At the Feet of My Ancestors

My grandparents treated all living things with respect, and from them I learned a deep appreciation for nature and a respect for animals.

Stephanie Maddin-Smith
Stephanie Maddin-Smith, Earthjustice Legislative Counsel (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Maddin-Smith)

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From a young age, I was keenly aware of the concept of injustice. At seven, I watched the Civil Rights era documentary Eyes on the Prize and was convinced that the best way to address injustice was through legal advocacy.  As I grew up, my conviction for the importance of voting and civil engagement continued to grow. One humorous milestone in my civic development involved my local newspaper chronicling my 11 year-old self bemoaning trickle-down economics and wishing I could vote. Ultimately, I would follow my legal idols, like late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, to Howard University School of Law.

I grew up in the largest historically black community in Virginia Beach, VA, and my neighborhood, Seatack, was anchored by churches, sports and deep family bonds. Our working class community was not rural, but it was not uncommon to see a tractor, climb trees or pick honeysuckle from a neighbor’s backyard. My uncle raised hogs on the side, like my grandfather before him, and I had a great affinity for the runts. My grandmother had a garden, and we spent warm summer evenings snapping green beans and chasing lightning bugs in the yard.  My maternal grandparents, Lillian and Daniel Hill, lived through the Great Depression, World War II and Jim Crow. Eventually they won the opportunity to vote in late middle age and never stopped until their dying days.

Grandma and Granddaddy Hill were born in Virginia at a time when folks still traveled to church revivals by horse and buggy. I enjoyed tales of a life where making everything from scratch, washing clothes by hand and building one’s home from the ground up was still normal. Today, they’d be hipsters, right? What I learned from my grandparents was a deep appreciation for nature and a respect for animals. They were sensitive to the environment; they didn’t waste, and they treated all living things with respect.  I don’t think they thought of themselves as environmentalists, but as I look back, they definitely were.

Each day, I take with me the perseverance, hopes and dreams of both my immediate and remote ancestors. While my family was not full of highly educated professionals, we were rich in character and commitment.  Defending and assisting the disadvantaged and dispossessed was not just the right thing to do but was a call from our faith.

Today, I work on behalf of Earthjustice’s clients fighting for robust federal clean air regulations. Dirty emissions from power plants, cement kilns, refineries and other industrial operations not only spread toxins, soot and smog by air, but also impact waterways and wildlife. Communities overburdened by these forms of pollution are just trying to live, love and enjoy the best lives possible.

Hostile forces in Congress and polluting industries work tirelessly to reduce or eliminate the promise of the federal Clean Air Act.  I’m constantly returning to the courtroom with our clients who are fighting on the frontlines of environmental degradation and for their very lives. The same resolve and tenacity that carried my family on a journey of economic and social advancement is the same dedication I see in the eyes of frontline environmental justice leaders like Hilton Kelley, Vernice Miller-Travis and Leslie Fields who have taught me a great deal about how to apply my passion to practice in this field.

Every single day, I am in a professional winter and must call upon the invincible summers in my colleagues and clients to combat an institutional power structure tilted in the favor of the party with the most money. But because of my foundation in family, community and the power of committed professionals at Earthjustice, I know that we will eventually win. 

Stephanie Maddin worked on Capitol Hill with the Policy & Legislation team from 2010–2016. She lobbied on air pollution issues to ensure that all Americans enjoy the full promise of the Clean Air Act.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.