I’ll never forget the words of Emelda West, a small but mighty grandmother and activist from St. James Parish, La. It was in the late 1990s, and we had just worked together to stop the construction of a plastics plant in her hometown. West put her hand on my arm and said, “Dr. Wright, I just love you. I appreciate the work you’ve done to keep the poisons out of our community. But what we really need now are jobs for our kids.”

In the last year, many Americans have awakened to the layered injustices faced by communities of color. There’s the routine harassment and violence at the hands of the police. The polluting facilities  — from plastics factories to bus depots and coal-fired power plants — that always seem to land in our neighborhoods. The underfunded schools, inadequate health care, and, as West observed, the persistent and devastating lack of opportunity.

In St. James Parish and across the country, our communities are coping with deep-rooted, multifaceted harms. Yes, we need to stop those harms from happening — by stopping the construction of new poison-spewing facilities, for example. But we also need to repair and revitalize the places we call home. It’s a complex challenge that calls for a holistic response. It calls for environmental justice.

For years, the mainstream environmental movement focused on a series of separate issues — from saving the whales to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The remedies were also narrowly targeted, through policy measures like cap-and-trade, for example, or techno-fixes like carbon capture and storage.   Read more