The Southeast Region Environmental Summit was held June 7 to 12 at the Grand Hyatt Regency in Buckhead. The summit brought together hundreds of community leaders, scientists, educators, activists and others around the movement of environmental justice.
Environmental justice is a relatively new term dating back to the 80’s for a concept that has long before guided the work of many, and one that has picked up energy in recent years.
Environmental justice encompasses everything from recognizing and repairing communities affected by pollution to ensuring new constructions benefit legacy residents. The concept has even caught steam at the federal level with likes of the Justice40 Initiative, an executive order signed by President Biden with a goals that “40 percent of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution,” according to the White House official website. It lists “climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure,” as federal investments that likely fit this criteria.
Because of the Southeast’s complicated past — one that engineered toxic environments for marginalized groups both literally and figuratively — environmental justice is especially important here.
The event was held by Harambe House, an environmental justice non profit group that specializes in training, education, disaster response and environmental justice advocacy. The summit saw panelists from the City of Atlanta’s Chief Sustainability Officer Chandra Farley to community leaders whose names are not widely known but whose impact has undoubtedly been felt in their respective communities. It also welcomed companies like Greenlink Analytics and Serve-learn-Sustain from Georgia Tech along with a myriad of professors and scientists, especially from HBCUs in the region.
One emphasis of the five-day summit was letting elders of respective communities share their perspective and wisdom — and acknowledging that while the term may be new, the work is not. Which makes it more crucial to ensure everyone sees their role valued in environmental justice.
Amani Allen-Beale, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College studying environmental science, says she’s seen actions already being done in communities and by community groups be hijacked by large corporations, who could have good intentions but end up boxing out the ones who laid the groundwork.
“I think a lot of the language around sustainability and environmental justice comes from a privileged place… where I grew up in a majority-Black neighborhood and low income neighborhood, that’s not the language we put with it — it’s just something that we naturally did,” said Allen-Beale. “ So I think a lot of people in those communities don’t feel like they’re a part of this movement because of the language surrounding it.”
Panels and sessions were held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta in Buckhead. Outside of the hotel, the summit saw groups of attendees go on different tours, ranging from an Old Fourth Ward climate gentrification environmental justice tour to an Oscarville Lake Lanier tour.
The case for environmental justice
Environmental justice only exists due to environmental racism and discrimination for centuries before — and ongoing. Examples of this from the built environment can be found in the highways all throughout the nation, which used “urban renewal” as an excuse to destroy thriving minority communities via eminent domain and build highways straight through established neighborhoods. These effects are still prevalent today in major cities, including in the Southeast.
Other examples of environmental racism call to mind events like the Flint, MI water crisis or the Jackson, MS water crisis. In both cities, the drinking water for predominantly black communities was contaminated by lead.
One of the more recent examples of environmental injustice — and justice — is still ongoing here in Atlanta. Studies from Emory researchers in 2018 found unsafe levels of lead in over 2000 households on the Westside of Atlanta, which has long been known to be a lower income area of the city. Lead is one of the most toxic chemicals on the planet, especially for the development of children. The neighborhoods of English Avenue and Vine City, where most of the homes are located, are historically black.
The EPA designated the site as a superfund site — a heavily polluted site that cannot identify a present-day party at fault. The superfund designation, “gives EPA the funds and authority to clean up contaminated sites,” according to the EPA website. Effectively, the superfund designation and subsequent ongoing cleaning of the area acts as a form of environmental justice, at least in part.
Many areas that were cut off by the highways are the same ones that lie in a food desert, which are the same ones that often lie within an urban heat island, which are the same ones which have lower income tracts, etc. In short? It’s cyclical, and it’s intentional. Thus, the need for environmental justice.
Organizers hope that attendees will leave the summit empowered, and that more community-led science will strengthen communities and allow them to defend themselves from future environmental injustice attempts, while also working with authorities to correct wrongs of the past.