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Environmental Justice in the USA

Applying legal empowerment to advance environmental justice in the United States


The mid-Atlantic region of Delaware, DC, Maryland, and Virginia faces grave, interconnected challenges, including unemployment, racial and economic inequities, and environmental destruction. The pandemic has made these problems worse. People of color and people without access to clean air are dying from COVID-19 disproportionately. The region is down 480,000 jobs since the spring of 2020, with Black and Brown women hit the hardest.

Environmental, health, land use, and other laws are meant to help address these problems, protect people’s health, safety, and well-being, and bring to life communities’ vision for their neighborhoods. In practice, implementation and enforcement are often weak, especially in low-wealth communities of color, and these laws instead end up facilitating companies’ polluting activities. The processes and institutions that are supposed to protect communities are prioritizing corporate profits over people.

And in discussions about solutions to the intersecting crises, the communities who bear the brunt of these problems have not had much of a say. This has led to responses that are inadequate and, sometimes, exploitative.

Namati is partnering with communities and environmental justice advocates from across the region to change that. Legal empowerment — the approach Namati champions — equips the people affected by environmental harm to advocate for themselves. A typical lawyer’s message is: “I will solve this for you.” In contrast, “community paralegals” — the dynamic frontline of leaders key to our approach — are organizers, rooted in their communities, possess knowledge of law, and share that knowledge with their neighbors. Their message is, “we will solve this together, and we will become more powerful in the process.”

By working with marginalized communities to know, use, and shape law, the legal empowerment approach helps ensure impacted communities have the tools needed to protect their lives and livelihoods, center their demands for change, and democratize law.

Collectively, Namati and our U.S. partners have three goals:

1) Support local organizing to take on, and win, against threats to health, livelihoods, and environment. This includes equipping organizers and communities to use law and science, tools that traditionally have been dominated by elites.

2) Develop a grassroots-driven policy framework for advancing environmental, economic, and social justice across the region, one that highlights both what we are saying yes to (e.g. a green jobs program) and what we are saying no to, and that charts a path to a more equitable and sustainable way of life.

3) Fight to turn that policy framework into law.

Namati’s work is rooted in principles of meaningful partnership with local leaders and long-standing environmental justice leaders, and a deep commitment to learning from their experience. Our U.S. program’s stellar advisory board reflects these principles. It includes:

  • Dr. Adrienne Hollis, Senior Climate Justice and Health Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an associate professor in public health, an environmental toxicologist, and an environmental attorney
  • Vernice Miller-Travis, co-founder of We Act in Harlem, one of the nation’s longest-standing environmental justice groups, and co-author of Toxic Wastes and Race, a report that was instrumental in persuading President Clinton to set up the first Office on Environmental Justice within the EPA
  • Fred Tutman, the only Black Riverkeeper in the country, and the head of Patuxent Riverkeeper
  • Dr. Sacoby Wilson, professor of public health at the University of Maryland and convener of the largest regular gathering dedicated to environmental justice in the region.

We aim to complement the U.S. environmental justice movement by offering our experience in using law to help communities build power. We are proud to share an approach that has worked in so many other countries. This work is part of a potent new globalism — reciprocal rather than missionary.