My Environmental Justice Awakening
How I Finally Got Woke at Work—and How You Can, Too
Maybe you’re like me. Injustices like the bad water in Flint make your blood boil. Stories about poor communities boxed in by freeways have you suddenly mindful of every breath. You have a pretty good grasp on the concept of environmental justice, but you struggle to turn that awareness into action in your everyday work.
I think I can help.
Let me start by introducing you to Team EJ. I joined the volunteer group of CalRecycle staffers, supervisors, program managers, and deputy directors in November. Environmental Justice Program Manager Maria Salinas assembled the squad in hopes that members’ diverse backgrounds, strengths and perspectives would help CalRecycle better integrate environmental justice values and goals throughout the department’s divisions and programs.
So far, the best definition I’ve heard for environmental justice came from Manuel Pastor during one of CalRecycle’s EJ training sessions. The USC professor says “EJ is rooted in the belief that all people—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or income—have the right to a clean and healthy environment.” He adds that environmental justice seeks two things:
- Equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits
- Fair and meaningful participation in decision-making processes
The word equitable is key if you ask legislative analyst Julia Dolloff.
“(It’s) about leveling the playing field when it comes to protecting the environment and protecting public health,” she says. “Whether it’s disproportionate pollution burdens or a lack of access to services, many of California’s communities aren’t starting from the same place and need additional resources to get them there.”
A 1999 statute directed Cal EPA to conduct its programs, policies, and activities with consideration to environmental justice. While CalRecycle’s EJ program is a result of that direction, the department made a deliberate choice to go all in on EJ.
A few clicks through CalEnviroScreen 3.0 and you’ll see why CalRecycle’s EJ efforts strive to go above and beyond. Steven Sander of CalRecycle’s Policy Development and Analysis Office says the data speaks for itself.
According to Sander, research shows that in many instances, siting decisions for things like toxic waste facilities and power plants have disproportionately affected marginalized communities.
“EJ needs to be there in every decision we make,” he says. “That’s not something you can necessarily legislate. It’s more of an ethos.”
It goes back to that word—equitable. CalRecycle provides equal treatment to all Californians in its regulatory and oversight role. But as Waste Permitting Compliance and Mitigation chief Mark de Bie puts it, “fair treatment for all” may not always be fair.
“We have that ethic, and we continue to have that ethic—and fair treatment for all can work to a certain level. But at some point you find that a strategy you could use in three-quarters of California to help inform and engage people might not work in a quarter of the state, so you need to try something else.”
For Anthony Rodriguez, that starts with bridging the gap between government and the people we serve. In his role with CalRecycle’s Local Assistance and Market Development branch, Rodriguez acts as a liaison between the department and his assigned jurisdictions.
“My job is to try to help the local people of my jurisdictions and give them a voice,” he says. Rodriguez joined Team EJ to ensure these perspectives are part of the larger conversation at CalRecycle.
“During my conference calls and site visits, they can bring up environmental justice issues that I can then pass along to upper management.”
Maybe you’re like Anthony—working directly with communities and can amplify their concerns.
Maybe you’re more like Mark—a manager or office leader who can raise questions or launch initiatives to make environmental justice part of the ethos in your office.
Maybe you’re like Julia and Steven—able to raise EJ issues in the writing you produce.
Or maybe you’re like me—learning the issues, reflecting on your work, and slowly coming to realize that the pursuit of environmental justice requires a team effort.