WITF’s ‘Toward Racial Justice’ panel links environmental justice with health, human rights and self-determination

  • Rachel McDevitt

Panelists on WITF’s Toward Racial Justice conversation on environmental justice were, top row left to right, moderator Charles Ellison,  executive producer and host of “Reality Check” on WURD in Philadelphia, entrepreneur Darral Addison, and former Obama Administration official Brandi Colander; middle row left to right, state Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia), activist Tommy Joshua, and Megan Ruoro, Yale University student; bottom row, environmental science professor at Tennessee State Reginald Archer.

Recent Bishop McDevitt graduate Megan Ruoro says a false narrative exists that Black people don’t have time to care about the environment; they’re too busy dealing with racism, health issues, or finding a job.

Ruoro, who now studies political science at Yale University, says economic, health, and environmental issues fall under the same umbrella of systemic racism. 

“The toxins that are being released in the air are affecting our families, are affecting our children,” she said, “and that’s leading to our healthcare issues. It’s affecting our employment. It’s all interconnected.”

Ruoro shared her thoughts on Aug. 27 during the latest conversation in WITF’s Toward Racial Justice series, which focused on environmental justice. 

The topic has gotten more attention this summer as calls for racial justice have grown. 

The panel was made up of Ruoro, State Representative Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia), entrepreneur Darral Addison, environmental science professor Reginald Archer, activist Tommy Joshua, and former Obama Administration official Brandi Colander. 

Pennsylvania’s constitution grants people the right to a healthy environment, but all Pennsylvanians do not have equal access to a healthy environment. 

Year after year, studies show that Black, Indigenous and people of color are more likely to bear the brunt of poor health and economic outcomes related to a poor environment.

Colander, a former deputy general counsel on the White House Council on Environmental Quality and now Principal at The Raben Group, said she sees the environment as a litmus test for when things are out of balance. 

For example, she said, Black women are affected by infertility and maternal mortality at higher rates than their peers in other racial groups. 

“That is a cry for help for every other demographic,” Colander said. “Because if it’s hard for us to do the most natural thing–procreate–it’s going to be hard for every brother and sister in every other demographic soon come, you can trust that.” 

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection says its duty is to ensure everyone, “especially those that have typically been disenfranchised, are meaningfully involved in the decisions that affect their environment and that all communities are not unjustly burdened with adverse environmental impacts.” 

Joshua looks at the issue more holistically. 

“It’s always linked to human rights,” he said. “So environmental justice for us is self-determination. It would be the ability to have power to determine the conditions that you live under, the food that you eat, the air that you breathe.”

Joshua has been working toward that vision as the founder of North Philly’s Peace Park, a volunteer-run ecology campus and community garden. 

DEP has designated more than one thousand environmental justice communities across the state, from Philadelphia to rural Erie County. These are places where 20 percent of the population lives in poverty or 30 percent is made up of non-white minorities. 

But the state doesn’t have any additional regulations to consider when polluting companies want to build in those areas. 

Archer, an assistant professor of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University, said it’s important to engage with affected communities. 

Archer is trying to equip communities with mapping technology and the tools to ask the right questions when a new industry comes to their area.

“They can easily understand and see that this impacts me also,” he said. “It’s not just a chart that we see in the news or a policy that we think may or may not impact us.”

Other advocates call for the need for more education, especially of the history of how certain places came to experience environmental injustice. 

Racist housing policies, like redlining, restricted where Black people could buy homes. Decades later, those neighborhoods marked as undesirable have higher temperatures and more pollution. 

Addison said it shouldn’t be up to Black people to remedy the injustice forced on them by white people. 

“They created the problem, they dumped it in our cities. They created racial inequalities–that’s their problem,” he said. “I’m not here to clean up their problem.”

Addison is the founder and CEO of Torpedo Pot, a self-watering gardening container that he says can empower people by allowing them to grow healthy food. 

He said people should use the resources they have to track down environmental injustice and demand accountability.

Joshua, the activist, said people also need to be optimistic and determined for revolutionary change.  

“We are willing to mobilize our people to exercise their fundamental human rights and that is the right to transform their environment,” he said. 

Joshua said there needs to be a united front on what he calls “the green future for Black people.”

The next Toward Racial Justice conversation, about juvenile justice, is Thursday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. 

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