From the perspective of many human services professionals, environmental justice can seem like either an unfamiliar concept or an area of work outside the bounds of how we serve communities. However, Alecia Eubanks, Assistant Division Director at the NJ Division of Family Development, along with many others in the sector, is changing that view. When asked what environmental justice meant to her, she said, “If you asked me that a year ago, I would have said: nothing. But now I think it's about understanding what the connection that I have in my work is to climate justice and allowing it to guide the actions that we take.” We sat down with Eubanks as part of our #WhatEJMeansToMe series to talk about how environmental justice has begun to inform her work.
As a licensed social worker with a background in government administration, Eubanks acknowledged that defining the application of environmental justice in human services is an ongoing process. Instead, she emphasized a framework: focus on recognizing the connection between your work and that of others already in the space of environmental justice. Add to and enhance what exists rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. For instance, her agency is now using data from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and their EJ map “to overlay with our SNAP needs assessment to determine what particular areas really are overburdened.”
What they learned is that there were three characteristics in common between block groups of populations that potentially experience disproportionate environmental harms and risks—or overburdened communities (OBCs)—and areas where there are people likely eligible for SNAP but not receiving it. Eubanks said, “OBCs are at least 35 percent households with low-income, or at least 40 percent residents identifying as minority, or at least 40 percent households with limited English proficiency.”
Understanding that there is a connection to be made is key to these strategic cross-departmental partnerships. For Eubanks, it allowed her to ask the right questions, uncovering that New Jersey was the first state in the nation to require the consideration of environmental effects on communities. Their landmark Environmental Justice Law requires the NJDEP to evaluate environmental and public health impacts of certain industrial facilities on OBCs when reviewing applications. If those new facilities cannot avoid disproportionate impacts on OBCs or serve a compelling public interest, the NJDEP is required to issue a denial.
After learning about already existing initiatives such as these, Eubanks reached out to her counterparts in the NJDEP. “What do you do? What do I? And then that's when I reached out to, and partnered with, Montclair University to use that [EJ map] data to overlay with our assessment and look at how we can target overburdened communities.”
This data-driven approach allows them to enhance their outreach efforts to targeted communities that could see improvements in their resilience to the effects of climate change through access to SNAP benefits, in addition to enhancing the well-being of individuals in that community.
Working in increments, within areas where we’re most effective, is the takeaway from Alecia Eubanks’ work so far. The efforts of human services professionals in advancing environmental justice can seem insurmountable. But it starts with knowing the issue exists, asking the right questions, and then taking small steps to build partnerships. “See what’s in need in your own backyard… A year ago, I didn't even know that this existed, but just by starting to have the conversation, it opens doors.”
The shift to incorporate a climate justice perspective into the framework of community service is a new and evolving process that reflects a growing awareness of the interconnectedness between our work and our changing environment. As we continue to navigate the challenges of this new terrain, informed action and collaboration will be central components to building more sustainable and resilient communities.
To listen to Alecia Eubanks’ full interview, click here.