Last week we were privileged to welcome Peggy Shepard, WE ACT’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, to one of our Greenworks Lending Virtual Fireside Chats.
Below is the transcript of the interview with Peggy, hosted by Greenworks Lending’s Co-Founder and COO, Alexandra Cooley.
Alexandra: Peggy is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice: WE ACT. WE ACT is a platform where Peggy has done battle against specific environmental hazards and served as a model for activism and grass roots coalition building. What I find so cool about your background, Peggy, is that you are an environmental justice crusader and you’ve managed to stay impactful and dynamic for over three decades. Peggy’s career has been built around empowering and being a voice for the disenfranchised and it spans journalism, publishing, pollical campaigns, and elected office. On Martin Luther King Day in 1988, Peggy was one of seven people arrested for holding up traffic to protest sewage polluting in a local river system. She turned that into cofounding WE ACT to campaign for environmental health and justice for the Northern Manhattan community. Since then WE ACThas gone on to achieve some major environmental wins, both locally and nationally, including improving sewage treatment, preserving open spaces, increasing electric bus use nationwide, improving water quality in Manhattan schools, and so many others. Peggy holds so many accolades for her work with WE ACT: she was recently elected to serve on the New York City Climate Advisory Board, she consulted as part of Biden’s energy plan, she serves on the Executive Committee of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, she was the first female chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the EPA, she was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation Jane Jacobs Medal for a lifetime of achievement, the 10th Annual Heinz Award For the Environment, the Dean’s Distinguished Service Award from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and received Honorary Doctorates from Smith College and Lawrence University.
Alexandra: We are so thrilled to be hosting you today, welcome! Give us a little background on where you are dialing in from and how are you doing these crazy days?
Peggy: I am calling in from West Harlem, I live across the street from City College (to those of you who are in New York City), I’m in a town house on a lite row of brownstones right across the street from the college and I’ve been here for the past couple of decades in this house. I am a 10 or 12 minute walk to my office at 152nd and Amsterdam. I began working in this community as the elected Democratic District Leader back in the late 80s which is when I really got started working on environmental issues. You probably want to know a little bit more about that so if you don’t mind I’ll go a little into that – we got started in 1988, I became the Democratic District leader in ’85, I had been working on The Mondale/ Ferraro campaign, I had been the Women’s Outreach Coordinator for Ferraro – we relived a little bit of that yesterday on the DNC convention when they talked about Geraldine Ferraro having been the first woman VP on a ticket. Unfortunately, she did not win, as we all know, and I had been asked by the Campaign Manager if I wanted to be behind the scenes or out in front, and so I decided to take that risk and that opportunity and run for District Leader. Once I was elected a number of older women in the community let me know that the sewage treatment plant, which was just about to go online, and people needed jobs there, so I didn’t really know much about environmental issues, but I set about getting 30 people hired and then when the plant began operating the next year it started spewing odors and emissions that were making people sick. We had an 8-year organizing campaign – this was during the Mayor Koch days, I don’t know if any of you all are old enough to know about Mayor Koch, but he was very oppositional to people of color and elected officials Uptown. So, we began trying to hold him accountable and he was saying “oh there’s no problem, you’re imagining it… we got all the best equipment in place… in fact the plant has won all kinds of engineering awards.” Well when David Dinkins was elected mayor after Koch he said “I know there’s a problem and we’re going to fix it” and it took $55M to fix a brand new plant. We also worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as our attorney and we filed a lawsuit against the city so that we could have a mandate for what would happen at the plant and that lawsuit was settled for a $1.1M environmental benefit fund for the community and WE ACT was able to get $200K from that fund to start our first staffing. We had basically been a volunteer group in the first six years and then in 1994 when our lawsuit was settled we were able to get funding to start with three people. We now have 20 people in the Harlem office and the Washington DC federal policy office, and we have evolved from things like the sewage treatment plants bad operation to things like taking on the MTA. At the time, every bus depot but one in Manhattan was Uptown and of course they were using the worst diesel fuel at that time which started us on an 18-year campaign against the MTA which was really bolstered with data from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health which has been one of our partners for the last twenty-plus years. By using their data on the impact of the air pollution on pregnant women and their children, we were able to use that data to really hammer the MTA – and so now every bus is a hybrid and they’re now beginning to showcase their first electric buses as well. It just goes to show that working on a community issue – like the fact that out of the seven bus depots in Manhattan six are Uptown – just working on that one issue resulted in cleaning up every single bus for every New Yorker citywide. So we’re very proud of that. And again, it wasn’t that we chose the issue of environmental justice, it just sort of fell in our lap, you know, once we saw the sewage treatment plant making people sick, exacerbating asthma, and again, this was about the same time we reached out to Harlem Hospital and found out there was a study that people in Harlem and Uptown neighborhoods had twice the prevalence of asthma than any other neighborhoods in New York City. That really founded the basis of our beginning work on air pollution which has really continued to this day. We’ve done a number of co-authoring studies with scientists at Columbia University around these issues looking at concentrations of air pollution at different intersections in our community which is fairly well documented. And so environmental justice just fell in my lap and my Co-District Leader, Chuck Sutton, the nephew of Percy Sutton, who was a major Harlem figure and a former Manhattan Borough president, and had been working in the South, he was from Texas, and he said to us – “this is environmental racism” and we also began to work with a volunteer named Vernice Miller-Travis, who was a Co-Founder of WE ACT, and at the time she had just graduated from Barnard and was working for as a research intern at the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice which authored the first study called “Toxic Waste and Race” which demonstrated that the primary predictor of where a toxic waste site is located is a community of color, and secondarily, a low-income community. So, from the very beginning we really began to understand that there was racism going on, that there was intentional targeting for pollution in certain communities. The sewage treatment plant I referenced earlier was originally sited for the Upper West Side and developers were able to lobby the City Planning Commission to move the plant, and so it came Uptown, and then a very ambitious architect came and suggested that they put a state park on top, and so the state park that’s on top of the sewage treatment plant is now, apparently, one of the top two parks in the whole state, it’s one of the most popular, and so we really wanted to make sure that park was safe because the stacks from the sewage treatment plant of course are right in the middle of the park. That was our first big organizing effort, and once you see an issue like that you begin to look around the community and you really begin to see the things that you walked by every day not really knowing what they were, what their impact was, you really begin to get a sense of all of those facilities in our community and the impact that they are having on health.
Alexandra: I think it’s really interesting that it came out of a concern for human health, but I also think it’s really interesting that you started WE ACT the same year that Dr. James Hansen warned Congress about the impending climate crisis and said he was 99% sure that human activity was causing temperatures to rise. I think it’s really interesting because those are two separate arcs that are now really coming together in a crisis moment right now in 2020, and I’m curious – you have had a long history of success in proving environmental outcomes, it feels like that is becoming more and more urgent today, so we would love to hear what kind of issues you’re currently focused on and how you choose those issues given where we are in 2020.
Peggy: So about 10 years ago, there was the McCain/Lieberman Bill in congress – it was a cap-and-trade bill, and the environmental justice community does not support cap and trade because what it does is that it allows the dirtiest polluters that are primarily in environmental justice communities to purchase credits to continue polluting in our communities, and so we do not support cap and trade and we do not support offsets. So let me start there – we understood this bill, making its way in congress, promoted by the mainstream green organizations would hurt our communities, so I reached out to the environmental justice movement groups and said that I think we should develop a coalition and a network around climate change policy and any of you who are interested in doing that please join us and so we started the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change back in 2008 and we held the first Climate Justice Conference at Fordham Law School in 2010. It was a two-day conference where we brought all the green groups together with environmental justice groups for the first time ever in the same room, to talk about policies. From that time on we began to use the EJ forum to help develop capacity among environmental justice organizations about the science of climate change, about the myth of Clean Coal. We developed principles of climate justice and over the years we’ve evolved to where we are now, since we have a Washington DC office where we were able to bring a lot of those grassroots groups to Washington to meet with their congressmen and Senators and to educate those folks around some of the issues around climate justice but also around environmental issues as well. We are very active now, we have about 60 grassroots groups in the coalition across 39 States and we are working to build their capacity to operate at a city and state level at a higher level. These groups are really under-resourced, so it’s really necessary to help some of them be able to have capacity to work with their state legislature or even their city council. You’re probably not aware of this but out of the in $2.8B in environmental philanthropy in this country only 1% goes to environmental justice, and so these groups, some of them don’t even have a paid staff person, they don’t have development people, they don’t have communications people, and so what we’ve been doing is providing the administrative and fundraising capacity to convene the groups to a network that they can share knowledge and so we can have an impact on climate policies as well. It might seem that climate change is a newer issue, but the environmental justice community has always considered climate change as a part of our environmental justice work and we have been working and thinking about these issues for the past 10 or so years. And then of course the extreme weather events in Alaska – we have two indigenous groups we work with in Alaska who are in EJ forum and now Trump has allowed exploration which will really hurt their subsistence lifestyle. The caribou is their main food source and that herd will be endangered by exploration. Also, sea level rise means they’re having to move further away from the waterfront which impacts there subsistence fishing. These issues have been prominent in many communities for a long time, like the Gulf Coast and the hurricane issues. Maybe it wasn’t called “extreme weather” from climate change, but certainly that’s what the effect has been. And in the South they’re already dealing with primary racism and environmental racism is another layer that they’re experiencing. When there’s relief money from FEMA and it goes to Alabama or Mississippi, it is not going to the black communities in Alabama or Mississippi and some of them are still facing flooded out sidewalks that have never been fixed since Hurricane Katrina. There are just some amazing conditions that groups are living with without their cities or states really supporting them with any kind of investment.
Alexandra: It seems like there is an unequal impact from climate change. Adaptation is not equally easy for everybody. I wanted to ask specifically about extreme heat, I think there has been a lot of press around that in the last couple weeks, and I know that’s one of the things that WE ACT is working on. We would love to hear a little bit more about that in terms of policies that might help address the need for climate adaptation broadly among our most vulnerable populations – how do we start to right that wrong?
Peggy: I’m sure you understand extreme heat really disproportionately impacts communities of color. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, nearly half of New York City’s heat-related deaths were African Americans, even though African-Americans comprised less than 25% of the population in New York City at that time, so a real disproportionate impact. And of course extreme heat impacts vulnerable populations like senior citizens, children, and those with chronic illness. So we’ve been working with New York City to address this, and the added threat of COVID-19 means people are being asked to stay at home in the middle of summer heat and so we have really worked to reach out to the Mayor’s office and the state around this issue and we made three recommendations, the first was to allocate more funding to LIHEAP. LIHEAP is run by the state, it’s the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It has allocated most if its money to heating services and just 2% is allocated to cooling needs, so to adapt to this new reality we really have felt more capital is needed to increase the use of cooling technologies in New York City homes. Recently the Feds gave New York State $28.8M in additional LIHEAP funding through the CARES Act and that money is available right now to be used and so we’re hoping that some modifications are made pretty quickly to the state’s cooling assistance component to really expand access. Our second recommendation has been to expand LIHEAP to finance energy-efficiency retrofits. Currently LIHEAP cooling assistance only provides funding for people to get an air conditioner or fan but, as we know, air conditioning increases home energy bills and so we are recommending a subsidy to finance those bills for low-income residents. It doesn’t help having an air conditioner if you don’t have the money to run it. And then our third recommendation is to revise the definition of eligible recipients of LIHEAP so we can really send support to vulnerable population that don’t really meet the current prerequisite. Currently only a subset of New York’s at-risk population is eligible for an air conditioner and that really fails to capture other low-income households that are also at risk during extreme heat events and so those are the policy recommendations we are now working on around extreme heat. After recommending to the Mayor that they do this, the Mayor constructed a complicated way for people to apply for them – they were doing robocalls to people’s homes and nowadays most people don’t have landlines anymore, and then after you got the robocall you had to make two other calls, and so they were basically left with thousands of air conditioners that no one had applied for and so now in the last few weeks they’ve been desperately asking non-profits to help them identify people. We should have prepared for something like this and it just shows our lack of preparation.
Alexandra: It’s so interesting because hearing this it sounds like a lot of these programs were put in place when heating in the winter was much more of an issue than cooling in the summer, so it’s interesting to think about updating our infrastructure but also updating our policies and programs to match a warming world. It can feel hopeless when you’re thinking of the intersection of climate change AND inequality, OR climate change, OR inequality these days in 2020 – I’m curious if there are things that are making you more hopeful about mitigation, adaptation or environmental justice.
Peggy: Well certainly the whole George Floyd issue which had catalyzed a more robust discussion on black lives matter and racial Injustice. I was recently at a conference and it was around the waterfront and at least six elected officials were welcoming everyone to the event and every elected official was from here in New York City and every one of them mentioned environmental justice. Every one of them. I had never heard that – I was stunned, happily stunned, of course. And then of course were hopeful because a number of presidential candidates during the debates talked about environmental justice, climate justice, and we worked in congress with Kathy Castor’s Committee on the Climate Crisis. The senate has a select committee on the climate crisis that just came out with a huge report that has environmental justice weaved in so we’re seeing that there are numbers of elected officials and new electives in the House who are really hungry to understand the issue better, and so we’ve been very active in doing those kinds of briefings and so that makes me feel optimistic. We also have worked with six big green groups and twelve environmental justice groups to develop something called the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. We spent a year-and-a-half working with these six green groups, Union of Concerned Scientists, League of Conservation Voters, Center for American Progress, Sierra Club and , and we have been working on the platform outline and working with the green groups to get consensus and alignment about the platform and we also spend that time getting to know each other and those groups made a commitment, they signed an MOU of commitment, to raise funds for the environmental justice groups to help implement that policy agenda and so far just among the six groups they raised $1.5M and they’re now working to raise another $1.5M from foundations to fund the twelse environmental justice groups to really implement the plan. A lot of those environmental justice groups are much smaller than WE ACT, and we’re small. They might have one or two staff, which doesn’t give them capacity to really work significantly on policy and so that has been another initiative that’s really given me a lot of optimism – out of that plan has come something called the five tables meeting and has been facilitated by John Podesta at the Center for American Progress and the five tables or five different platforms are the BlueGreen Alliance, US Climate Action Network, the Climate Action Council then you’ve got and Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and the Green New Deal and so we’ve been meeting with these five tables to figure out where our alignment is and where our conflict is and we’re hoping to be able to come together when we’ve got the Senate to really push forward some very progressive climate policy and we want to be part of an alignment and not working against each other. So again, that’s something else that that gives me a lot of optimism about the climate future in terms of climate policy.
Alexandra: That brings be to another question – as you know, we are active funders of building renovations and clean energy installations on commercials buildings in urban neighborhoods. From a Greenworks-focused perspective, we would love your feedback on how our work might interact with the work you’re doing and how we might support one another.
Peggy: We always start with community and the reason all EJ groups are community based groups is because the people being impacted are the most likely to really know what those issues are and they know what the solutions can be to really address their problems. I think listening to the folks that you are trying to work with and support, and then you know, I think about an example that we’ve been using with our Solar Uptown Now, a program of solar installations, and so when we decided to develop this program to install solar panels on the roofs of affordable housing in Harlem. New York City has a program called HDFC their Housing Development Finance Corporation and basically they’re low income tenant-owned cooperatives, and so obviously if we talk about gentrification and keeping housing affordable, and we believe a good way to keep housing affordable is to reduce energy costs, and so we have been reaching out to these HDFC tenant-owner coops to really help them understand the benefit to them. We also realize that when we went to do an RFP for a solar installation company to work with, we got them to commit to hire some of our solar installation workers, so we have a worker training program for variety of construction activities but also solar installation. We wanted the under employed folks in our community to be able to be part of the solution in their communities and so we got that installer to hire some of our trainees that work right here in the community. I’d also say that clean energy renovated buildings…that’s great that’s what we need, but one thing you could be thinking about is how to create green jobs for people in those communities where you are doing that work. That’s really the heart of the Green New Deal and our climate justice work. We have to move away from fossil fuels, as we all know, but we want to ensure it is a just transition that provides opportunities for the hardest hit communities.
Alexandra: Yeah I really like that — using it as an opportunity to create more economic opportunity for those that don’t have it. We started a book club at Greenworks about a year ago because we wanted to learn more about issues that affect all of us and connect outside of work, and we’re always looking for recommendations. Do you have a book recommendation on environmental justice, or something else, that you recommend for our book club?
Peggy: Any book by Robert Bullard around environmental justice is a good one and he’s got like 20 books. Some that are close to my heart – James Baldwin “The Fire Next Time.” And one that you might not have thought of, course you’ve all heard of Toni Morrison, she’s got two wonderful novels, but one thing I find very special was her 1993 Nobel Lecture, I was able to get that on a little bound book back when we had neighborhood book stores and it’s just a wonderful lecture on language and how we use language and the implications of the way we use language. It’s probably something that very few people have ever read or heard, it’s a very tiny little book because it’s just basically an acceptance speech, but it’s quite powerful. And then a book I haven’t read but my husband is reading and has said it’s incredible is called Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s a fairly new book that talks about caste in relation to racism and it’s a pretty incredible book from everyone I know who’s read it. That will be my next read.
Alexander: What’s an action you’d ask folk on the phone to take to support WE ACT’s mission?
Peggy: We need really good board members; board members who are interested in not just checking in on what we’re doing but helping us to move to the next level. We’ve got a lot of incredible work going on in our DC office, a lot of incredible policy work at the state level – we were very active in the Climate Leadership Community Protection Act and Local Law 97, and a variety of laws around toxins at the state level as well and so one thing would be recommendations and suggestions around those issues. I think another way is that we have not had a lot if interaction with corporations because until lately corporations saw advocacy as too controversial. But now many corporations are developing social justice funds and now you need an “in” to access those funds, so that would be a way – kind of being an ambassador, a connector.
Alexandra: What are companies supposed to do to further the work of what is happening with political organizing and political movements? I always remember that you talk about thinking globally but acting locally, and at the end of the day, Greenworks is a relatively small company and what we do is build projects. We renovate buildings, we install solar – so I would l love your thoughts on how we act, as a company that for the most part is creating things on a very local level, how do we learn from the EJ movement in terms of spinning our very local projects into global stories and having that much larger impact that I think so many of our employees want to have through their work?
Peggy: We’ve been doing a lot of training with our communication staff around story telling. I think a lot of people are saying the DNC convention has done an incredible job of telling stories. I’m sure you all have had success with some, or many of, your projects and initiatives and I have always found it important for what we do to document how we’ve done things. For instance – we helped create a West Harlem Piers Park – it’s one of the things that I am really proud of, and we did a whole booklet on how we did it, and we have groups calling from all over the country asking how did you take a place that was a parking lot and get the city to create this wonderful waterfront park? And we went day-by-day how we did it, how a political moment where the Governor and the Mayor wouldn’t talk to each other but the Governor had money for parks and we convened a meeting in our office and invited the city and the state and said “hey – they’ve got money can you write the proposal?” and that’s how they got money to do the master plan for the waterfront park. So, I would say documenting your best initiatives and really thinking about how you’ve been able to put those things together. It becomes very instructive to other organizations trying to do similar work. And then of course, talking – I’m sure you’re all at conferences and on panels. And strong communications…communicating the story and finding a face for the story.
Alexandra: Peggy, we so appreciate your time, and we’re so inspired by your work – thank you!