Kate Robb, Crystal Dixon, Donna Chavis, Donele Wilkins, Sacoby Wilson, Michele OkohEnvironmental racism is a public health crisis that demands action, according to APHA’s final Advancing Racial Equity webinar of 2020, “Mobilizing Public Health to Achieve Environmental Justice.”

“Social justice and public health have always been inextricably linked,” said Crystal Dixon, MPH, MCHES, assistant professor in public health education at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, during the webinar, which is now available for on-demand viewing.

The webinar’s expert panel discussed the historical and ongoing impact of racist policies — such as redlining and toxic waste zoning — that have disproportionately impacted the health and well-being of Black, indigenous and other communities of color. It also focused on the importance of environmental justice initiatives and highlighted how public health professionals can address environmental racism.

Panelist Donna Chavis, a senior fossil fuels campaigner with Friends of the Earth and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, helped develop longstanding environmental justice principles initially established in 1991 at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. 

“The key word for us was justice,” said Chavis, who emphasized that creating a sense of commonality between different groups was essential for success. She said Friends of the Earth used a similar strategy in its recent efforts to stop a 600-milelong natural gas pipeline along the Atlantic Coast.

The pipeline, which was canceled this summer, would have run through rural, low-income communities of color and indigenous tribal lands in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Chavis said actively listening to communities and using a statewide environmental justice tool that illustrates industrial impacts on health were key to rallying support.

“We need the public health community behind us. It’s time to disrupt the system that created injustice,” said Donele Wilkins, founder and CEO of the Green Door Initiative, which works to improve environmental literacy. 

Wilkins also expressed frustration with federal environmental enforcement — “we have the wrong complexion for protection,” she told viewers, quoting Robert D. Bullard, PhD, considered the father of environmental justice.

On the same topic, panelist Sacoby Wilson, PhD, MS, said: “You think about where we are in this country, what’s happening with pollution. It’s a form of state-sanctioned violence. When you permit pollution, you are telling people they are less than human.”

Wilson, an associate professor and director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health laboratory at the University of Maryland, advocated for citizen science that translates data into action to make a difference in front-line communities most affected by industry polluters. 

Michele Okoh, JD, senior lecturing fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law, highlighted APHA’s role in promoting public health and environmental justice by outlining APHA’s 2019 policy statement on the issue.

She emphasized a public health approach to address the nation’s history of structural racism — a system that panel moderator Dixon described as "the new Jim Crow.” 

“We should not be sacrificing communities for economic progress,” Okoh said, highlighting the 15 recommendations in APHA’s policy statement to illustrate the way forward. “It all begins with acknowledging structural racism and how it impacts environmental justice.” 

For more on this topic, see APHA’s webinar, “Achieving Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: The Way Forward,” and check out other APHA racism and health resources, including the popular APHA Press book, Racism: Science & Tools for the Public Health Professional.

Photos: APHA Senior Program Manager for Environmental Health Kate Robb, Crystal Dixon, Donna Chavis, Donele Wilkins, Sacoby Wilson and Michele Okoh