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Environmental Justice Panel Spotlights Women Activists and Scholars

Monday, April 30, 2018
Lovinia Reynolds

Lovinia Reynolds

Policy Analyst and Environmental Justice Coordinator

On Monday, April 16, ELI, the Environmental Justice Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice (CRSJ), Georgetown University Law Center, Georgetown Environmental Law Society, and the D.C. Bar Association hosted a seminar entitled: Environmental Justice in the 21st Century Part 2: Threats and Opportunities. The event focused on changes and challenges in the environmental justice movement and featured a panel of environmental justice experts and a keynote speech from Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Cal.). Representative Ruiz, a medical doctor from Coachella Valley, California, delivered a passionate speech describing the struggles facing communities of color in his district who are often disenfranchised from the environmental decisionmaking process. His bill, the Environmental Justice Act of 2017 (H.R. 4114), the companion to Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) bill introduced in the Senate (S. 1996), aims to empower communities to have meaningful input into environmental decisions.

Scholars point to the 1968 sanitation workers strike led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, as the beginning of the environmental justice movement. In 1982, protests against a proposed plan to dispose of PCB chemicals in an African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina, brought further attention to the environmental burdens facing communities of color. In 1987, a report, written by Vernice MillerTravis and Charles Lee through the United Church of Christ, demonstrated that toxic waste sites were disproportionately located in communities of color, providing evidence that race was the primary factor in siting environmental hazards. Today, poor communities and communities of color are still overburdened with environmental health issues such as asthma and respiratory issues due to air pollution, cancer due to proximity to toxic chemicals, and lead poisoning due to failing infrastructure.

Women within these communities are particularly vulnerable to environmental harms. Globally, women are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than men. In the United States, women of color are disproportionately diagnosed with chronic illnesses associated with environmental toxins when compared to white women. Because of these vulnerabilities, women have consistently been at the forefront of the environmental justice movement.

From left: Leslie Fields, Sheila Foster, Lucia Silecchia, and Prof. Adrienne Hollis

Following Representative Ruiz’s powerful keynote speech, Prof. Sheila Foster moderated a panel featuring Dr. Adrienne Hollis, Leslie Fields, and Prof. Lucia Silecchia, all women leaders in environmental justice. The panelists spoke on environmental justice from their unique perspectives and particularly emphasized the need for community inclusion.

Moderator Professor Foster highlighted the gaps in environmental laws that are addressed by the environmental justice movement. She noted environmental laws are written to maximize social welfare on a regional scale. However, these laws do not adequately address the environmental harms that are concentrated in communities of color in order to benefit the greater population in a given area. According to Professor Foster, in addition to federal environmental legislation, community activism and state and local actions help to ensure protections for the minority communities located in these sacrifice zones.

Dr. Adrienne Hollis, the federal policy director for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, discussed the pressing need for sustained community inclusion in local, state, and federal processes. She said, “My main passion is that communities have all the tools in their arsenal to be able to address environmental degradation […] at the state and local level.” She highlighted efforts by her organization to help local residents to participate in the comment process on air permits and a recent report outlining steps for community engagement in state-level processes. Dr. Hollis also emphasized that small environmental justice organizations are still in dire need of financial support despite the increasing dedication of big environmental organizations toward environmental justice.

Ms. Fields, director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program, spoke on her experience in the environmental justice movement and encouraged others to follow suit. “If you like to take situations which seem intractable and create opportunities, then [environmental justice] is a great venue for you,” she said, speaking to law students in the audience. Ms. Fields touched on the difficulties engaging in environmental justice work and stories of continued struggles in communities such as those located near the proposed site for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana. She also highlighted successes such as the low-income community that was redeveloped after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and is now the largest solar panel neighborhood in the Southeast. Ms. Fields emphasized her dedication to community inclusion using a Star Trek reference: “The Prime Directive in my book is that communities speak for themselves.”

Professor Silecchia, from the Catholic University of America Columbus Law School, connected environmental justice to ethical and religious foundations. Professor Silecchia explained that the church has played an important role in reframing environmental justice as an ethical issue, thus drawing the attention of people who might not relate to environmental justice from a legal, political, or economic perspective. She also linked the labor, housing, and environmental justice movements as all working toward human dignity. Professor Silecchia added a religious perspective to the importance of community inclusion by stating that it is an “affront to the dignity of the people whose lives are being discussed if they are not fully involved in the conversation.”

ELI is grateful to Representative Ruiz and to the four dynamic leaders in environmental justice who spoke at the event. As the environmental justice movement moves forward and faces new challenges, events like these serve to celebrate progress and bring attention to challenges within the movement. ELI hopes to continue to foster discussions on environmental justice and facilitate venues in which the public can learn about the stories, struggles, and successes of the environmental justice advocates.

Part 1 of this series was held at the American Bar Association on November 28, 2017. To access information on Part 1 as well as clips from the event itself, please click here. To access information on Part 2 of this series please click here. To access a recording of Part 2, please click here.