WE ACT for Environmental Justice
Diversity in Energy Spotlight
WE ACT for Environmental Justice was founded in 1988 in response to environmental racism in Harlem. The three founders of WE ACT were fundamental in the beginnings of the environmental justice movement, which officially began in 1991. WE ACT works hard to represent BIPOC voices in an environmentalist movement that is overwhelmingly white. For more information on the environmental justice movement, read our primer here.
WE ACT’s mission is to “build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low-income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.” Their work focuses on 5 areas of work: climate justice, clean air, good jobs, healthy homes, and sustainable and equitable land use. You can read their 2020 NYC Policy Agenda here. They work hard to shape a community that has:
- “informed and engaged residents who participate fully in decision-making on key issues that impact their health and community.
- strong and equal environmental protection.
- increased environmental health through community-based participatory research and evidence-based campaigns.”
WE ACT’s work has become ever the more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought to light the deep disparities that BIPOC communities face on a daily basis. Race and income have proven to be the largest factors in determining who lives and dies. When adjusted for age, Black and Latino New Yorkers are dying at almost twice the rate of white New Yorkers, a pattern that has held true across the entire United States.
Since its start in 1988, WE ACT has fought for equitable access to affordable housing options that have good indoor air quality. Systematic racism and gentrification have pushed BIPOC communities to housing in NYC that has substandard indoor air quality, which has led to increased rates of asthma due to sustained exposure to mold, mildew, pests, moisture, and chemicals. Poor indoor air quality leads to respiratory issues that have left BIPOC communities at higher risk of COVID-19.
On June 9, 2020, WE ACT submitted a letter to Members of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce titled Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19's Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities. The letter addresses the ways that the intersection of environmental racism and the pandemic have contributed to the disproportionate death rate among BIPOC communities during the COVID-19 crisis. Citing harrowing statistics such as the COVID-19 death rate in New York City public housing is nearly double the rate of the city itself, the letter recommends five policies to improve living conditions for BIPOC communities that will, in turn, make these communities less susceptible to COVID-19. The first is to end a policy enacted by the EPA at the start of the coronavirus that relaxes pollution standards, allowing an increased amount of pollution that will disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. Another request is a call on Congress to establish a fund for the replacement of gas stoves in public housing; the EPA states that gas stoves release nitrous oxides that can lead to “increased bronchial reactivity in some asthmatics; decreased lung function in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; [and] increased risk of respiratory infections, especially in young children.” More generally, WE ACT also calls on Congress to establish a fund that will address poor air quality standards in public housing to help address respiratory health triggers.
Another one of WE ACT’s major successes was lobbying the MTA to transition their bus fuel source from diesel, a known carcinogen, to compressed natural gas (CNG). Many of the MTA bus depots are located in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of BIPOC. Because of the shift in fuel source, people who live close to those bus depots are now subjected to less pollution.
WE ACT is doing incredible work towards a more equitable environmental future for all New Yorkers. If you would like to directly support their efforts, please find the link to donate here.