Environmental Justice in Practice: One Year In

After a year working as Crag’s first attorney primarily focused on environmental and climate justice, I’m excited to share the work we’re doing with community organizations and how we as attorneys can help create a more just and equitable environment. But before I dig into the work I’m proud we’re doing, it’s important to acknowledge the history and leaders who have done so much before us.

Dr. Robert Bullard, often known as the “father of environmental justice,” defines the movement as one that “embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.”

Today, a person’s zip code is a clear way to determine if they are subject to disproportionate environmental pollution, and the subsequent health and socioeconomic impacts that come with it. In the United States, communities of color and folks of lower income experience the highest rates of environmental pollution. For decades, communities have been pushing back against these systems of injustice. Finally, the legal community is catching up. 

Dr. Robert Bullard, the “Father of Environmental Justice.” Photo credit https://drrobertbullard.com/

Environmental Justice “embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.”

Dr. Robert Bullard

Systemic racism is deeply entrenched in this nation’s environmental laws and policies. From zoning policies, air and water pollution, enforcement of cleanup and accountability of polluting facilities, pesticide exposure, exclusion from public participation, food deserts, lack of equitable public transportation, and more, Crag is committed to working with communities that have been historically marginalized by systems of power, and provide the legal resources to begin balancing those scales. As we work with clients in the environmental justice (EJ) space, we know that these communities have been doing this work for decades, and respect their expertise, knowledge, and direction while giving them high quality legal services.

Environmental Justice as a Legal Practice

Environmental Justice as a legal practice area is still very new, and does not always fit in a standard image of “legal work.” In this role, I work with various environmental justice focused, community-based organizations to advance legal and policy initiatives at local and state levels. I am also able to begin redefining what it means to have a lawyer’s help. My work is guided by what the community organizations I work with need most. So, on any given day, I may be drafting policy language, gathering information, producing research, listening to hearings, submitting comments to proposed rulemaking, or providing consultations. 

Because many of our systems depend on confusion or lack of access to exclude communities, one of my most important roles is providing clear and digestible information to clients who need assistance demystifying complex legal and administrative jargon. This information empowers clients with the knowledge to challenge systems of injustice. 

Wordcloud of Environmental Justice. Photo credit www.epictop10.com 

Another concrete way Crag supports environmental justice work in the legal field is by assisting with the collection of community data. Very often, a roadblock that our EJ clients face when meeting with people in power to advance various policy initiatives is the lack of “data” to show that the current laws and policies in place are still excluding low-income and/or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. This is because while the laws in place seem broad and inclusive on their faces, these laws and policies oftentimes are disproportionately implemented, or simply are not equitable in practice. With the compilation of these data, our clients will be able to hold people in power accountable for their decision making practices. Ideally, gone will be the day that systems of power can hide behind the “lack” of quantitative data to further marginalize communities experiencing environmental injustice.

 

It is important to always prioritize that this work, and environmentalism as a whole, must be intersectional. In order to be intersectional, those of us in the legal field must work to actively promote anti-racism and participate in the dismantling of systemic racism.

Rebeka Dawit, Associate Attorney, Crag Law Center

It is important to always prioritize that this work, and environmentalism as a whole, must be intersectional. In order to be intersectional, those of us in the legal field must work to actively promote anti-racism and participate in the dismantling of systemic racism. As a Black woman, I have often noticed, and felt, the disproportionate impact that this nation’s laws has on those who are not of the “majority.” I went to law school to further empower the people and communities most affected by these disproportionalities. While there is a long way to go on the road to true environmental justice, it has been an amazing experience to support and collaborate with organizations that have been putting in the work for so long. I am so excited to be on that road with them. 

Closeup of smiling woman. She has long brown curly hair and brown skin. She is wearing a black shirt.

Rebeka Dawit

Associate Attorney

 

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