Environmental Justice IS Social Justice.
What is Environmental Justice?
In Washington State, Environmental Justice (EJ) is defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, rules, and policies.”
“If we combine social justice efforts with environmental awareness, we will harness enough power, representation, and momentum to have a shot at protecting our planet and creating equity at the same time.” - Leah Thomas, The Intersectional Environmentalist
History of the Environmental Justice Movement
Although the EJ movement is assumed to be championed by white environmentalists, Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color and low-income neighborhoods carried the torch. To this day, communities of color are still the most disproportionately impacted by climate change, pollution, food insecurity, and other environmental injustices.
Because of this, it is important to pay tribute to our BIPOC leaders in the EJ movement, past and present, who are often left out of the history and education of environmentalism. These activists faced pressures by their white counterparts to separate their EJ advocacy from the civil rights movement but were steadfast in their belief that environmental justice is social justice.
Robert Bullard, A.K.A. the “Father of Environmental Justice”, is a Black environmental justice advocate and scholar from Elba, Alabama. One of his major contributions to the EJ movements was working as an expert witness in the 1979 environmental discrimination lawsuit against a toxic waste site in Houston, “Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc.”. For the case, Bullard conducted a study that showed that Black communities were the most targeted communities for hazardous waste sites.
This study was the beginning of his pursuit of advocating against environmental racism. Among many other jobs in environmental justice, Bullard is now serving on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and as a Professor and Director at Texas Southern University in the field of Environmental Justice.
Hazel M. Johnson (1935-2011), often described as the “Mother of Environmental Justice”, was a Black environmental activist from the South Side of Chicago. When her husband passed away of lung cancer at age 41, and others in the community were also dying of the same ailment, she started to suspect an environmental connection could be at play. That’s when she discovered that her neighborhood, Altgeld Gardens bore a disproportionate environmental hazard burden compared to the surrounding white neighborhoods. Toxic waste and pollution totally engulfed the community – a phenomenon Johnson described and coined as a “toxic doughnut”. Johnson fought her entire career to show this is not random coincidence – that low-income communities of color are targeted when it comes to where environmental hazards will be placed, and that these communities have poorer health, quality of life, and shorter life expectancies because of it. Even still, as of 2019, race is the number one indicator of where toxic waste facilities are located in the United States – and life expectancy varies significantly depending on zip code. xic waste and pollution totally engulfed the community – a phenomenon Johnson described and coined as a “toxic doughnut”. ght her entire career to show this is not random coincidence – that low-income communities of color are targeted when it comes to where environmental hazards will be placed, and that these communities have poorer health, quality of life, and shorter life expectancies because of it.
Even still, as of 2019, race is the number one indicator of where toxic waste facilities are located in the United States – and life expectancy varies significantly depending on zip code.
What is Intersectional Environmentalism?
The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a civil rights scholar, professor, and advocate for critical race theory, in her academic paper published in 1989. Crenshaw used this term to express the intersect of her identities (Black and woman) that reflect her everyday experience of dealing with the oppressions of racism and sexism. However, the term is not limited to race and gender. The Center of Intersectionality defines the concept as “the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects”.
This concept contrasts with the current narrative of environmental justice that excludes social justice. White supremacy, capitalism, and misogyny are some of the oppressive systems that continue to contribute to the exploitation of our planet. Ironically, the abuse of the planet ricocheted back to the people, who are now finding themselves as victims and culprits of the environmental crises today. The narrative that humans are owners of land, rather than stewards, erases the strong connection between people and the planet. This perspective has created a trend in environmentalism that ignores the impacts of social injustices on the planet—further perpetuating the issues of environmental health disparities.
Intersectional Environmentalism was coined by Leah Thomas, an Environmental Justice activist. It is defined as “an inclusive form of environmentalism advocating for the protection of all people and the planet by identifying ways that injustices targeting frontline communities and the earth are intertwined”.
Environmental Justice Policies in Washington State
Washington adopted two major environmental justice laws with the objectives to reduce and eliminate disparities in overburdened communities and vulnerable populations.
The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act was passed in 2021 as the first Environmental Justice law in Washington state to coordinate the state agencies to reduce environmental health disparities for communities of color and low-income households. These state agencies include the Washington State departments of Ecology, Agriculture, Commerce, Health, Transportation, and the Puget Sound Partnership. Other agencies can opt-in. To find out more details about the HEAL Act, click here.
The Climate Commitment Act, otherwise known as the Cap-and-Invest Program, was passed in 2021. The Cap and Invest Program is a program implemented to limit carbon emissions by allowing manufacturers to trade their amount of allowable carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are one of The money earned from this program will be used to invest in addressing environmental health disparities across the state. The Environmental Justice (EJ) Council was created by the HEAL Act to advise the agencies and hold them accountable for projects funded by the CCA. To find out more about the CCA Act, click here.
Washington State Health Disparities Map
Studies have shown that your race and income serve as social determinants of your health and well-being. Washington State’s Department of Health (DOH) has created an Environmental Health Disparities Map to identify which areas are more subject to environmental threats. According to DOH, this map “provides new and rigorous insights into where public investments can be prioritized to buffer environmental health impacts on Washington’s communities, so that everyone can benefit from clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment”. This mapping tool will be used by many state agencies through the HEAL Act. To find out more about the tool, click here!
On June 10th, we partnered with Front and Centered and Black Farmer’s Collective to host a Lunch-and-Learn Workshop about the mapping tool at YES Farm. Front and Centered, co-creators of the tool, is facilitating listening sessions to gather community feedback about how to improve the map to be a new community owned tool for the community to report environmental hazards. The tool will help develop policy ideas based on communities’ experience of the real impacts rather than polluters priorities.
"Your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code." - Melody Goodman
When we hear “We Outside!”, it is shouted in a spirit of joy and liberation, amid environmental health disparities that leave us tempted to stay indoors.
We established our We Outside! Program to not only challenge the status quo of outdoor recreation only belonging to white people, but to educate on the health benefits of being in a healthy environment.
There is a bounty of research showing the benefits of being outside– not only for our physical health but also for our mental and cognitive health. Being in green space can lead to better mood, improved attention, lower stress, and reduced risk of psychiatric disorders. There is even research showing increased empathy and cooperation — just from being in nature. We know how important it is to get outside, but we also know it doesn’t always feel safe or welcoming for those of us living in marginalized bodies. That is why we not only want to create opportunities to get outside – we also want to honor the experiences of BIPOC and ensure that there is space for healing and reclaiming our relationship with nature in all that we do.
Spending time in nature increases physical activity and decreases the risk of developing chronic disease. Washington State Parks partners with Park Rx America so that health care providers can prescribe parks to their patients in a clinical setting. Yes, you read that right! Examples of prescriptions could be: Take a 10-minute walk three times a week on a trail at Dash Point State Park; Read a book while sitting next to the water at Deception Pass, three times a week; Meditate for 20 minutes in the old-growth forest at Rockport, four days a week. Learn more here: and next time you are at the doctor’s office, ask if they know about Parks Rx! If you are a health provider, find out how you can start prescribing parks to patients now
The benefits of being outside are abundant! Not only does simply being outdoors decrease stress and lower blood pressure, it can also improve sleep, boost our immune system and memory, and give us more natural energy! Being outside also reduces inflammation and it’s one of the only ways to increase vitamin D, outside of food and supplements. Vitamin D aides in the regulation of calcium and helps strengthen teeth and bones.
Environmental Justice is social justice! And equity is key freedom to move around outside is important to our physical and mental wellbeing! As a part of the larger ecosystem, we are directly tied to our environment and gain a sense of belonging, safety, and community in relation to our physical environment when we feel connected to it! That is why activating our bodies, playing outside is so necessary. Highlighting play equity is huge! That is why ULMS (Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle) is invested in play equity and being a part of King County’s Play Equity Coalition to make sure the BIPOC community voice is active in the conversation and in all endeavors to get our communities outside and connected to all the benefits of being outside together!
Green space is essential to maintaining healthy environments for all. Equitable access these spaces are essential to our health and thus, creating more green spaces is a priority. Green space improves air and water quality, stormwater management, creates space for urban farming and safe and healthy places to play and gather.
A key part of our environment is the food we have access to! You may have noticed that in some neighborhoods, there are multiple grocery stores within walking distance – fully stocked with fresh foods — while in others you can drive miles before seeing one. Food Deserts are where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores. Studies show that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly Black neighborhoods, and grocery stores in Black communities are usually smaller with less selection.
At ULMS, we are passionate about food sovereignty– reclaiming the power of food, building knowledge and skills to grow our own food, valuing food providers, localizing food systems, and more. Follow along with our We Outside and Food Equity work to learn about food systems, urban farming, and how to support our local food system.
Food insecurity is defined as inadequate access to food due to financial constraints. Having enough to eat is crucial to be able to think of other aspects of life and the things we’ve mentioned above. Hunger takes precedence over everything and can make it difficult to focus on mental health, being a kid, and accessing health care. Two questions to ask yourself to see if you may fall into the category of food insecurity are:
- Within the past 12 months, we worried whether our food would run out before we had money to buy more.
- Within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.
If your answer is sometimes true or often true, please fill out our Digital Intake form and ask to speak with our Public Health team who can help connect you to resources like SNAP, WIC, or food pantries to help.
We partner with King County and other special guests to host Farm Days at City Soil Farm! Kids and families can come tour the farm, learn how wastewater/renewable resources are used, and how to prepare their own garden! Each attendee leaves with a special gift!
Dates for Farm Days in 2022:
- August 26th
- September 1st
- October 1st
2022 Black Earth Day
On April 22, 2022, ULMS and Black Farmers Collective hosted Black Earth Day at YES Farm! We took this day to celebrate and cultivate our community’s relationship with the outdoors, but also provide various resources to everyone in regards to housing, voting, and more!
Support Local Black, Indigenous, & People(s) of Color Organizations in the EJ Movement
Rec’N The Streets is a program that connects community groups that understand what their communities want and need to participate in physical activity, and brings it to them. Built on trust, community engagement and the want to improve the health of their neighborhoods’ population, Rec’N The Streets utilizes interactive, educational and fun exercises to promote health and wellbeing.
Founded in 2016 by Nyema Clark, Nurturing Roots is a thriving urban farm and community farming program that values community, self-sufficiency, food empowerment, social justice, and education. Since its establishment, Nurturing Roots has brought the community together by providing volunteering opportunities, hosting various events, and partnering with local restaurants.
Front and Centered is a diverse and powerful coalition of communities of color-led groups across Washington State, whose missions and work come together at the intersection of equity, environmental and climate justice. Coalition membership means community groups believe in the principles and values upon which Front and Centered was founded.
Sea Potential cultivates a full cycle of Black Indigenous People Of Color representation in maritime. Through healing activities and ocean justice conversations, we focus on fostering youth appreciation and connection to marine ecosystems, in addition to transforming the maritime industry with inclusive workplace culture.
Rainier Beach Action Coalition mission is to:
- Implement the Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan (1997, 2014) and build a connected, sustainable and equitable community within the Rainier Beach neighborhood.
- Promote the “made in Rainier Beach”, quality education, living wage jobs, affordable transportation and housing for all.
- Promote a safe place where people thrive, a neighborhood the world calls home.
- Build neighborhood capacity to enhance quality of life in Rainier Beach as well as to address critical issues threatening the welfare of Rainier Beach residents.
The Black Farmers Collectives mission is to build a Black-led food system by developing a cooperative network of food system actors, acquiring and stewarding land, facilitating food system education, and creating space for Black liberation in healing and joy.