmental justice that has increasingly sharpened the focus of WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s work. WE ACT is a New York City-based environmental justice organization dedicated to building community power to fight environmental racism and improve environmental health, protection and policy in communities of color.
This publication is the realization of a collaboration between WE ACT and Urban Habitat, two social justice organizations working in distinct regions of this country to explore a key tool and dynamic—science and technology —that has great impact on our ability to support the development of healthy, safe and sustainable communities.
WE ACT’s focus on science began when we realized that evidence-based organizing campaigns moved policymakers and empowered residents. We realized that the lack of scientific literacy, information, data, and context was a serious void that contributed to the systemic exclusion of communities of color from decision-making. community residents living in Harlem in the late 1980’s, we demanded health studies to assess the environmental exposures of residents living near the multiple diesel bus depots and sewage treatment plants that mar our neighborhood.
No officials responded to this call, so WE ACT, then an unincorporated volunteer group, began a process inquiry, outreach and relationship building that ultimately led to collaborative research with Harlem Hospital and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. In 1997, WE ACT was awarded our first Environmental Justice grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), who continues to support work reshaping and redirecting the environmental health research agenda to include the critical concerns of communities of color.
Our improved understanding and public communication about how the environment affects our community health has helped us successfully avert noxious land uses — such as a city marine waste transfer station that until this month was destined to open in West Harlem. We are also proactively creating healthy urban environments incorporating green and healthy building design principles to renovate an abandoned brownstone, and by participating in the creation and maintenance of Harlem on the River, a community-designed waterfront park.
As a movement, Environmental Justice has articulated a powerful vision of justice that places human health the center of environmental struggles. Yet the circle of funders embracing the notion that environmental health and environmental justice struggles are intimately linked remains small. Looking ahead to the future, we will continue to hold dialogue with the larger funding community about helping environmental justice organizations to reclaim the tools of science. The old paradigm that some groups organize, some do research, and some transform policy is slowly being augmented with an approach that builds the technical and research capacity of organized grassroots base to demand long-term policy change. As RPE contributor Azibuike Akaba states, our organizations “have taken the tools of research and technology and turned these into weapons and strategies that serve to defend our communities.”
Peggy M. Shepard
Executive Director/Co-Founder WE ACT For Environmental Justice