Last week, the Obama Administration hosted a first of its kind event – a White House forum to give a national voice to under-represented American communities that shoulder a disproportionate amount of pollution. Environmental justice is a concept that began decades ago. It's a movement that argues that every American, regardless of income level or minority status, deserves strong Federal protection from environmental and health hazards.
The White House Forum on Environmental Justice drew six Cabinet members, not to mention senior-level officials from agencies ranging from the Department of Labor, to the Department of Energy, to the Department of Justice. This is just one indication of how much support environmental justice has at the highest levels of the Obama Administration; the best indication is the work underway at agencies across the Federal Government to design programs to reverse the inequity in these communities.
But the stars of the event were not the Administration officials – they were the environmental leaders that have fought for years or decades on behalf of their communities. The purpose of the forum was to give them the microphone, not only to raise the visibility of environmental justice in this country, but to foster deeper interaction between policymakers and the people who live and breathe the impacts of those policies. This includes America's youth, a group of whom joined EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and me for a lunchtime online chat. Students ranging from eighth-graders to doctoral candidates, and from varying cultural and racial backgrounds, showed they share a deep investment in the state of the environment and public health in their communities.
During the forum, more than 100 community leaders shared their expertise and displayed their passion for these issues throughout the day. Many acknowledged the Administration's strong commitment to environmental justice and healthy communities. But they also voiced frustration that their communities are still suffering from the impacts of decades of pollution, and pledged to keep pressing until they see environmental justice achieved.
We expect and want no less. We are working hard to get results that these communities can see on the ground. And we will continue to have these discussions with environmental justice communities, and communities throughout America.
The first White House Forum on Environmental Justice was broadcast live online. An archived version can be viewed on the White House YouTube page:
• Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/whitehouse#p/u/3/c5Al1CK7O1g
• Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/whitehouse#p/u/4/Wi3UkTogvp4
• Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/whitehouse#p/u/5/Yy9u1Pq3bYA
• Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/whitehouse#p/u/6/aMplNVWVyBo
In addition, EPA Administrator Jackson and I took questions from students and Facebook participants during a live online chat. To watch, visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2010/12/15/open-questions-environmental-justice
Nancy Sutley is Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality