Environmental Integrity

What does environmental justice mean to you?

by Kate Bashford, Wilma Dykeman Legacy Program Chair for Environmental Integrity

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What Does Environmental Justice Mean to You?

By Kate Bashford, Wilma Dykeman Legacy Program Chair for Environmental Integrity

When I first heard the term environmental justice (EJ), I didn’t know its formal definition. Nevertheless, I had a vision of the meaning based on images, stories, and intuition. I remembered my college professor telling us about his childhood in Pakistan, where his village faced a terrible trade-off: regular exposure to DDT (a known carcinogen) or higher infection rates of malaria. Spraying for the malaria-spreading mosquitos at the expense of increasing the risk of cancer - or facing higher infection rates of malaria by limiting use of an effective pesticide - is a bad deal either way.

Closer to home, in our country, state, and region, we have our own history of environmental [in]justice.  Land in Western NC was stolen, violently. This action, resulting in the Trail of Tears, displaced the Cherokee Indians from their ancestral home. Toxic sites, public infrastructure, and polluting powerplants were all disproportionately located in neighborhoods that are predominantly lower income, and in most cases, home to BIPOC communities. In the early 1980s, a movement began to stop a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, a poor, rural, and historically black area in eastern NC.  That movement, along with theseminal work of Dr. Robert Bullard, was the beginning of the environmental justice discipline as we know it today.  

One definition of the term, taken from Governor Roy Cooper’s October 2023 Executive Order (EO) 292 Advancing Environmental Justice for North Carolina, states that EJ is:

“…the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, or Tribal affiliation, in agency policies and programming that affect human health, well-being, quality of life, and the environment so that people:

(i.) are protected from disproportionate and adverse human health effects and environmental hazards, including: those related to climate change, the cumulative impacts of environmental and other burdens, and the legacy of racism or other structural or systemic barriers; and

(ii.) have equitable access to a healthy, sustainable, and resilient environment in which to live, play, work, learn, grow, worship, and engage in cultural and subsistence practices.”

The EO requires that all state agencies draft three EJ goals and measurable outcomes by the end of February 2024.  North Carolinians, including you, can learn more and get involved here.  

In addition to the vision for environmental justice as it is academically defined above, there is also something personal, profound, and intuitive about what environmental justice means to different communities and individuals. To Wilma Dykeman, who began writing before the term was coined, environmental justice was a healthy ecosystem that supported a mutually beneficial relationship with the economy and all segments of our society. The French Broad, her tome to the French Broad River, expounds beautifully on this sentiment.

At the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, we are launching an initiative to learn about what environmental justice means to YOU.  What does it feel like?  What does it look like? What is your vision? Throughout most of hunter-gathering human history, environmental justice was largely dictated by nature itself, and the concept didn’t exist; it simply was a way of life.  In more recent times, since the onset of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, environmental “justice” is often meted out by powerful people to disastrous effect. We have profoundly impacted the natural world, and we have created societies ridden with the scourges of institutional racism, intergenerational pollution, and persistent poverty. These ills frequently intersect with our environment, creating problems as vast as climate change and as personal as a child with asthma. Asheville and Buncombe County are no exception, and we must do better.  (Note that the City of Asheville has a Climate Justice Initiative that you can learn more about here, which we will explore more in the coming months).

We will be reaching out into the community through events, media, and conversation. But please find us, too! Tell us what EJ means to you using the form below. DM us on Instagram @wilmadykemanlegacy, or find us on Facebook.  We plan to document your thoughts, ideas, and stories, to learn from them, and to put them into future action.  

Environmental Justice Intake Form
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