Written by Kelsey Rowland // 

Environmental Justice is a relatively new concept in mainstream dialogue. I was only introduced to the term two years into my undergraduate education in environmental science, but the perspective has ultimately shaped my academic and professional path in the environmental field. Simply put, the environmental justice movement recognizes that many of the environmental impacts we face are felt first and hardest by low-income and minority communities. These communities that are most profoundly impacted should be pushed to the forefront of environmental decision-making. In my work in the nonprofit sector, I have seen this done to great success.

While the term “environmental justice” may be as new to you as it was to me six years ago, the issues it addresses are pretty well known. A new highway gets built through the middle of a low-income neighborhood. An industrial farm leaks contaminants into the air and water of an unwitting rural town. Affordable housing is placed in a low-lying area that frequently floods. The water supply of a struggling, post-industrial city is poisoned with lead.

The motivations behind these practices range from unintentional to willfully ignorant to blatantly racist. Businesses tend to go where land is cheap and pushback is minimal. While affluent communities have the political power to resist harmful environmental practices, low-income and minority communities are frequently left out of the decision-making processes. Environmental non-profits can help raise their voices to policy-makers, as I have seen play out from the municipal to national level.

Last summer, I interned with a non-profit in Raleigh, North Carolina called PowerUp NC. They work on a variety of energy issues in the state with a keen eye on equity. My work with them involved researching and advocating for higher energy efficiency standards for low-income housing. Raleigh, like many growing cities, struggles to keep housing affordable for many of its long-time residents. While subsidized housing can make rent more affordable, these units often lack proper weatherization and energy efficient appliances, making energy bills a prohibitively high expense.

PowerUp worked to mobilize impacted residents to attend City Council meetings to tell their stories. This was no easy task, as there are many barriers to public participation for disadvantaged groups. PowerUp staff held regular meetings with community members to hear their concerns and refine their narratives. Many residents were hesitant to speak, because they did not think their stories mattered or they doubted anything would change. PowerUp staff reassured them that their voices mattered, helped build their confidence in public speaking, and, when necessary, provided transportation to and from meetings. The City of Raleigh, in turn, committed to improved energy efficiency standards in their new low-income housing units. Because of the brave residents who spoke up, more people in Raleigh will be able to keep their lights (and A.C.) on, while the City itself decreases its carbon footprint.

More recently, I have been involved with a partnership between the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. This non-profit, founded in 2002 by the formidable Catherine Flowers, works on rural wastewater and sanitation issues in Lowndes County, Alabama. Many residents of the largely African-American county do not have properly functioning wastewater infrastructure. They are not hooked up to the centralized sewer system, so they either have septic tanks or straight-pipe raw sewage from their toilets into their backyards. Unfortunately, the dense soils of the area make septic systems expensive to maintain and prone to failure, resulting in wastewater spilling out into peoples’ yards or backing up into their homes. Whether it be the raw sewage in the house or the yard, these unsanitary conditions have led to the reemergence of tropical diseases, like hookworm, that are rarely found in the developed world. These issues are rooted in the long racial history of the county, whereby wastewater infrastructure was designed to exclude communities of color, leaving a legacy that haunts these residents today.

While the extenuating circumstances are specific to this region of Alabama, the underfunding of rural wastewater systems is pervasive in the United States. In her efforts to find sustainable solutions for the residents of Lowndes County, Ms. Flowers discovered many communities throughout the nation that were struggling without proper water and sanitation services. Earlier this year, members of the ACRE-Duke partnership organized the first national stakeholder meeting in Washington, D.C. Alongside academics, NGOs, and the corporate sector, we were joined by congressional staffers to discuss federal policy changes that would increase funding for rural water programs nationwide. They subsequently drafted a proposal to increase funding eightfold for decentralized, rural wastewater systems that made it into the Farm Bill, recently passed by Congress. As the result of elevating the voices of the marginalized in a small Alabama community, there is now pending federal legislation that will allow many more Americans to wash their hands and flush their toilets without serious concerns for their health.  

Whether it be at the local or national level, raising the voices of marginalized groups in environmental decision-making can effectively combat environmental injustices. It is essential that low-income and minority groups are heard in every stage of the process, from planning to implementation and enforcement, to ensure that the decisions that get made give equal consideration to every citizen.

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Kelsey Rowland lives in Durham, North Carolina, USA, and is currently a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Her concentration is in Water Resources Management, and she is  specifically interested in water policy and science communications. She earned a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of South Carolina with minors in Spanish and Anthropology. Prior to coming to Duke, she worked at an environmental consulting company in Delaware, conducting fish population surveys with a mix of lab and field work on the Delaware River. At Duke, she is pursuing a Community-based Environmental Management certificate, while working as a graduate assistant with the Duke University Superfund Center’s Community Engagement Core, conducting research on water utilities, and serving on the board of the Duke Water Network.

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