María Belén Power. The Tufts alumna advocates for justice-centered change from Chelsea, Massachusetts to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council

For María Belén Power, AG20, environmental justice needs to happen on all levels—from Chelsea, Massachusetts, where she lives and works, all the way to national policy making. It’s only in that way that historically vulnerable populations who have borne the brunt of environmental injustices can be treated fairly, she says.

Power, the associate executive director at GreenRoots, a Chelsea, Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the urban environment and public health, was appointed in March to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a group of 26 national leaders that is working on recommendations to address past and present environmental injustices.

Power, an immigrant from Nicaragua, also co-convened a statewide coalition that worked for over two years on environmental justice legislation. This March Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law the climate bill, which highlights emissions reduction goals in the state and significant environmental justice provisions.

GreenRoots’ latest focus is fighting against the placement of a new electrical substation in East Boston. “Over and over again, Black and brown communities, immigrant communities, and low-income communities end up carrying the burden for all of us to live healthier lives, but yet we don’t all carry the burden in an equitable way,” she says.

“The connections here in Chelsea are so clear around the intersection of immigration, race, class, public health, and environmental injustice,” she says. Chelsea is the smallest city by land size in the state, yet also the 26th most densely populated municipality in the country. It is surrounded by water on three sides, and its waterfronts are commonly used to store hazardous chemicals.

“Working here has really solidified my commitment to work for social justice and in a way that intersects with the different issues that affect people’s lives,” she says. “We don’t live single-issue lives.”

Power wants to do even more for Chelsea—she recently took out nomination papers to run this fall for Chelsea City Council, representing District 8. She says seeing her community so negatively impacted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred her to do even more. 

“Chelsea was the hardest hit community in the commonwealth. We had some of the highest rates of infection, even higher than some of the hardest hit boroughs of New York City,” she says. “For us, working through the pandemic and ensuring that people had the resources they needed just really motivated me to be a voice for the residents and to represent my neighbors at the city council.”

Tufts Now recently talked with Power, who received a master’s in public policy from Tufts, about her work in environmental justice, her role in the new White House council, and community social justice.

Tufts Now: Why should environmental justice be a priority for all people to understand?

María Belén Power: Environmental justice is the equal distribution of and equal access to clean air, clean water, natural resources, and open space regardless of race, income, or language.

Massachusetts just passed the first-ever environmental justice legislation. It defines what an environmental justice community is, and it allows protections for those communities given the historical burden those communities carry.

It’s not just about a reduction in pollution, but it’s actually about the people who are overburdened by air pollution or water quality or lack of access to green space. So if you care about justice, if you care about fighting against racism, structural racism, and against white supremacy, then you care about environmental justice. 

Take Chelsea and East Boston. Most people don’t realize that’s where so many of the things that we take for granted in our life come from. All of the jet fuel that’s used at Logan International Airport is stored on the banks of the Chelsea Creek, as is 70%-80% of the region’s home heating fuel. That’s also where 400,000 tons of road salt is stored for more than 350 communities.

What happens is that those communities end up being sacrificial zones that are home to a lot of industries we all benefit from. People who can’t fight or can’t advocate or who have so many other economic burdens live there. They don’t have the luxury and the ability to fight against the powers that be.

What is your role on the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council?

There were three initial priorities when we were first brought together. First, Justice40, which is the 40% investment in environmental justice communities. So, 40% of the investments and revenues from the clean energy sector are to be invested in overburdened communities.

The second one is to develop a screening tool that maps out which communities need the investment, the communities that are most overburdened. And the third is about updating the environmental justice executive order of the Biden administration.

We have submitted our recommendations, which went to the Biden administration and Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy [AG81], and later to all agencies and executive offices under the president.

What should our priorities be with respect to environmental justice, both nationally and locally?

There is a big push to electrify the grid, to reduce emissions and pollution, and to electrify the transportation sector, which here in Massachusetts is the largest contributor to emissions. I think that in our rush to get there, we may miss the critical question: What does it mean to do it in an equitable way? Sure, there may be a reduction in emissions overall, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a higher burden on Black, brown, and immigrant communities.

This is an area where I see a lot of contradictions. Where is all of that infrastructure that electrifies our grid going to go? Electricity doesn’t fall from the sky. We are going to see these types of infrastructures to be sited, but where? Will we continue to place the burden on the most vulnerable populations?

How do we make sure we’re prioritizing the communities that have been most overburdened as we work to reduce emissions? We have to include those communities from the very beginning, so that we’re not coming up with solutions that have unintended consequences. We need to engage with the people who are most impacted, so we prioritize their needs and their voices. They need to help shape the solutions.

What were your takeaways from President Biden’s climate summit in April?

I am extremely encouraged at the administration’s work to reverse a lot of the damage done by the Trump administration. I also have some concerns around implementation as well as some of the language in the policy proposals.

Some of the language can be wonky and hard to understand. For example, when we say “net zero emissions,” that doesn’t really mean zero emissions. That means there is some pollution happening in some communities, and it’s being countered and so there’s a net-zero of emissions. There’s carbon trading and carbon pricing.

Some of those solutions are extremely concerning because it really means that those who can pay to pollute will most probably continue to pollute. It means pollution is happening in the places that are the most feasible, which is Black and brown communities, immigrant communities, and low-income communities. 

How can those changes be made in a way that doesn’t adversely affect the most vulnerable populations?

There’s a real draw in this country to put a dollar amount on everything and make it work within the capitalist framework. I think we need to shift away from that. We’re trying to solve the problem by using some of the same tools that got us in the mess we are in.

We are also trying to dig ourselves out of this problem by finding new technologies that don’t really reduce emissions. There’s a proposal by the MBTA to do geo-fencing, buying buses that are hybrid, so when the buses are in Chelsea or East Boston, they won’t be emitting pollutants. Then, they’re turning the bus back on in other places.

They are using technology to address pollution and emissions when the solution is to just invest in fully electric bus fleets. This is not rocket science. Other states are fully electrifying their transit agencies. Stop coming up with these fancy tech ideas that aren’t truly getting at the root causes of the climate crisis. 

We have to take bolder actions, with more aggressive emission reduction goals, and shift away from market-based solutions. We need solutions that are justice-centered and guided by the principles of environmental justice.

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