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Organize, mobilize, and train the most affected residents: A Q&A with Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice

May 13, 2022

Headshot_Peggy_Shepard_WEACT_for_Environmental_Justice_Allie-HollowayPeggy Shepard is co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice and has a long history of organizing and engaging Northern Manhattan residents in community-based planning and campaigns to address environmental protection and environmental health policy locally and nationally. She is a national leader in advancing environmental policy from the perspective of environmental justice in urban communities. Previously, she was named co-chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council as well as chair of the New York City Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and was the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She serves on the executive committee of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the board of advisors of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

Shepard has been awarded the Jane Jacobs Medal from the Rockefeller Foundation for Lifetime Achievement, the 10th Annual Heinz Award for the Environment, the William K. Reilly Award for Environmental Leadership, the Knight of the National Order of Merit from the French Republic, the Dean’s Distinguished Service Award from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and honorary doctorates from Smith College and Lawrence University.

PND asked Shepard about the importance of organizing to build healthy communities, sustainable policies that would bring about change, the root causes of environmental racism, the benefits of science and community partnership, nonprofit climate change strategies, the legislative response to environmental justice, and the need for climate migrants from South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to receive equal attention to the impact of climate change migration in their regions.

Philanthropy News Digest: The lack of power and representation in political and economic systems makes it difficult for communities of color to build climate resilience. What is the importance of organizing low-income people of color to build healthy communities for themselves, and how does your background inform the support communities need in advocating for the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment?

Peggy Shepard: I discovered the power of a well-organized community early on in my career. I had the opportunity to experience the communities that had resources and strong advocacy and those that did not, such as the community in which I lived. I was a Democratic district leader in West Harlem when the North River Sewage Treatment Plant was built in our neighborhood after originally being rejected by other communities that were whiter and more affluent.

Once the plant started operating, the odors and emissions were unbearable. At that time, the facility had open sewage pools, so the odor of raw sewage filled the air in West Harlem. It was so bad that residents had to keep their windows shut, even on hot days. Even motorists along the West Side Highway would roll up their windows as they drove by.

A core group of us began to organize people and develop a plan of action. We learned that the emissions coming out of its smokestacks failed to comply with federal clean air standards and that the air pollution was having an adverse impact on people’s health. We began to share this information with people throughout the community and invited them to join our campaign to force the city to address these issues. It took longer than we expected, but after we sued the New York City Department of Environmental Conservation in 1992, the city committed $55 million to retrofit the facility, and our lawsuit was settled for a $1.1 million West Harlem Environmental Benefits Fund. We decided to create West Harlem Environmental Action, aka WE ACT for Environmental Justice, to institutionalize advocacy in underserved communities of color with low income.

Our theory of change is to organize, mobilize, and train the most affected residents to engage in environmental decision making. We are a base-building organization where our members provide direction to and engage with our campaigns through membership meetings, trainings, and working groups on Climate Justice, Healthy Homes, and Worker Training. As a result, they are able to testify at legislative hearings, lead rallies, and attend lobby days to educate their elected officials. With their support, WE ACT has been successful in contributing significantly to the passage of a dozen or more bills at the New York City Council and the New York State legislature, laws that protect the health of children from toxins, and that support decarbonization and electrification. WE ACT started a 501(c)(4), WE ACT 4 Change, to engage our members and community residents in civic and political engagement through trainings, briefings, and candidate forums. Community-based planning has been a hallmark of WE ACT, and we mobilized 400 of our members and community residents to engage in developing the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, which prioritized energy security and democracy. We maintain an active and well-organized membership who inform and support our work at the city, state, and federal levels....

Read the full Q&A with Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

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