Environmental injustice is all around us. Scientists, policymakers and activists have long recognized that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color bear an unfair share of the nation’s environmental hazards—a product of systemic institutional racism and chronic disinvestment.
If you live, work, visit or drive through Philadelphia, you’ve encountered the evidence: neighborhoods with little to no greenspace, scorching summer temperatures, poor air quality.
Or you may have seen the headlines about the June 2019 explosion at the troubled Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery that released a deadly chemical and hurled shrapnel as large as a truck into the surrounding southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. Or the lead exposure crisis in Flint, Mich., that began when the city switched its drinking water supply in a cost-saving move. Or the 85-mile “Cancer Alley” corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana lined with 150 chemical plants and refineries. The list goes on.
Now there’s COVID-19. Low income and Black, Indigenous and immigrant communities are already at greater risk of contracting the virus because of their overrepresentation in the service industry and as front-line workers. But environmental injustice has compounded these risks.
Respiratory distress from poor air quality and hypertension from environmental stressors make individuals more vulnerable to severe cases of the disease. It also makes it more difficult for communities to protect themselves from contracting the virus.
Although these conditions can feel overwhelming, with solutions out of reach, for the last 40 years the environmental justice movement has shown otherwise. This is a resilient movement that is fighting for relief from polluting industries, equitable access to affordable, fresh food, greenspaces that cool sweltering asphalt neighborhoods, and the equal enforcement of protective rules and regulations.
There is much more work to be done. Healthy environments for all communities will require the commitment of regulatory agencies, lawmakers and elected officials at all levels. But individual efforts are critical too!
Here are some small actions you can do that can lead to big changes in your community and beyond. Please share your ideas in the comments section below and on our social media channels.
Attend a neighborhood meeting. Sit in on your neighborhood’s civic association or grassroots meeting and learn about the issues facing your community. Ask what you can do to help.
Sit in on another neighborhood’s meeting. Find out what other communities with similar issues as yours are doing. Take those pointers back to your own neighborhood group to discuss.
Plant a tree. Create shade and help lower the temperature in your neighborhood by planting a tree and encouraging your neighbors and businesses to do the same. The City of Philadelphia is giving away 1,000 trees while supplies last. Registration opened in mid-September; learn more at TreePhilly. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society operates the Tree Tenders program which will work with you in handling tree permits, cutting sidewalk pits, and getting the tree to your neighborhood. PHS also offers free lessons on planting and growing trees.
Raise awareness. Use social media to raise awareness about the issues you are most passionate about.
Join a peaceful protest. Amplify your cause by joining with others in a peaceful group gathering that will educate others and could lead to change.
Advocate for policy change. Take the time to challenge unjust laws and violations of environmental policies in marginalized communities. Pick a topic you’re passionate about and join a movement. For example, sanitation: How can air quality be improved for sanitation workers? How about converting sanitation vehicles from gas to electric?
Apply for a grant to support your project. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection offers grants and rebates that support improvement projects and education. Info at dep.pa.gov/grants
Contact your elected representatives. Write letters, send emails, call your city and state government representatives. Ask their staffs what they can do to help your issue.
Seek help to bring entities together. One of the goals of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Justice is to foster relationships with community members, local industry, the trades, philanthropic foundations and other stakeholders to further economic pursuits. Maybe they can help in your neighborhood. dep.pa.gov/environmentaljustice
Turn an abandoned vacant lot into a community garden or other open space. Growing fruits and vegetables in your neighborhood is especially helpful in Philly, where a quarter of residents live in poverty, more than 40,000 plots of land lie vacant, and over 300,000 people face hunger and malnutrition. Seek advice from PHS, The Public Interest Law Center or another group on how to get started.
Keep tabs on zoning issues. Zoning codes wield enormous power. They not only influence the character of neighborhoods but are responsible for persistent urban segregation and the concentration of environmental hazards in Black and brown communities. Attend a zoning board meeting or ask a neighborhood leader for direction. Keep tabs on permit applications through the free newsletter eNOTICE.
Donate. Pick an environmental organization you believe in and donate what you can afford.
Get involved. Donate your time and talents to an environmental justice organization of your choice. For starters, see our list below.
There are many Philadelphia organizations dedicated to environmental justice. Here are a few:
Overbrook Environmental Education Center – Community-based center dedicated to environmental education, conservation, public health and personal enrichment. A strategic partner of the Academy of Natural Sciences dedicated to meeting the needs of the Overbrook/Wynnefield community.
Soil Generation – Grassroots Black- and brown-led coalition of growers dedicated to building a people’s agroecology movement.
Philly Thrive – Grassroots movement dedicated to uniting around the right to breathe and to winning political support against toxic fuel projects.
Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership – Collaborates with municipalities and communities in education, stewardship, restoration and advocacy for the watershed.
Esperanza – Active in collaborations to address the disparity in how heat is experienced in Philly, especially Hunting Park.
Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition – Active in the Southwest Philly neighborhoods hart hit by landfills, toxic emissions, unstable houses and other environmental issues.
Philadelphia Climate Works – A coalition of community groups, labor unions, environmental advocates and individuals working together to advance environmental and labor justice. The organization is managed by Zakia Elliot, an alumnus of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Women In Natural Sciences.
POWER – An interfaith organization that works for green jobs, green infrastructure investment and climate justice.
Clean Air Council – Philadelphia’s oldest nonprofit is particularly active in environmental justice issues in Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia’s River Ward port neighborhoods, and in Southwest Philly near the refinery.
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society – Offers education and assistance with community gardens, tree programs, transforming vacant land, stormwater solutions and more.
Bartram’s Gardens – Operates the African-focused Sankofa Community Farm in partnership with its Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. Local families, paid high school interns and hundreds of volunteers produce and distribute 15,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each year, providing local access especially critical for older African American families and new West African immigrants who live there.
Grounded in Philly – A project of The Garden Justice Legal Initiative from the Public Interest Law Center, this group provides legal assistance, usable data and informative guides.
The Public Interest Law Center – Supports low-income, historically disinvested communities and communities of color in advocating for sustainable and equitable neighborhoods. Particularly active in food injustice issues and supporting urban farmers and gardeners.
Energy Coordinating Agency – Coordinates low income energy services and administers energy conservation, education, heating and home repair services to reduce households’ energy costs and stabilize families in their communities.
1% For the Planet – List of national nonprofits fighting for social and environmental justice.
Philadelphia Office of Sustainability – Partners with others in the city to improve quality of life in all Philadelphia neighborhoods, reduce the city’s carbon emissions, and prepare for a hotter, wetter climate.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Environmental Justice – Lists resources on their website for learning about the issues in the state, plus contact information for the eastern, western and central regional offices. You can also subscribe online to a free newsletter, EJNews.
For more resources, including accessible reading materials about environmental justice for both children and adults, visit our Small Actions Spark Big Changes page.
By Carolyn Belardo, public relations director
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