CLIMATE AND RACIAL JUSTICE

Tonight, as Climate Week gets underway in NYC, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is pushing a new bill in Washington aimed at eliminating pollution that has disproportionately harmed communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities over generations. We take a look at the climate and racial justice movement in New York with WE ACT For Environmental Justice co-founder Peggy Shepard. As part of our Chasing the Dream initiative on poverty, justice, and economic opportunity in America, the environmental justice pioneer discusses the program’s efforts to protect communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.

Aired on September 23, 2020.

CtD-Logo2


Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M JENNA FLANAGAN.

THIS WEEK NEW YORK CITY IS HOSTING CLIMATE WEEK NYC, THE LARGEST INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE SUMMIT OF THE YEAR.

THE EVENT COMES AT A TIME WHEN RAGING WILDFIRES ACROSS THE WEST COAST HAVE HIGHLIGHTED THE CATASTROPHIC EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE.

IT ALSO COMES AT A TIME AMID HIDE ENDED AWARENESS OF HOW ENVIRONMENTAL DANGERS CAN EXACERBATE WIDESPREAD RACIAL INEQUALITY, OFTEN WITH DEADLY CONSEQUENCES.

A FACT MADE CLEAR THIS YEAR BY THE DISPROPORTIONATE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON LOW-INCOME AND COMMUNITIES OF COLOR.

OUR NEXT GUEST HAS BEEN WORKING ON THE INTERSECTION BETWEEN SOCIAL JUSTICE AND ENVIRONMENTALISM FOR 30 YEARS.

IT ALL BEGAN WITH HER WITH A FIGHT OVER A SEWAGE PLANT POLLUTING HER WEST HARLEM NEIGHBORHOOD IN THE 1980s.

SHE'S BEEN AT IT EVER SINCE.

PEGGY SHEPHERD IS THE CO-FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF WE ACT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE.

A COMMUNITY-BASED ADVOCACY GROUP, ONE OF THE FIRST ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS IN THE STATE TO BE CREATED BY AND RUN BY PEOPLE OF COLOR.

SHE JOINS US NOW AS PART OF OUR CHASING THE DREAM INITIATIVE ON POVERTY, JUSTICE AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA.

PEGGY, I'M SO PROUD TO WELCOME YOU TO 'METROFOCUS.'

THANK YOU.

I'M GLAD TO TALK WITH YOU TODAY.

OH, THANK YOU.

FIRST, I DO WANT TO SORT OF MAYBE DEMYSTIFY.

FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, WE ALL LIVE ON THIS PLANET.

WE ALL EXPERIENCE THE ENVIRONMENT TOGETHER SO WE'RE ALL, QUOTE, UNQUOTE, IN THE SAME BOAT, IS SOMETHING WE KEEP HEARING.

I WAS WONDERING HOW YOU CAN TALK ABOUT HOW ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND RACIAL JUSTICE, WHAT EXACTLY DOES THAT MEAN AND HOW DO THEY INTERSECT, ESPECIALLY IN NEW YORK?

CERTAINLY.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ACHIEVING ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, WE'RE WORKING TO END ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM.

WHAT IS THAT?

THAT'S THE INTENTIONAL TARGETING OF POLLUTION AND POLLUTING FACILITIES IN COMMUNITIES OF COLOR FOR A NUMBER OF REASONS.

BECAUSE THEY ARE LESS INFORMED ABOUT THESE ISSUES.

THEY MAY VOTE LESS, HAVE LESS POLITICAL POWER.

OFTEN LAND OR PROPERTY IN THOSE COMMUNITIES MAY BE CHEAPER THAN IN OTHERS.

FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS POLLUTION IS TARGETED FOR THOSE COMMUNITIES.

AND A STUDY FROM 1986 CALLED TOXIC WASTE AND RACE WAS THE FIRST DOCUMENT THAT THE PRIMARY PREDICTOR OF WHERE A TOXIC WASTE SITE WILL BE LOCATED IS A COMMUNITY OF COLOR AND SECONDARILY A POOR COMMUNITY.

OVER THE DECADES THERE HAVE BEEN NUMEROUS STUDIES THAT CONTINUE TO DOCUMENT AND CONFIRM THAT THAT DYNAMIC.

WE ALSO KNOW, FOR INSTANCE, THAT OVER 80% OF LATINOS LIVE IN A COMMUNITY THAT DOES NOT -- HA IS NOT IN ATTAINMENT OF CLEAN AIR STANDARDS.

OVER 70% OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS LIVE IN A COMMUNITY WITH HIGH AIR POLLUTION.

OF COURSE, AS YOU SAID IN YOUR OPENING, WE NOW UNDERSTAND FROM THE HARVARD STUDY THAT BEING EXPOSED TO HIGH LEVELS OF AIR POLLUTION HAVE INCREASED THE RISK OF DEATH FROM COVID, ESPECIALLY FOR AFRICAN-AMERICANS.

OF COURSE, OF COURSE.

ALSO, I WAS WONDERING -- I TOUCHED ON IT A LITTLE BIT IN THE INTRO.

BUT IF YOU COULD SORT OF TELL US ABOUT YOUR ORGANIZATION AND WHAT IS THE NEED THAT IT'S AIMING TO FILL?

YOU SORT OF EXPLAINED IT A LITTLE BIT.

I WANT PEOPLE TO BE REALLY, REALLY CLEAR ON THIS.

WHAT I FOUND -- I GOT STARTED WORKING IN THE JESSE JACKSON CAMPAIGN, HIS FIRST CAMPAIGN FOR PRESIDENT, AND I DID PUBLIC RELATIONS IN MANHATTAN.

IT REALLY GAVE ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO GO TO DIFFERENT NEIGHBORHOODS AND WORK WITH LEADERS THERE AND TO UNDERSTAND THE NEIGHBORHOODS THAT HAD MORE BENEFITS LIKE GREENWICH VILLAGE AND THE NEIGHBORHOODS LIKE HARLEM THAT HAD FEWER OF THOSE BENEFITS.

OF COURSE, MORE OF THE CHALLENGING ISSUES.

SO WHEN I BECAME THE DEMOCRATIC DISTRICT LEADER IN WEST HARLEM, VOLUNTEERS CAME TO ME AND SAID, YOU KNOW, THERE'S THIS SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANT.

NOT KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT THAT ENTAILED, WE WERE TOLD, ARE YOU GOING TO GET US JOBS THERE.

I SET OUT TO GET PEOPLE JOBS THERE.

WE GOT 30 PEOPLE HIRED.

WHEN THE PLANT BEGAN OPERATING, WE REALIZED THAT THE EMISSIONS AND THE ODORS WERE MAKING PEOPLE SICK.

NOW, THIS PLANT IS ALONG RIVERSIDE DRIVE AND THE HUDSON RIVER BETWEEN 138th AND 145th STREETS.

IT'S LITERALLY ACROSS THE STREET FROM PEOPLE'S HOMES.

BE BEGAN AN EIGHT-YEAR ORGANIZING CAMPAIGN AS VOLUNTEERS TO HOLD THE CITY ACCOUNTABLE.

BACK THEN IT WAS MAYOR KOCH.

HE HAD A TERRIBLE RELATIONSHIP WITH UPTOWN COMMUNITIES.

HE SAID WE WERE MAKING IT UP, THERE WAS NO PROBLEM, WE WERE IMAGINING IT.

OF COURSE, WHEN DAVID DINKINS WHO LIVED UP TOWN BECAME BOROUGH PRESIDENT AND THEN MAYOR, HE SAID THERE'S A PROBLEM AND WE'RE GOING TO FIX IT.

HE THEN, THROUGH OUR ORGANIZING, HE GAVE MONEY TO A SCIENTIST TO DO A REPORT ON THE OPERATIONS OF THE PLANT WHICH REALLY GAVE US FACTS TO BEGIN TO TALK TO THE MEDIA AND POLICYMAKERS ABOUT.

IT ALSO GAVE US AN OPPORTUNITY TO EDUCATE THE COMMUNITY ON THIS ISSUE.

SO WE WERE ABLE TO GET THE MAYOR TO COMMIT $55 MILLION TO FIX THE PLANT.

WE WERE ABLE TO GET A $1.1 MILLION ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFIT SETTLEMENT FOR THE WEST HARLEM COMMUNITY TO USE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL PROJECTS, AND WE WERE KIND OF OFF AND RUNNING.

BECAUSE WHEN YOU SEE ONE PROBLEM, YOUR EYES ARE OPEN TO ALL OF THE OTHER ISSUES GOING ON IN THE COMMUNITY.

SO THAT'S WHEN WE REALIZED THAT WE WERE HOME TO OVER ONE-THIRD OF THE ENTIRE DIESEL BUS FLEET IN NEW YORK CITY.

WOW.

MANHATTAN IS A SMALL AREA IN TERMS OF SQUARE MILES, BUT WE HOUSED OVER ONE-THIRD OF THE LARGEST DIESEL BUS FLEET IN THE COUNTRY IN THOSE NEIGHBORHOODS.

DIESEL FUMES ARE CARCINOGENS.

SO WE THEN BEGAN A CAMPAIGN THAT TOOK ABOUT 18 YEARS, BUT BY WORKING WITH THE COLUMBIA SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH AND TRANSLATING THE RESEARCH THEY WERE DOING ON THE IMPACT OF DIESEL ON PREGNANT WOMEN AND THEIR CHILDREN, WE WERE ABLE TO BEGIN TO USE THAT RESEARCH TO ADVOCATE TO THE MEDIA, TO THE GOVERNOR AND THROUGH TO THE MTA ABOUT THIS ISSUE.

AND THEN WE NOW TURN UP AND TAKE A LOOK AND EVERY BUS HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED TO HYBRID.

NOW THEY'RE TRANSFORMING TO ELECTRIC BUSES.

SO THAT'S A GREAT EXAMPLE OF NOT ONLY, FIRST OF ALL, THE HISTORY OF THE ORGANIZATION BUT ALSO HOW IT ACTUALLY PUTS ENVIRONMENTALISM INTO ACTION IN A CITY LIKE NEW YORK.

GIVEN THAT THIS CONFERENCE IS GOING TO BE HAPPENING THIS WEEK, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE THE BIGGEST ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE FACING NEW YORK?

ARE THERE ANY OBSTACLES TO FIXING IT?

SOME OF THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES -- CERTAINLY AN IMPORTANT ISSUE FOR OUR COMMUNITIES AND ALL OF NEW YORK CITY IS POOR AIR QUALITY.

A LOT OF THAT IS DUE TO MOBILE SOURCES.

WE HAVE WHAT -- I DON'T KNOW HOW MANY BRIDGES.

MAYBE SIX OR SEVEN BRIDGES THAT ARE BRINGING TRAFFIC AND TRUCKS INTO NEW YORK CITY USING OUR NEIGHBORHOOD STREETS AS THOROUGHFARES.

SO THAT BECOMES A BIG ISSUE.

A VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE IS WHETHER OR NOT THE MOST AFFECTED COMMUNITIES HAVE A VOICE IN ENVIRONMENTAL DECISION MAKING.

SO THE THEORY OF CHANGE FOR MY ORGANIZATION, WE ACT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, IS THAT WE MUST ENGAGE AND ORGANIZE COMMUNITY RESIDENTS TO BE INVOLVED IN ENVIRONMENTAL DECISION MAKING.

YOU MUST HAVE THE MOST AFFECTED PEOPLE REALLY IN THOSE DECISIONS.

I'LL GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK.

THIS IS CLIMATE WEEK.

SO WE'RE THINKING ABOUT CLIMATE ALL OVER THE COUNTRY, THE WILDFIRES, THE HURRICANES ON THE GULF COAST.

WHEN WE THINK ABOUT KATRINA, HURRICANE KATRINA THAT RAVAGED THE GULF COAST AND NEW ORLEANS, WHEN THAT CITY WAS THINKING ABOUT EVACUATION AND THINKING ABOUT EMERGENCY RESPONSE, OBVIOUSLY THEY DIDN'T HAVE LOWER INCOME COMMUNITIES REPRESENTED IN THOSE MEETINGS BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T SEEM TO KNOW THAT THE LOW-INCOME COMMUNITY DIDN'T HAVE A CAR TO EVACUATE.

THEY DIDN'T HAVE A CREDIT CARD TO GO TO A HOTEL.

SO THOSE WERE THE PEOPLE WE SAW SITTING ON THE ROOF HOLDING UP A SIGN SAYING HELP, WE NEED A RESCUE.

THEY WERE THE PEOPLE IN THE COLISEUM OR THE SPORTS STADIUM SLEEPING ON COTS FOR WEEKS.

AGAIN, WE REALLY HAVE TO ENGAGE FOLKS.

AND HERE IN NEW YORK CITY WE'RE REALLY LOOKING AT A TRANSITION FROM FOSSIL FUEL ECONOMY TO RENEWABLES.

ARE OUR COMMUNITIES GOING TO BENEFIT FROM THAT TRANSITION?

THAT BECOMES AN IMPORTANT ISSUE AND, YES, THERE ARE OBSTACLES.

SOME OF THE OBSTACLES ARE THE INFLEXIBILITY OF OUR UTILITY COMPANIES.

SOME OF THE OBSTACLES ARE THE FACT THAT IN THAT TRANSITION OUR ENERGY BILLS, THEY INCREASE, BUT WE ALREADY HAVE 30 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS IN THIS COUNTRY WHO ARE ENERGY INSECURE.

SO WHAT HAPPENS WHEN OUR ENERGY BILLS DO BEGIN TO INCREASE DUE TO SOME OF THIS TRANSITION AND THOSE PEOPLE ALREADY CANNOT AFFORD AN INCREASE?

WELL, WE'RE COMING UP ON THE END OF OUR TIME TOGETHER.

BUT ACTUALLY MENTIONING ENERGY BILLS AND OUR ENERGY USAGE, I UNDERSTAND THAT THAT IS A PROJECT YOUR ORGANIZATION IS WORKING ON, PARTICULARLY IN HARLEM.

THAT'S RIGHT.

WE HAVE A PROGRAM CALLED S.

U.N., SOLAR UPTOWN NOW, WHERE WE'VE TRAINED OUR UNDEREMPLOYED YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN IN OUR COMMUNITY TO DO SOLAR INSTALLATIONS.

WE'VE CONTRACTED WITH A SOLAR INSTALLATION COMPANY AND THEY HAVE AGREED TO HIRE THE PEOPLE WE'VE TRAINED.

SO WE'RE WORKING TO KEEP HOUSING AFFORDABLE WHICH HELPS TO FIGHT GENTRIFICATION BY PUTTING SOLAR ON AFFORDABLE HOUSING AND HDFCs, TENANT-OWNED COOPERATIVES TO HELP KEEP THEIR ENERGY BILLS LOWER WHICH KEEPS HOUSING MORE SUSTAINABLE AND FIGHTS GENTRIFICATION.

OF COURSE, OF COURSE.

ALSO JUST VERY QUICKLY, GOING BACK TO THE ISSUE OF AIR QUALITY.

FOR SOME PEOPLE THEY MIGHT SAY, WELL, BUT HASN'T NEW YORK ADDRESSED THIS?

WE MADE IDLING ILLEGAL, AND WE'VE CHANGED SOME OF THE TAXIS TO BEING GREENER TAXIS?

HASN'T THE CITY MADE SOME STEPS FORWARD?

THE CITIES HAS MADE SOME STEPS FORWARD, BUT WHEN YOU HAVE A CRATE CAL PROBLEM, THOSE STEPS FORWARD AREN'T QUITE ENOUGH.

FOR INSTANCE, WE NEED TO THINK ABOUT TRUCK ROUTES.

THEY CAN BE REROUTED SO THAT THEY'RE NOT GOING THROUGH NEIGHBORHOODS OR GOING PAST SCHOOLS.

WE CAN HAVE DELIVERIES IN THE EVENING.

WE COULD DO A WHOLE VARIETY OF OTHER KINDS OF THINGS THAT REDUCE SOME OF THE IMPACT OF AIR QUALITY.

THEN WE CAN ALL WORK TOWARD TIGHTER REGULATIONS AROUND AIR QUALITY AND AROUND FACILITIES THAT EMIT POLLUTION.

UNFORTUNATELY WE'RE GOING TO HAVE TO LEAVE IT THERE, BUT I WANT TO THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

PEGGY SHEPHERD, CO-FOUNDER AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF WE ACT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE.

THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

THANK YOU.

ABSOLUTELY.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

WNET

© WNET All Rights Reserved.

825 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY 10019