Washington Leadership Program: Environmental Justice

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CAPAL-WLP: Environmental Justice by Lyndsay Lee

            On Wednesday, June 29, 2016, my fellow ILF interns and I were fortunate enough to attend the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership- Washington Leadership Program’s (CAPAL-WLP) third summer session pertaining to re-defining public service. This week’s discussion and panel focused on environmental justice and specifically, how it relates to communities of color and low-income communities.

The event began with words from Charles Lee, the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who is also regarded as “The Father of Environmental Justice” by many. Mr. Lee spoke about what environmental justice means to him, along with significant milestones in American history that have shaped today’s environmental justice policies. According to Mr. Lee, environmental justice must be looked at holistically and in terms of its relationship to social justice. Mr. Lee emphasized the importance of social justice in the discussion of environmental justice because often times, communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to hazardous environmental conditions and thus poorer health statuses.

Following Mr. Lee’s presentation, a panel comprised of Mr. Lee, Anna Li, and Piyachat Terrell discussed issues pertaining to environmental justice and how to further the fight for environmental justice. Both distinguished members of their field, Ms. Li is a program manager at the clean energy nonprofit, Groundswell, and Ms. Terrell is the head of the student program at the US EPA and former Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on AAPIs. During the discussion, a timely issue was brought up, the water contamination in Flint, Michigan. The panelists stressed the fact that race, class, and one’s environment are deeply intertwined—and that the situation in Flint is no exception. For example, according to Ms. Terrell, roughly 56% of individuals impacted by the Flint water contamination are African American and approximately 42% of Flint residents are below the poverty line. While I had previously been aware of the strong connection between environmental justice and social justice, these statistics made it very clear that minority and lower-income communities are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards.

IMG_2281According to Mr. Lee, the situation in Flint speaks to the need for policy makers and community leaders to reflect back on the roots of environmental justice, specifically public health and the idea that people should be able to have confidence in their environment being hazard free. I found Mr. Lee’s connection between environmental justice and public health particularly relevant because at my current internship at the Office of Minority Health of the US Department of Health and Human Services, a few staff members have made site visits to Flint to better understand the needs of that particular community and how to best serve its residents. Mr. Lee’s connection was very interesting because it helped me realize that not only does the public health work members of my office are committed to greatly impact the environmental justice of the area, but also the extent to which the two fields are related. Lastly, the panel discussion concluded with a call to action. All three panelists discussed the need for all people, and especially my generation, to work towards improved environmental programs that ensure environmental justice for all.