By Amy Hubbard

Environmental justice is a key theme addressed throughout the Executive MNR program (XMNR), especially as it relates to systems leadership and leading systemic change. In the first semester, we introduce environmental justice concepts and cases and focus on professional skills and leadership strategies for addressing environmental injustice, including self- and other-awareness, empathy, active listening, intercultural competence, stakeholder analysis, systems thinking, and related tools for working with diversity and collaborating across differences.

We focus on the relationship between environmental justice and green/circular economy and sustainable business practices, water and hydrological systems (including source and storm water and flooding), and climate change and energy equity. In the second and third semesters, we explore environmental justice as it relates directly to issues of race, class, gender, religion, and culture. We link environmental justice to specific professional skills and influence strategies, such as cultural stakeholder assessments, boundary spanning leadership, and collaborative social innovation. We also extend this learning to an international and global context, including a study abroad experience in which we study the environmental justice dimensions of sustainable development (which often manifest as human rights) in one or more other countries, such as India, Morocco, or Mexico.

Danielle Simms, an XMNR alum and employee in the Office of Environmental Justice at Virginia DEQ, recently spoke with us about her career as a sustainability professional. 

XMNR: Hi Danielle. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience working in the field of environmental justice. Please tell us about your career path. How did you get started in this field, and what were some of your accomplishments and highlights early in your career?

DS: My interest in environmental justice began when I attended the youth climate conference Power Shift 2007 and joined a tour to see environmental injustices occurring in Washington, D.C. For the last stop of the tour, we met with community leaders who lived across the street from a school and its playground; it was all near a coal power plant. The plant operated only 12 days out of the year, and yet,, the leaders recounted, the air was so polluted that most in the community had lung and respiratory illnesses, students couldn’t play on the playground for fear of contaminants in the mulch, and residents didn’t open their windows or spend a lot of time outside due to concern of breathing the poor quality air. Seeing the community, especially children, being hurt so close to where our nation’s laws are made spurred me to want to find solutions to improve air quality for all communities while also addressing climate change. 

Since that pivotal experience, I have worked to lobby for better environmental health and climate laws nationally and statewide, and to educate the general public on environmental and climate justice concerns. As an environmental lobbyist in 2020, I drafted and lobbied for 32 pieces of legislation regarding clean energy and climate change, environmental health and plastic pollution, coastal resilience, and land conservation and transportation. Later, I staffed the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum, advocating in support of federal legislation to mandate consideration of cumulative impacts (layers of pollution disadvantaged communities face) in the permitting process, and for ways to improve review of environmental justice complaints.

Danielle (pictured far right) on a toxic tour of Harlem with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, July 2021.
Danielle (pictured far right) on a "toxic tour" of Harlem with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, July 2021.

XMNR: How is the field changing, and what do you see as opportunities for you to have more influence and impact in the future? 
The killing of George Floyd shed light on the need for stronger, enforceable civil rights laws, while COVID-19 highlighted the health burden polluted communities face, as the disease spread faster in more polluted communities. Both of these events elevated environmental justice to be a buzzword in environmental spaces. Many predominantly white environmental organizations started to create environmental justice and diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice (DEIJ) roles. Several state governments have opened environmental justice offices; in fact, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality began its environmental justice office in 2021, and now it's one of the largest environmental justice offices in the country. 

I’m often asked how we can improve the quality of life of environmental justice communities. One of the biggest ways would be to require the creation of a cumulative impact assessment before a company requests a permit to pollute in an environmental justice community, as this will improve how affected communities are involved in decision-making and permitting. Some communities are riddled with multiple layers of pollution, such as a factory, a landfill, a power plant, etc. In situations like that, it would be helpful to communities for the permitting agency to see what layers of pollution already exist in a community before allowing more pollution, and to make sure the community is aware of its current health risks. 

Here are some questions for professionals working with environmental justice communities to consider: 

  1. Was that community treated fairly, being burdened with that much pollution?
  2. How are the multiple layers of pollution affecting their everyday health and quality of life? 
  3. How can the community demonstrate its concern and opinions on a new company polluting the neighborhood, and be meaningfully involved in decisions being made in their community? 

Some best practices for interacting with environmental justice communities include:

  • Communicate what’s at stake and how their input will be used, 
  • Communicate in their preferred communication method and styles, e.g. using visuals,
  • Incorporate community leaders at every level of the decision-making (including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement, and evaluation),
  • Don’t make assumptions on behalf of EJ communities, but ask them what they need,
  • Research how the community may have been/felt ignored over time,
  • Support local, grassroots environmental justice organizations, instead of larger environmental organizations,
  • Identify barriers a community could face in applying for grants,
  • Ask what you can do to help.

States, including Virginia, are in the process of completing or have recently completed guidance on public participation and community engagement in environmental justice communities.

XMNR: What role, if any, has the XMNR program had in your career? What lessons did you learn in the XMNR program, and are there any lessons you are now applying to have more influence and impact at work or in your community? 
DS: As a 2017 XMNR alum, I still use many of the tools we learned in the classroom and abroad in my current work. For lobbying complex environmental legislation, I frequently mentally assess stakeholders’ perspectives using the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) system to help powermap negotiations and policy outcomes, and the budget homework exercises made me appreciate all that goes into state budget negotiations. The ACF exercise in particular is extremely helpful in thinking through how an opposing argument is formulated, its theory and values, as well as what factors can affect an outcome. Many of the communications classes with XMNR faculty Patty Raun taught me techniques to be comfortable in public speaking and to add sensory descriptions in storytelling, and they also help me read body language when lobbying or with community members in small meetings. When communicating with any community, I try to identify messengers and advocates within the community. Shadowing the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation during the global study trip in India demonstrated the importance of finding messengers within a community to affect change, as well as how to adapt quickly. 

XMNR: What’s next for you? 
DS: I recently changed jobs to join the Office of Environmental Justice at the Department of Environmental Quality and will be working on improving outreach to environmental justice communities and better explaining permitting processes. I hope to become a subject matter expert in the climate/environmental justice space, and to improve my public speaking and presentation skills to one day be in a leadership role. Long term, my interests lie in working to incorporate environmental justice communities in climate change mitigation and adaptation, air quality monitoring, compliance, and enforcement. How are we protecting environmental justice communities from flooding? How do we preserve culture in environmental justice communities that are in high risk flooding zones? How are we driving investment to reduce greenhouse gas production and pollution in environmental justice communities while ensuring those communities remain affordable to the existing residents? These are the issues I want to raise and advocate for in my career. 

XMNR: Do you have any advice for others that want to work on environmental justice?
DS: I would recommend they reach out to environmental justice leaders to find ways to be a strong ally of their work, and find the issue most interesting to them and focus on improving that area of inequity, such as water quality, air quality, permitting, or tribal relations, among others.