Outlining the Interconnections of Environmental Justice and Racial Equity for Human Services

By Molly Pifko    August 24, 2023

Human services agencies may not immediately come to mind when you think of significant actors in environmental and climate issues. However, the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) believes that human services agencies have unique perspectives, skills, and connections to advance environmental and climate justice, and we are committed to building interest and opportunities in this intersection.

Part of this effort has been recognizing that environmental issues do not affect all people or communities equally. From the impacts of severe weather events to decisions about how infrastructure is built, or toxic waste is disposed of, the brunt of environmental harm has been borne for too long by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, as well as communities with low incomes. This disproportionality means that attempts to build safe, accessible, and climate-resilient communities are crucial to creating human services systems that equitably serve and support all people. It also means that human services agencies, as ongoing partners of those communities most impacted by environmental issues, are well-positioned to advance environmental justice.

The term environmental justice originated in the 1980s, as communities of color called attention to and organized against the environmental manifestations of systemic racism. In 1982, the movement gained national attention when residents of Warren County, a rural, majority-Black area of North Carolina, launched major protests against the state government’s decision to construct a hazardous waste landfill in the small town of Afton. These protests brought awareness to the fact that around the country, toxic waste sites, landfills, and other pollution-producing facilities were consistently placed in BIPOC communities with low incomes and few connections within planning boards and agencies. For decades, residents of these communities have been pushing forward the work of environmental justice by organizing to protect and improve the quality of the places they live, work, and play—and demanding a seat at the table for decisions that impact them.

Unfortunately, the trends brought into focus by advocates in the 1980s continue to affect the health and well-being of BIPOC communities today. When we map factors such as exposure to air pollution, proximity to hazardous waste, reduced access to clean water, and reduced access to nutritious food, it is clear that racially and economically marginalized communities are more likely to experience systemic environmental issues. For instance, BIPOC comprise 56% of the population living in neighborhoods with facilities listed on the toxic release inventory. Neighborhoods with higher proportions of BIPOC and people with low incomes are also less likely to have access to green space and more likely to suffer from high heat exposure, with racial disparities that persist even after adjusting for income. Environmental factors like these compound the impact of other social and economic factors, perpetuating cycles of inequity that worsen health and economic outcomes for BIPOC communities and communities with low incomes.

In recent years, environmental hazards have increasingly come not only from pollution, but from severe weather events, which continue to increase in strength and frequency. In 2020, the US experienced 22 separate weather and climate disasters that each cost over 1 billion dollars, setting the record for most recorded billion-dollar disasters in a year. In 2021, there were 20 billion-dollar disasters, including a major winter storm that hit the deep south and Texas, large-scale wildfires across the west, and four tropical cyclones along the southeast coast. Alongside the staggering financial cost of these events comes a profound human cost—loss of homes, jobs, peace, and stability. While we are all susceptible to these impacts, studies show that people of color tend to face higher risks of climate-related health impacts than their white counterparts, and that children are particularly vulnerable to these risks. In addition, majority-white communities tend to see wealth growth after major disasters due to renewed investment, while majority-Black communities, already facing a significant wealth gap and underfunding of physical and social infrastructure, tend to experience wealth declines and receive less money in federal aid.

These statistics and the human stories behind them are disheartening and unjust, but they are not inevitable. At the root of each one is a series of decisions both small and large in scale—from policies like redlining, housing and employment discrimination, and disinvestment, to a state or local government choosing where to place a new landfill, build a new highway, or plant a new stand of trees. These decisions can always be made more equitably and with more input from impacted communities. As human services agencies continue to support all people in accessing the resources that they need to thrive physically, psychologically, and economically, they can be a champion for this change. Additionally, as we’ve seen in the COVID-19 public health emergency, the support provided by human services only becomes more vital in conditions of high uncertainty and precarity, like those created by the impacts of climate change.

In these times, it is crucial that human services agencies are positioned as part of a strong network of partners prepared to holistically address human needs, increase resilience for all, and leave no individual or community behind. The environmental justice movement has been working towards these goals for decades, led by BIPOC advocates striving to protect their homes and the well-being of their communities. Human services agencies are in an excellent position to move this mission forward.

About the Author

Molly Pifko

Molly (she/her) was placed at APHSA through the Congressional Hunger Center's Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship, which trains leaders in the movement to end hunger through placements at both local and national organizations. In this role, she has been supporting APHSA's food and nutrition services by contributing to communications and research about SNAP in the upcoming Farm Bill. She has also been helping to grow APHSA's work on environmental justice.

Outlining the Interconnections of Environmental Justice and Racial Equity for Human Services

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