The role was created in 2020 when Biden made environmental justice a priority for every agency in the federal government as part of an effort to right historical wrongs that disproportionately increased pollution and sickness in disadvantaged communities.
“Jalonne is a strong and effective champion for communities that have been overburdened by pollution and subjected to decades of environmental injustice,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the council, said in a statement. Her “ability to listen deeply, bring people together, and find creative solutions” is invaluable to the job, the statement said.
White-Newsome has worked as analyst for the New York-based We Act for Environmental Justice and a senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation, where she created an initiative to address climate and water inequities.
“We have a wonderful opportunity to institutionalize practices that will not only change lives, but save lives,” White-Newsome said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves to expand the number of environmental justice champions inside the walls of our agencies, while continuing to listen and work collaboratively with environmental justice leaders in communities across this country.”
White-Newsome, a Detroit native with a doctorate in environmental health science from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, will step into a daunting job at a small, understaffed agency. She will work with 25 members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, some of whom believe the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is far behind on executing its mission.
Mallory and CEQ have so far not explained how Biden will deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in states with Republican governors who are opposed to their mission. Activists on the ground in states such as Louisiana, Alabama and Texas have said they doubt they will ever see such funding.
Recent studies have shown that the federal policy of redlining — racial discrimination in housing policy for more than a quarter-century — led to the placement of pollution sources in and around Black and Latino communities, degrading air quality in those places.
An Environmental Protection Agency study showed that particulate matter air pollution harms Americans of color across all states and income levels to a disproportionately high degree.
Other studies have shown that air pollution is disproportionately generated by the nation’s White majority but that its harm is felt largely by African Americans and Latinos.
Biden’s vow to integrate environmental justice into each federal agency has had limited success. Some agencies, such as the departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services, have strongly embraced the effort, while others lag behind.
White-Newsome will be expected to press departments such as Agriculture to pay more attention to how their work can help advance environmental justice.
The Biden administration also promised to measure its progress on environmental justice with a yearly report card. So far, it has failed to produce that list of accomplishments and shortcomings.
But Biden has made strides in easing the burden of environmental injustice. At least $55 billion from the infrastructure law is slated to improve wastewater facilities, including $15 billion to remove lead pipes that have contaminated drinking water in cities including Flint, Mich.
About $28 million was dedicated to preventive coastal erosion on Native American land on the Kenai River Bluffs in Alaska, $65 billion has been dedicated to improving the nation’s electricity grid, and $1 billion is meant to reconnect communities, many of them Black, that were dissected by massive highway projects that started in the early 1960s.
The more-difficult work is ahead, but Mallory oversees an agency with only six workers devoted to environmental justice. Members of the council say at least 50 staffers are needed, along with more funding that the administration’s climate leadership, including National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, has not produced.
Martinez was a celebrated choice to run the first-ever environmental justice effort at CEQ. Like White-Newsome, she is an academic with a long history of working with activists. But the lack of staff support and long work days broke her down, she said.
“I could feel myself not being as top-quality as I should be,” Martinez said of her final days at CEQ. “You know, like I could feel myself just getting tired. I just needed a respite.”
Martinez told Mallory of her plan to resign long before she did. But it came as a shock to some members of the panel.
“Every person you lose like Cecilia Martinez is a step backward,” María Belén Power, an environmental justice panelist and associate executive director of GreenRoots, said after Martinez stepped down. “You can’t put all the work on one person, or two people, or three people. … I can see in this work … people being burned out year after year after year.”
Peggy Shepard, a member of the advisory council and the chief executive of We Act for Environmental Justice, said White-Newsome has the credentials to excel in her new job.
“She has a broad spectrum of experience,” Shepard said. “She’s worked in business, at the state government level and with environmental justice groups.”
In addition to her degree from Michigan, White-Newsome holds a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
“She’s had an opportunity to get a really good sense of policy and folks at the grass-roots level. She does know how government operates, which I think is pretty critical to this role,” Shepard said. “You’ve obviously got to know environmental justice and environmental justice policy.”