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“This new movement building around social justice is beginning to incorporate a broader sector than police brutality and criminal-justice reform,” says Peggy Shepard, the co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, based in Harlem. Communities of color, especially low-income ones, have higher exposure rates to air pollution and other environmental hazards. (In 1988, Shepard was instrumental in New York City paying a $1.1 million settlement and committing $55 million to upgrading a sewage facility that was sickening West Harlem residents.) WE ACT’s purview is wide-ranging: Its 900 members work to empower residents to take an active role in government decisions. “We work to empower the most affected community residents to engage in environmental decision making,” Shepard says. “We don’t separate policy from base building.”
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The organization blocks new bus depots in overtaxed neighborhoods, advocates for safer public housing, and trains citizens to engage with their elected officials. (Shepard was one herself, a former Democratic district leader.) Her reach is national. In 1991, she helped create the seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. In Washington, D.C., where WE ACT operates an office, “we are the first institutionalized voice on environmental justice that impacts policies,” she says.
Still, only one percent of all environmental financial contributions currently go to justice groups. “It’s not because the issues aren’t real or important; it’s a bias that it’s even important to think about these communities,” Shepard says. In June, as America erupted in protests in support of Black lives, WE ACT, and Shepard, helped relaunch the National Black Environmental Justice Network, ensuring that as focus returns to the climate crisis, justice will be part of the conversation.