On Wednesday, Sept. 21, Sustain Charlotte and CleanAIRE NC held a presentation and discussion about the county’s Environmental Justice Action Plan, which presents a framework for working toward racial equity and environmental justice among all communities, particularly unfair exposure of Black, Brown and other marginalized communities to environmental harms.
The program was led by Mecklenburg County Sustainability & Resiliency Manager Erin Stanforth, CleanAIRE NC Environmental Justice Manager Daisha Williams, and Ronald Ross, with Northwood Estates Community Organization and Historic West End Green District.
What is the Environmental Leadership Policy and Action Plan?
In March 2021, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners adopted the Environmental Leadership Policy and Action Plan, a resolution that requires the county to embrace justice through equal protection and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. During this presentation, participants learned about why the plan is being created, its timeline for implementation, and ways to contribute to building a healthier environment for residents across Mecklenburg County.
Environmental justice is complex
As the effects of climate change become more evident, it’s important to note that some communities are affected more than others. The Environmental Justice movement, which began in Warren County, NC in 1982, is a field of study and practice that takes into account the human dimensions of sustainability. It’s an intersectional, systemic analysis of cumulative impacts.
Erin Stanforth shared that the core principles of environmental justice are representation, process and distribution. It’s critically important that impacted communities are represented in decision-making processes – and that planning processes are fair, transparent and accessible. Environmental benefits and impacts must be distributed – or mitigated – so that no one community bears a disproportionate burden.
Defining environmental justice
Environmental justice acknowledges that the environment is more than our physical and natural world; it’s where we live, work, play, learn and eat. It reframes environmental issues from resource conservation and preservation to be inclusive of green space, toxins, health care, food access and water quality. And it redefines environmental stakeholders, placing an emphasis on Black, Brown and low-wealth communities and grassroots activists.
Stanforth shared that Mecklenburg County’s definition of environmental justice is as follows: The County commits to embrace justice through meaningful involvement, equal protection as well as enforcement of environmental laws and regulations to align to the County’s Equity Action Plan to address unfair exposure of Black and Brown and other marginalized communities to environmental harms, which have negative impacts on health outcomes.
The County’s Environmental Justice Plan will follow an environmental justice study, which is scheduled to be completed around the end of the year. The plan will include timelines, budget recommendations and an implementation plan.
CleanAIRE NC, which advocates for the health of North Carolinians by pursuing equitable and collaborative solutions that address climate change and air pollution, believes that that environmental justice means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental effects that result from operations or policies pursued by commerce, industry or government.
Daisha Williams pointed out that the issue of environmental justice arises when certain communities, though no fault of their own, are more impacted than others by the sources of pollution located near where they live, work and play.
CleanAIRE NC partners with Historic West End Green District
CleanAIRE NC has been partnering with the Historic West End Green District since 2017 to conduct community monitoring efforts. They’ve also engaged in strategic tree planting to improve tree canopy and green infrastructure, expanded electric vehicle charging stations and more walking, biking and clean transit options nearby, and increased education around air quality impacts to propel advocacy solutions among residents.
Ronald Ross shared that the Historic West End Green District has made recommendations to the County that the Environmental Justice Action Plan include:
- Genuine and intentional engagement with impacted communities
- Building up community confidence and resilience
- Engaging local environmental groups and county entities
- Clean construction and development
- Aid in allocation of federal and state environmental justice funding to overburdened communities
Challenges and opportunities
When asked what’s the biggest challenge and opportunity in the environmental justice movement, Daisha shared that the biggest hurdle will be to reverse the negative impact of historical injustices.
“We need to prioritize and take a holistic approach,” she said, “integrating environmental justice at all levels – from emissions to access to trees to availability of healthcare resources and more.”
Erin echoed similar sentiments.
“The biggest challenge,” she said, “is addressing the cumulative impact at every level. I’m most excited about addressing historical inequities, recognizing that it’s going to take time.”
Ron shared that he’s hopeful that more residents will work together at the grassroots level, resulting in more confidence with the local government. He’d like to see more equitable distribution of services and more readily available resources.
“Our big challenge is not enough collaboration between elected officials and people experiencing and living with the hardships they have,” Ron said. “We’ve got to do better than just talking when a vote is on the table. We can get a lot done together if we’re all engaged.”
Sustain Charlotte Director of Impact and Engagement Meg Fencil closed the program with a charge to make sure Mecklenburg County’s Environmental Justice Action Plan guides policies and budgets.
“We all have the power to act as advocates,” she said. “Let’s get involved.”
If you missed part of the presentation or want to share it with friends, click here to view it.
Ways to take action:
- Attend “Open House: Friendship Park Air Quality Monitoring Station” on October 15 from 9-11 a.m. More information about this event can be found here.
- Revisit the slides from the presentation: Clean AireNC
- Complete Mecklenburg County Environmental Justice Action Plan survey.
- Register to attend one or more of the Environmental Justice public outreach meetings organized by Mecklenburg County to inform you about some of the issues affecting communities around the county and to receive your feedback. Food and giveaways will be offered at each event. These events are free and open to the public.
- Learn more about the Charlotte Regional Transportation Coalition and email our coalition coordinator Meg at [email protected] to discuss how you can get involved.