Our Journey in 2019 & 2020
In 2019, Namati launched a program to advance environmental justice in the United States.
Across America, poor people and people of color are disproportionately targeted to host industrial projects—exposing these communities to pollutants and toxins, which in many cases lead to high rates of asthma, cancer and other diseases. While there are good environmental laws on the books, enforcement is extremely weak.
The communities who bear the brunt of these problems should have a leadership role in addressing the climate and environmental crisis we face. But to date these communities have not had much of a say in what the solutions should look like. The mainstream environmental movement in the U.S. has often been led by experts, dominated by white people, and focused on highly technical channels like litigation.
Legal empowerment offers a methodology by which communities affected by environmental harm can build power, defeat unlawful pollution, and, ultimately, reshape the way environmental regulation works.
We started by listening. We had scores of conversations with people who are part of America’s rich environmental justice movement, to discern whether and how we could add value. We formed an advisory council of veteran environmental justice advocates — leaders like Dr. Sacoby Wilson, who convenes the largest regular gathering on environmental justice in the region, and Vernice Miller-Travis, who co-wrote the original “Toxic Wastes and Race” report in 1987.
With their counsel, we began working with five grassroots organizers in the DC/ Maryland region, including Rhonda Hamilton, who has led her neighbors in the Buzzard Point community of DC in fights against both pollution and gentrification, and Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper and the only Black riverkeeper in the country. All five of them have deep roots in the communities they serve, and all five were keen to infuse greater knowledge of law into their organizing.
That first year, we supported this cohort to dig into the legal and technical issues around environmental justice threats in their communities, and to develop strategies for addressing those threats. In late 2019, we traveled with most of the organizers to visit the Centre for Policy Research-Namati team in India, where they saw what mature legal empowerment efforts can look like.
When the pandemic struck the globe in early 2020, the communities where our environmental justice organizers work were hit particularly hard. Several of them temporarily shifted their focus to helping address neighbors’ basic needs. Government functioning also slowed and staggered, making it difficult to move their cases forward.
Later in 2020, state and local governments adjusted to the new socially-distant pandemic era and brought in some positive changes, including enabling residents to more easily participate in hearings or engage regulators via phone or online. As a result, we and our environmental justice organizers were able to support community members to carry out more than 15 actions engaging government officials.
For example, we helped a community group in southwest DC to submit public comments demanding more stringent operating conditions to limit air pollution from a concrete plant in their neighborhood. Other actions included submitting written complaints about industrial emissions, and participating in municipal land use planning to argue for regulations that prohibit destructive development. These efforts led to our first remedies: forcing the largest infrastructure project in DC to significantly improve its dust control measures (see story below), and securing major commitments from the Baltimore Department of Public Works to address chronic basement sewage backups.
Late last year, we also began collaborating with our advisory board and other leaders to set the stage for a grassroots-driven environmental justice coalition in the Chesapeake region (DC, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia). Our aim is to achieve transformative systemic change across the region that draws on our casework to advance environmental justice while also addressing intersecting challenges like climate change, unemployment, housing, and racism. We are joining forces with Renew New England, which has formed a similar coalition across the six states of that region. We aim to move aggressively, so that in the coming year’s legislative session, the coalition can support communities who bear the greatest burden of harm to devise and drive forward their own policy initiatives.
Our Grassroots Impact at a Glance
In 2020, environmental justice organizers worked with their communities to address environmental violations by private and public projects. Together, they achieved remedies that directly improved the health, wellbeing, and livelihoods of thousands of people.
Rhonda Hamilton: Fighting so that Children in her Community can “Live to be Grandparents”
As a child, Saturdays meant two things for Rhonda: trash and pizza. Her mother ardently believed in being ‘a good member of her community’ and was committed to teaching her children the same. “She’d wake us up Saturday mornings and say, ‘Come on! Let’s go pick up the trash! We’d say, ‘Booo!’ And then she’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to take you out for pizza after.’ And we’d say, ‘Yay!’” recalls Rhonda with a laugh.
Now in her 40s, Rhonda still lives in the same Washington, DC neighborhood she did as a child. Located where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers meet, the low income and predominantly Black neighborhood of Buzzard Point has long been known as the district’s industrial area. Rhonda can remember concrete factories and a plant for recycling construction waste operating amidst their schools, churches, and family homes. But she had no idea then of their consequences.
”When we were growing up…none of us had any idea that it was harming us. We just thought it was this cool industrial site [we could hang out in].” When neighbor after neighbor fell ill with cancer or developed asthma or other respiratory issues, Rhonda simply chalked it up to the realities of life.
Rhonda first began connecting the dots between pollution and health in 2014, when the public utility that provides DC residents with electricity announced that it planned to build a large substation in Buzzard Point. While talking with a neighbor about attending a community hearing on the issue, the neighbor announced her plan to wear a hole-ridden sweater as a statement “because this is probably what the environment is doing to us — why people are getting sick.” It was then that something in Rhonda’s mind clicked.
Rhonda began researching substations and their health implications, and soon expanded her scope to other sources of industrial pollution. The more she learned, the more hurt and appalled she became.
“I began to realize that there are entities that decide to place projects in communities like ours, where there are mostly low-income residents, and they don’t even inform people that these projects have health consequences; that there are risks associated with these projects.”
Rhonda’s concern escalated as a redevelopment project that was to bring a professional soccer stadium to Buzzard Point got underway. It was being constructed on what she learned was a “brownfield” — land that had been contaminated by hazardous chemicals from previous industrial use. The heavy machinery was “throwing contaminated dust everywhere”, so Rhonda did what her mother had raised her to do: she took action.
She organized the community to write letters and attend council meetings, but officials did not seem to care about their concerns. Nonetheless, they were able to eke out a few moderate changes to the environmental practices.
It was around this time that Rhonda heard that Namati was launching an environmental justice program in the US and was looking for grassroots advocates who were willing to learn about and incorporate a legal empowerment approach. She applied and was accepted.
With Namati’s guidance, the environmental justice organizers identified the legal and technical issues around environmental justice threats in their communities, and started developing strategies to address them. Rhonda focused her efforts on a development project that had been a source of concern for months.
The 100-year old Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge that crosses from Buzzard Point to the other side of the Anacostia River is in the process of being replaced. Once the new bridge is complete, the existing lead and asbestos-ridden bridge will be demolished. Recognizing that a construction project like this raises serious environmental concerns, Rhonda had been organizing community members to attend public meetings. But much like the soccer stadium project, they felt like they were being talked at rather than listened to.
Rhonda, with her recent training, decided to try and use laws and policies to make the authorities listen.
Among the most immediate concerns with the project was a large, open pile of dust and debris on which small children often played. Rhonda’s research revealed that DC regulations required that the contractors develop a dust plan. She secured the plan, under the DC Right to Information Act, and found that the construction company was failing to comply with a number of its provisions — including a dust-control fence.
Empowered with this information, she contacted DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and convinced them to accompany her and other Buzzard Point residents on a site visit. The group pointed out the impacts on the community, referenced city and state regulatory requirements, and demanded action. Not long after, the DOEE mandated a dust-control fence, which would reduce the pollution and keep the children off the site, and agreed to conduct a broader pollution inspection.
While there is much more work still ahead, the win was an important one. “It made me feel safer,” Rhonda says. “I would like the children in our community to live to be grandparents, bouncing their grandchildren on their knees, but I know that if they don’t live in better environments, that can’t happen.” Legal empowerment, she says, is showing her a way to turn this vision into a reality.
“In nearly every state in America today, if you are not a licensed lawyer, you can educate a neighbor about law and rights in the abstract, but the moment you advise your neighbor about how they might use those laws to solve a problem they face, you are committing a crime called ‘unauthorized practice of law.'”
In an impassioned and persuasive essay for Democracy Journal, Namati’s CEO, Vivek Maru, argues that in order to deepen democracy in America, the U.S. needs to embrace legal empowerment rather than criminalizing it.
Our Implementing Partners
Near Buzzard Point
Resilient Action Committee
Clean Water Action