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Race & Environmental Justice: A Conversation with Activist Vernice Miller-Travis

A Conversation with Activist Vernice Miller-Travis, a longtime environmental justice advocate and cofounder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Vernice Miller-Travis
Vernice Miller-Travis cofounded WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a community based organization in New York City. (Chris Jordan-Bloch)

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Vernice Miller-Travis is a longtime environmental justice advocate and cofounder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a northern Manhattan community-based organization. She believes that green groups and environmental justice groups must work together in order to build a more diverse and effective environmental movement.

In this interview, Vernice talks about her evolving relationship with the EPA and the need for a deeper national conversation about environmental justice. Vernice has found a remarkable way to stay positive, even when faced with so many environmental challenges.

Jessica Knoblauch: You’ve spent almost three decades as a leading activist in the environmental justice movement. What first inspired you to get involved?

Vernice Miller-Travis: I worked as a research assistant at the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. At the same time, I lived in West Harlem, New York, where people were fighting the siting of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. And the two things merged. The commission’s research would ultimately come forward in a report called Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, which was the first report to look comprehensively at the relationship between race and waste.

J.K.: Can you talk about the lessons you learned during that first struggle over the sewage plant in Harlem?

V.M.: I found that people can learn any subject matter that they need to when their lives are in danger. I also learned that if you really want to get to the bottom of environmental injustice, then you have to understand the relationship between race, land use and zoning. In communities of color, local government has set in place a practice of residential segregation. That was the case in the 1940s and 50s, and it’s still the case today.

J.K.: You’ve worked with the federal EPA for years as an environmental justice advocate. How has your relationship with that agency evolved?

V.M.: When I first began to interact with the EPA, which was in the late 1980s, there was no group of people that I was more furious at. The North River Sewage Treatment Plant in the lower Hudson River is designed to treat 180 million gallons of raw sewage every day. And the EPA never intended to put in any pollution control systems. So we got a half-mile long, six-story high giant toilet bowl that utterly undermined the lives of the 100,000 people who lived in the West Harlem community.

Over the years, after working closely with a lot of people at EPA, I have come to recognize that they are really dedicated environmental professionals. They needed some education and some sensitizing to the issues but they were not actively trying to undermine the quality of our lives.

J.K.: You’ve worked with groups like Earthjustice to help diversify the environmental movement and bring environmental justice issues to the forefront. What do you believe green groups are doing wrong on environmental justice, and what are they doing right?

V.M.: Earthjustice used to have an office in New Orleans that did groundbreaking legal advocacy work around environmental justice. And Earthjustice has been making environmental justice central to a lot of its legal advocacy, including the coal combustion residual rule, the definition of solid waste rule, and work around the mercury air toxics rule. So at a policy level, Earthjustice has made a real commitment to continuing that work that began out of its New Orleans office. But where we still lag behind is the complete and utter lack of diversity among the staffs and boards and even the donor bases of the environmental movement.

J.K.: What are some concrete steps environmental groups should take to change the image of the environmental movement, which is predominantly white and focused on conservation issues?

V.M.: It’s time for a deeper conversation. The fractured nature of the environmental movement and the environmental justice community has continued to undermine our political effectiveness. The civil rights community and the environmental community need to have a lot more overlap and integration. There are issues, like lead in drinking water, that have been under the radar screen that require more attention.

J.K.: Is grassroots advocacy the best way to solve environmental justice issues?

V.M.: At the core has got to be strong, sustained grassroots advocacy led by people who are principally impacted by those environmental and public health threats.

But most of these groups working on environmental justice issues are vastly under-resourced. I think it’s time that we invest in those efforts.

J.K.: How do you make people care about the environment, especially people who don’t easily identify with traditional environmental values like conservation?

V.M.: People of color have always cared about environmental issues. But the language that we use to talk about these issues has created barriers. Conservation is a fairly high level conversation. But if you talk to the average person in any of these EJ [environmental justice] communities about what it means to protect their communities and their families, people will talk their heads off about what these issues mean to them and how they value these issues as part of the core of their existence.

J.K.: Is climate change one example where the environmental community needs to do a better job of communicating the issue in a way that relates to a majority of the public?

V.M.: Absolutely. One of the issues that EJ communities are really focused on are the localized emissions. These are the things that are triggering asthma, that are triggering asthma mortality, that are happening at epidemic rates in EJ communities. Those issues are a dimension of greenhouse gas emissions, but they are not necessarily being talked about by the environmental community. That has got to change.

J.K.: There are so many environmental challenges. How do you stay positive?

V.M.: Every big victory is a major advance for our society and for our planet.

Every little victory, a life is saved. 

Our community in West Harlem no longer has the highest premature death rate from asthma. We are seeing the overall number of children with elevated levels of blood lead going down. We are seeing an improvement in water quality, a dramatic improvement in air quality. But there are still challenges. As long as folks from local communities still have the energy to move this agenda, then I still have the energy to support them in every way that I can. 

This interview was taken and edited from the original podcast, Ecology Without Equality.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.