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Peggy M. Shepard: Setting the Bar for Environmental Justice

by Molly M. Ginty

One progressive "line in the sand" is the conviction that all people are entitled to clean air, clean water, and healthy, unpolluted space in which to live, work, study and grow. But when it comes to people of color—particularly those in urban environments—that line has been crossed one time too many.
Enter Peggy M. Shepard, founder and executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), which has battled since 1988 to create environmental justice for New York City's urban poor.
"When WE ACT was formed, 300 delegates met to anchor our values and vision," says Shepard, a former journalist whose commitment to environmental justice was sparked when she served as a West Harlem democratic district leader from 1985 to 1993. "WE ACT's founders established 17 lines in the sand in terms of the principles that guide us. These touch on how we relate to mother earth; on communities speaking out for themselves; and on environmental initiatives being led by people in those communities."
Campaigning for a healthier environment alongside others in her Harlem community, Shepard achieved her first victory by winning a million-dollar "odor abatement" suit against a local sewage plant. Then came other triumphs: establishing an air-quality monitoring program at Columbia University; launching community-based environmental education, youth empowerment and sustainable development programs; securing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant to identify sources of pollution in Northern Manhattan and reduce human exposure to these toxins; and winning a 2004 lawsuit to reinstate federal controls to reduce the risk of rat poison to New York City children.
As she worked to cement WE ACT's lines in the sand, Shepard also campaigned independently for environmental justice by serving as president of the National Women's Political Caucus in Manhattan from 1993 to 1997 and serving as the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the EPA from 2001 to 2003. Her work has won her awards from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, the Heinz Foundation, Earth Day New York and the National Organization of Women's New York City Chapter.
Not content to rest on these laurels, Shepard met in May with President Obama's transition team to voice WE ACT's concerns—especially its alarm over cap-and-trade legislation, which would put a cap or limit on emissions but would give polluters some flexibility in how they comply with regulations. "The administration seems to support this policy," says Shepard. "But many environmental activists oppose it, and we are concerned that it could disproportionately impact communities of color."
As they press the new administration to help them draw more just and equitable lines in the sand, Shepard and her colleagues are reflecting on the lines—and achievements—they've already established so far. On June 17, they commemorated WE ACT's 20th anniversary in a gala event at Riverside Church, an interdenominational and interracial congregation on Harlem's southern border.
As she celebrates WE ACT's two decades of success, Shepard recognizes that its campaign for environmental justice is far from finished. "More than 80 percent of Latinos and more than 70 percent of African-Americans live in areas that don't meet clean air standards," she says. "We have escalating health disparities because of environmental exposure and we still have some communities that are used as dumps. Disproportionate environmental exposure to pollution and toxins—and unfair policies—have scarred the health and quality of life of residents of low-income communities of color. But our social justice uprising is a young, dynamic movement, and we are working to redefine both the environment and environmentalism."
July 24, 2009

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Molly M. Ginty is a freelance journalist in New York City who has written for Ms., Women's eNews and, and is working on a book about racial disparities in health outcomes.

Also see "To Run the World, Power Up Feminism" by Gloria Feldt in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

"Activists Boost Female Health Empowerment" by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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