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March 2006
Environmental Justice for All
The Satya Interview with Peggy Shepard

 

Peggy Shepard. Courtesy of WE ACT

Did you know that Manhattan’s only Department of Transportation diesel truck depot and all of its sewage treatment plants are located above 96th Street? Or that six of its seven MTA bus depots are located there too? And did you know that 245 of every 10,000 children in this northern Manhattan area suffer from asthma, compared to 177 out of 10,000 in the rest of the boroughs?

Segregated air pollution in NYC is just one of the battles that environmental justice pioneer Peggy Shepard is fighting.

A long-time Harlem political activist, Shepard co-founded the West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT)—the only African American founded environmental organization in New York City—in 1988 and has served as its executive director since 1994. WE ACT serves as an advocacy group providing the community with a resource center and a channel for improving environmental quality. Concerns such as indoor pollution, toxins, land use, waterfront development and citizen participation in public policy making make them a renowned advocacy group dedicated to tackling environmental injustices.

Ms. Shepard is also recipient of the 10th Annual Heinz Award for the Environment, a former West Harlem Democratic District Leader and currently co-chair of the Northeast Environmental Justice Network. Kymberlie Adams Matthews had the chance to talk with Peggy Shepard about WE ACT’s battle to end environmental racism.

Can you tell us a little bit about West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT)—when and why was it founded?
It was founded in March of 1988 to address ongoing West Harlem community struggles around the poor management of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant and the proliferation of bus depots in uptown neighborhoods. The sewage treatment plant was mandated by the Clean Water Act to clean up the Hudson River. Harlem residents began to complain about the foul odors emanating from the plant and about respiratory problems. Hydrogen sulfide and other air toxins were being emitted and the community wanted help organizing. I was a newly elected democratic district leader so I began working to hold the city accountable. In conjunction with the Columbia School of Public Health, we began to develop data on air quality and its links to disease. We also used community mobilization tactics and civil disobedience.

The other issue was that the community has been used as a dumping ground for Manhattan. In this area of 7.4 square miles we house over one third of NYC diesel bus points. So we started to become a community watchdog. We began to educate and protect, and basically evolved into an environmental justice organization dedicated to helping the community become vocal and proactive.

Can you talk about some of your current campaigns?
We have a city-wide Healthy Homes campaign to translate research findings of the Columbia Children’s Environmental Health Center, which we are partnered with, to look at the links between air toxins and low birth weight, developmental delays, increased asthma onset and a whole array of other findings. With these results we are mobilizing residents and organizations to encourage and introduce better housing policy around indoor air quality.

We also have a campaign around the expansion of Columbia into West Harlem. It is one of NYC’s largest and most extensive proposals for a planned development in many years. Columbia will leave a permanent mark of unprecedented size and we want to ensure that the expansion—that will take place in phases over 30 years—is done in partnership with this community and in a way that does not displace residents or really change the face of our community.

We are also developing a landmark town house—which we bought from the city for $1—into a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified green building. It will be our headquarters and a community environmental justice center for not only our community but for the region.

We also have a youth program which has been our oldest program dedicated to developing youth environmental leadership. We work with teenagers to understand the quality of life issues in their community, to participate in some of our community based research studies with Columbia and to help develop projects that help improve the neighborhood.

What are some of the factors that sustain and contribute to environmental racism?
That’s really interesting. No one has ever asked that before. I think one factor is institutionalized racism. In this country it is just embedded and it is very, very difficult to get people to think in a different way. Another is the lack of government accountability to communities that do not have high levels of voting—lack of voter turnout leads to lack of government accountability and political clout.

Also the fact that poor people and people of color live in areas where there has been major disinvestment by government—whether it be local, state or federal—generally means a lack of investment by private industry for the benefits and services that dynamic communities look for. Instead these communities get an investment of dirty industry by the worst polluters because the land is cheaper.

In addition, the mainstream environmental movement has not been concerned with ethnic and racial diversity in terms of its membership or in terms of listening or building a coalition of diverse voices. They have not been interested in reaching out to a broader range of stakeholders, such as the environmental justice community, the labor community and other groups that certainly have a stake in a better quality of life and a cleaner environment. So the narrowness of the mainstream environmental movement, in terms of their agenda and the groups they work with, I think perpetuates the situation.

Probably one of your most well-known campaigns is the mapping of asthma rates in communities of color and pollution. Can you talk about the connections a little?
Over 14 percent of residents in central Harlem have asthma, which is three times the national average. One in four children in central Harlem has asthma compared to a national average of one in 16 kids. Air pollution puts the health of a half million mostly African Americans and Latinos at risk. Mortality rates from asthma are between three and five and a half times greater than the rates for whites.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are an important tool which give us a visual analysis of pollution. Using GIS, we are able to incorporate demographics such as health statistics into a visual representation which gives a snapshot of what is going on. The GIS images are an extremely powerful tool in organizing residents as well as convincing the media and decision makers of the problems. Another great thing is that our GIS Coordinator is a young man that started with us over 10 years ago in our youth group.

It’s amazing how it all turns around.

For nonprofit and social justice organizations you really want to be developing new leadership. And this is a very niche area. People don’t come out of school thinking they want to be an environmental attorney or work in the environment—especially people of color. So we really have to grow our own. We have one woman who started with us when she was in college and worked with us as an intern for three summers. We told her when she went off to grad school that when she was done she’d have a job waiting. We’ve hired her as our Environmental Policy Coordinator. So we have been able to maintain the leadership and bring it back. The passion and commitment are already there.

What does environmental justice mean to you?
It means the ability of color and low-income communities to fully participate in environmental decision making. It means equal environmental enforcement of the laws. It means bringing a very different perspective of affected residents, affected communities to the table to help improve public policy and practice. And it means to help further protect the environmental health and the habitat of all peoples and species. You know, when we push for stronger policies, those policies protect everybody. Even though it may just be our voice. I mean people of color may be the only voice right now on indoor air quality because of the high asthma rates, but any of the new policies that we help develop go to further protect everybody. So it is a win-win.

What plans do you have for the future?
We want to continue to raise the visibility of environmental health in New York State and continue to work in coalition with other organizations to develop better legislation and policies around chemicals and toxins. As we know, these efforts take many, many years.

What are some ways people in other neighborhoods can reach out in solidarity and/or help?
Well no matter what kind of community you live in—a wealthy one, suburban, urban, rural—there are issues and concerns. I think everyone needs to educate themselves about what is going on in their own area, join others who have those concerns and begin to start acting locally while thinking globally.

That’s one of my favorite bumper stickers…
Well it’s true. And it’s sad when people are so involved globally or nationally and they don’t know what’s going on in their own neighborhood. Global warming is a big issue but it has local implications. There is a level for us all to work on.

To learn more about West Harlem Environmental Action contact www.weact.org or (212) 961-1000.

 

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