Reflections on Environmental Justice and regional grassroots policy efforts

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Thu, 12/20/2007 - 15:30.

I thought I'd share some meaningful revelations and reflections regarding participation in the OHEJ Environmental Justice forum recently held at beautiful and idyllic Deer Creek State Park, located just south of Columbus in Mount Sterling, Ohio.  This weekend retreat offered a valuable experience and opportunity to contribute toward the delineation of a cogent and comprehensive statewide environmental justice policy.  I was happy to be invited to partake in this experience, for which I was offered a generous scholarship to compensate for lodging and transportation.  The event was co-sponsored by two grassroots organizations propelling meaningful work around EJ issues - Ohians for Environmental Justice (a project of the Center for Health and Environmental Justice) and the Environmental Support Center, based in Washington D.C.

The forum helped illuminate several key Environmental Justice issues of critical regional importance and simultaneously offered the opportunity to address them meaningfully.  A great starting point was the revisitation of the commonly and federally accepted definition of Environmental Justice, which involves the "fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, educational level, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws".  Environmental justice helps ensure that both minority and low income (underprivileged) communities retain accesibility to public information involving health, environmental planning, regulations and inforcement.  The purpose of such policy and effort is intended to ensure that no demographic - especially vulnerable ones like the elderly and children, is disproportionately burdened by the negative impacts of pollution or other environmental hazards.  

Such a commonly-accepted definition and its inherent criteria allow for numerous advantages which transcend baseline understanding.  Somewhat disparate agencies, whether facing geographic boundaries or subject to federal-local level disconnects can share this common ground to ensure more seamless integration of policy and activity.  Furthermore, the designation of official EJ site status can be fairly validated and qualified by such criteria.  In hearing more about the seven currently-designated EJ sites in Ohio, which by their vary nature are privileged with unique funding and promotional opportunities, I couldn't help but feel inclined to obtain EJ status for our own local community in East Cleveland - which has been disproportionately blighted by a debilitating lead poisoning epidemic.  The Ohio EPA is just one agency offering sizeable grants in support of cogent EJ efforts and I feel this is an opportunity that cannot be overlooked.

The program for the weekend at Deer Creek was fun, fast-paced and informative.  Participants contributed in both large-group and small-group formats around core focal interest areas including community participation, permitting, enforcement, and legislation. The information gathered built upon previously aggregated information from a number of regional forums that precluded this finale.  One of these sessions was facilitated in Cleveland earlier this year by local nonprofit Earth Day Coalition

The retreat culminated with sessions bent upon strategically crafting a statewide EJ policy and possible legislation.   A commitment was made to designate ongoing action teams around focal topics as well as an Ohio EJ Policy Drafting Committee - both moves to help ensure action and progress beyond these initial dialogues. I was happy to volunteer to help represent the Northeast Ohio region in this effort.  Some of my contributions I hope to see materialize as a result of my involvement include a media / communications strategy that ensures leveraging weblogs like RealNEO and the associated citizen journalism in addition to more traditional media outlets and events and the inclusion of meaningful network mapping efforts to ensure comprehensive cross-sectional collaboration between Nonprofit, For Profit, Educational, and Government agents.  All should be stakeholders included in the effort toward environmental justice and an ultimately improved quality of life.  The key component spheres comprising a holistic picture of community development that mirror our own website taxonomy (Arts, Education, Environment, Economy, Health, Technology) were also offered as a simple framework to follow in addressing EJ issues holistically.  Facilitation of the necessary levels of synergy and collaboration can be accomplished with innovative organization design which favors creative collectivism over destructive competition.

Environmental Activism can be a private affair too

A final reflection - while it can be interesting and inspiring to demonstrate ones activism in the civic space as related above, I think it is absolutely imperative to understand that one can make a significant impact as an environmental activist simply by integrating positive-impact strategies into their everyday lives, even within the confines of one's own domicile.

Personally, I prefer the 'elegant integration' of both approaches.  Let's lead by example!