The 30th Michigan Environmental Justice Summit honors activist progress

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 10:31pm

The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability hosted the 2020 Michigan Environmental Justice Summit at Rackham Auditorium Thursday.

The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability hosted the 2020 Michigan Environmental Justice Summit at Rackham Auditorium Thursday. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

The School for Environment and Sustainability hosted its annual Michigan Environmental Justice Summit on Thursday. About 700 students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents gathered in the Rackham Auditorium to honor the 30th Anniversary of the “Incidence of Environmental Hazards Conference,” the 1990 conference that sparked high-level government meetings and contributed to the formation of an Environmental Protection Agency special task force under the Clinton administration.

The panelists on the National Panel of EJ Game Changers began by recognizing and celebrating the progress that environmental justice has made over time. While the movement first gained traction in 1982 through an Black community’s protest against a local waste landfill, it has now been expanded nationwide as more marginalized communities began to fight for their environmental rights.

Panelist Charles Lee, a senior policy adviser at the EPA, mentioned that the issue of environmental justice did not have a name when he first started working, but as communities have empowered themselves, real changes have been made and more scholarly work has been produced in the area. 

Beverly Wright, panelist and founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, also commented on how advocates and scholars have sparked policy changes that aid communities nationwide.

“If you think nothing has changed, this is light years in terms of the difference between the way we interact with government,” Wright said. “We literally had to lock EPA people in a room to listen to us. It was tough.”

Wright recounted how she first made a connection between justice and activism when she first witnessed the effects of local pollution on Black communities and pointed to racial segregation as one of the causes of such suffering.  

“Why are we the only ones living fence line with these (chemical plants)? That’s when I made the justice connection,” Wright said. “I was always upset, but then I got angry.”

The panelists said some environmental activists failed to identify the racial and social facets of their movement. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, panelist and a lead architect of the Green New Deal, remarked on the prevalence of such a norm during her experience working on the Green New Deal.

“I started truly seeing how much people wanted to combat the climate crisis without ever touching justice,” Gunn-Wright said. “And I didn’t realize that that tendency was so deep.”

In an interview with The Daily, SEAS professor Paul Mohai, an organizer of the 1990 conference, gave the opening remarks for the panel, discussed how while the first conference 30 years ago focused on bringing attention to the issue, the current conference does more to examine the disproportionate health effects between different communities.

Robert Bullard, known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” expressed his confidence in students as changemakers in the future and expanded on the focusing on inequalities in environment justice to The Daily. 

“This country is segregated, and so is pollution,” Bullard said. “What we have been fighting for in environmental justice is to make sure that no community is disproportionately impacted by pollution.”

Michelle Martinez, who served as the moderator for the panel, touched on her work as an activist and highlighted the importance of action to The Daily.

“Communities make change. Communities change laws. Mobilizations change laws,” Martinez said. “The big things that happen in the United States all were because of people, not because somebody in the capital had a good idea.”

After the talk, Rackham student Stephanie Szemetylo expressed her enthusiasm to integrate more about sustainability into her own discipline. 

“It was energizing to see the connectivity between the different panelists, the embeddedness of the field,” Szemetylo said. “Hopefully I can bring design into that environmental justice space.”

Contributor Lola Yang can be reached at lolayang@umich.edu