Environmental Justice: Why It's a Black Thing
EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson says it's not about loving nature -- it's a civil rights issue.
TR: You're talking Sunday about your personal journey and about the accomplishments of this generation of African Americans. How did you become invested in the issue of environmental justice?
LPJ: The sermon tells my story growing up in New Orleans. The first thing I say about that is that you do not need to grow up with a love of the "great outdoors" to care about the environment. New Orleans is a wonderful, vibrant city but it is a city. So my love of the environment as an issue came from seeing the ravages of environmental pollution.
What happens to the Mississippi River if it's a dumping ground, and what does that mean for drinking water? What does it mean to have an area, that, when I was growing up, was called "Cancer Alley"? What does that mean for the health of my relatives and people who I knew who lived down there?
I came up caring about environmental issues from what we call the "brown side" -- stopping pollution. I'm an engineer by training and I wanted to use engineering to reverse-engineer pollution -- to think about cleaning it up and hopefully preventing it.
TR: Are you satisfied with the level of engagement among African Americans around the issue of environmental justice?
LPJ: African Americans still need to give greater attention to these issues. There are some great leaders in our community who realize that it's a quiet, pervasive message sent to a community when your community is always the site of a sewage treatment plan, or a rail line just passing through. When it's your community that gets the impacts and not the benefits.
We need to be vocal about this, about the fact that we have a right to clean air and clean water. It's a rights issue as important as the other ones. Also, if we're growing a green economy, we have the right and it's in our best interest to be part of that economy. That's where the jobs and opportunities will be.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.