Why a Harlem Activist’s Decades-Long Fight for Environmental Justice Matters More Than Ever

Why a Harlem Activist’s Decades-Long Fight for Environmental Justice Matters More Than Ever

Environmental justice may seem to some like a new buzzword that has arisen in recent years as we reckon with climate change and racial bias. But five minutes talking to Peggy Shepard can set you straight.

“I was rummaging around in a drawer recently,” she said. “I found a copy of–are you ready? A telegram.” She laughed. “We sent a telegram to the governor about the sewage plant.”

Shepard is one of the founders of West Harlem Environmental Action, known as WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a powerhouse of organising in New York City and a cornerstone of the environmental justice movement nationwide. WE ACT has successfully organised large demonstrations and actions in Harlem for decades. Even amid the pandemic, Shepard pointed out that more than 100 people routinely attend the organisation’s weekly Zoom meetings are nearly all people of colour, many of whom live in public housing. The long-running and continuously debunked stereotype from environmental groups and some of the general public that Black people do not care about the environment clearly frustrates her.

“It boggles the mind because those are the people who have the problems,” she said of WE ACT’s members of colour. “We all have a problem, but they have a visceral problem. They have a ceiling that’s falling in, there’s mould in public housing. These are the people who are most affected. They get on a bus and they go to Albany and lobby.”

Shepard didn’t start out with intentions of becoming an environmental figurehead. Following a successful career in journalism in Indianapolis in the 1970s, where she covered the women’s interest section as the first Black employee at the Indianapolis News, Shepard moved to New York to try and write for the New York Times–but ended up making a switch to politics. After a stint as public relations director for the 1984 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, Shepard was convinced to run for Democratic District Leader in her community of West Harlem. She won her race and took office in the late 1980s.

Early into her tenure, residents told her about a sewage plant that was originally planned for construction in an upper-middle-class white neighbourhood, but that the city had recently moved to West Harlem. The fumes and smells from the newly-opened plant were making residents sick. At first, Shepard wasn’t sure how to respond.

“I didn’t know anything about a sewage treatment plant,” she said. “I hadn’t been involved in environmental issues. I’d been writing about home furnishings.”

Nevertheless, Shepard jumped in with both feet. On Martin Luther King Day in 1988, Shepard, along with other activists and community leaders, led a march holding up traffic on the West Side Highway to protest the sewage plant; she and other leaders were arrested. The group, which formalized into WE ACT that year, later filed a lawsuit against the plant. It was was settled in 1994, resulting in a $US55 ($69) million odor abatement plan and a $US1.1 ($1) million environmental benefit fund for the community.

Shepard protesting in 1988. (Photo: WE ACT)
Shepard protesting in 1988. (Photo: WE ACT)

Out of these activities WE ACT was born, and Shepard became a leader in the burgeoning movement towards recognising how pollution, climate change, and the environment disproportionately impact people of colour. A WE ACT coalition attended the first People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, where Shepard helped draft the first Principles of Environmental Justice. In the mid-1990s, WE ACT helped the EPA conduct the first assessment of the air quality in Harlem. Since 2008, the organisation has also served as coordinator of a nationwide environmental justice forum that brings more than 50 nonprofits working on the issue together each year to coordinate on policy fights.

WE ACT’s work has been crucial in influencing how New York makes policy decisions around environmental issues. Its continued drive to push the city to clean up public transportation — six of the city’s seven diesel bus depots are located in Harlem — led to major commitments from the city like switching from diesel to alternative fuels and mandating that new projects needed to take a neighbourhood’s racial and economic makeup into account. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed two landmark environmental justice bills mandating citywide studies of the issue; WE ACT was a key force behind the bills.

Throughout this time, Shepard said, big green groups and the mainstream environmental movement knew about her and her work, and gave her seats at the table. (She’s been on the board of trustees of the Environmental Defence Fund for years.) Yet white leaders never seemed to be fully listening when she brought up community concerns around solutions like cap-and-trade, which local groups say gives polluters a pass to keep destroying neighbourhoods.

“When there’s not a critical mass of you, when there’s one or two voices, it becomes really hard,” she said. “You’re on a big board where everybody’s fairly wealthy and you’re not, and you’re talking about something that probably goes against where they’ve got their stock. I don’t mean that in some horrible negative way, because they came to my committee. We had discussions, and I kept telling them how we didn’t like cap-and-trade. And they kept telling me I didn’t understand.”

Now, Shepard can feel the tide changing. She attributed a rising cultural awareness of both climate change and racial bias over the past decade to a growing need to address environmental justice. She said a “perfect storm” of situations this year — covid-19’s impact on people of colour, the killing of George Floyd, the visible ascent of white nationalism — helped vault environmental justice into the mainstream conversation.

“I’ve been getting a lot of media calls,” she said wryly. “More than half of those media calls didn’t really know much about environmental justice. That’s been interesting.”

Shepard (centre) marches at the People's Climate March in 2017. (Photo: WE ACT)
Shepard (centre) marches at the People’s Climate March in 2017. (Photo: WE ACT)

The shift in power in Washington has ushered in a new kind of activity. The Biden administration has made environmental justice the core of its climate mission, and the president signed executive orders last month that made environmental justice a presence in how federal agencies plan for and address the climate crisis. Suddenly, Shepard is taking endless meetings with folks from the administration, including climate advisor Gina McCarthy and Biden’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Michael Regan, and hosting 400-person Zoom meetings with Department of Energy officials as the Biden administration scrambles to put its vision into action.

“It’s exhausting, but it’s inspiring. It’s hopeful. It’s optimistic,” she said. “There’s never been this kind of bold vision. The trick here is to implement it, and for it to be implemented in the way that benefits the people that it’s supposed to benefit. That’s the challenge, but that’s a wonderful challenge to have because we haven’t had that challenge before.”

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