What is Environmental Justice and How Do We Get There?

By Jessica Yorko, Environmental Justice Coordinator, Ingham County Health Department


I used to think that protesting was “not my style,” because really, how does standing around with other people waving signs change anything? Give me a shovel, paintbrush, pen, microphone, petitions, flyers, sneakers and I’ll show you social and environmental change.

As of late, I have been thinking and learning more and more about the power of organized protests and powerful organizations, and how to challenge interpersonal oppression without burning out, or burning (too many) bridges. Interpersonal oppression is when people believe that one group is better than another, and hence members of the “superior” group can control and/or disrespect members of the “inferior” group. These ideas of superiority and inferiority are often internalized, and many people believe their disrespect of members of the “inferior” group is quite normal. As the demographics of the United States shift to a majority non-white population, and as the economic recession continues, challenging oppression is not just for a few radical, bleeding-heart liberals whose parents taught them to fight for racial and economic justice as they were growing up.

A complete, mind-and-soul understanding of health equity and social justice must be required coursework for all residents of the United States-because it affects all of us, in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. The current movement toward social justice and equity in the U.S. is growing, and has many channels for participation by people who are tired of feeling sick and tired, and people who want to alter the relations of power. Environmental Justice is one of those channels, and one in which I am privileged to be creating more space for action and health equity in Ingham County, Michigan.

I don’t like it when people tell me that low-income people or people of color are unhealthy or are living or working in unhealthy conditions simply because of their own life choices. Equally bothersome is being told that it is unfair for us to make investments in populations that are disproportionately experiencing premature deaths and illnesses. When I hear things like this, I try to decide whether or not to say that the chances of living in unhealthy housing are far greater for people of color, regardless of financial resources… or that black babies die at a rate three times higher than white babies…  or that cancer, obesity and asthma morbidity and mortality are experienced disproportionately by non-white people… or that all Americans experience health outcomes that follow a ladder-like pattern, where the wealthier you are, the healthier you are… and that the space between the rungs of the ladder are far wider in the U.S. than in many other countries. Sometimes I tell the stories of people and families I know, and how their lives and experiences are actually very different from how others may imagine them to be. It’s fairly easy to pass judgment on a life you have never lived or even heard much about first-hand. Sometimes I walk away, out of exhaustion and/or certainty that I will be wasting my breath. Sometimes I tell myself that I may have lost that fight, but we will not lose the battle.

Environmental Justice is a movement toward equitable access to environmental benefits and protections across race, income, age, gender, ability and other forms of difference. Environmental benefits include safe and healthy housing; fresh, healthy food; places for recreation and relaxation; clean air and water; and safe neighborhoods. The Environmental Justice movement is the offspring of the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. It is perfect for people who know that in order to take personal RESPONS-IBILITY for our lives, we have to be ABLE-TO-RESPOND— and our ability to respond is tied up with some things that are within our immediate control, and some things that are not.

This is Part I of a multi-part series on Environmental Justice (EJ). Check future posts to learn about the past, present and future of the EJ movement in the United States, Michigan and Ingham County and how you can get involved.