Decades of systemic racism and infrastructural neglect came to a head last year in Jackson, Mississippi, when flooding damaged a water treatment plant and knocked out the city’s water supply. It was the latest emergency for a water system with a longstanding history of problems and mismanagement and a community where more than 80% of residents are black — and prompted the NAACP to file a civil rights complaint.
It’s one step in the organization’s expansion into environmental advocacy and climate justice as part of its civil rights work. As the accelerating climate crisis affects communities around the world — especially those that are home to lower-income and underserved populations — more people are recognizing the long-term effects of where people live and work on their personal well-being. The NAACP and other organizations are partnering with people in Jackson and other communities to advocate for equitable resources to ensure they have access to the basics of healthy living: Clean water and air. Safe neighborhoods with sidewalks. Resilient sources of energy and transportation.
As part of this expanded civil rights work, the NAACP recently welcomed Abre’ Conner as its first Director of Environmental and Climate Justice. The role combines her previous professional experience as an attorney for organizations including the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, with her personal experience growing up in Lakeland, Florida, a rural area between Tampa and Orlando with a history of poor air quality.
As a child with breathing issues, Conner felt the effects of the polluted environment around her. “I didn’t fully understand the connection of growing up in a rural community in the South in a place of, for example, toxic waste incinerators and poor air quality and the direct impact on my health,” she said. “But what I realized later was that there was this direct impact.”
That realization — and the belief that environmental justice work is an inherently local issue — drove her ambition to pursue a career in civil rights and work for and with others like her. At the NAACP, Conner and others aim to flip the system so those who are most affected in times of crisis — especially black women and children — also are those who help create and advance solutions. Rather than speaking for affected communities, Conner said the ALCU and partner organizations want to connect citizens who typically have been excluded from that process with policymakers and others in power — building transparency, trust, and resiliency.
“What I’ve noticed over the years is who has been left out of the conversations around environmental decisions. Are folks actually from black communities? Those are some of the opportunities we try to make available,” she said, noting a recent example where community members testified before members of Congress. “It was important for us to have people from our state conferences and our branches be a part of the Congressional federal policy conversations — we don’t necessarily need our lobbyists, our staff people in that space.”
To strengthen and expand this community advocacy, NAACP works with a group of environmental climate justice leaders across the country — and that work is making a difference, Conner said. “We asked what data is important to them and what is missing. We were happy to see some of those changes reflected in the most recent version of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool from the White House Council on Environmental Quality,” she said. “We believe that’s the way that we’re able to build power. We actually talk with and hear from folks: What are you seeing? What do you feel is missing? Those are the stories that we try to ensure we’re incorporating.”
Recently I spoke with Conner about her new role and work for environmental justice — in Jackson and elsewhere — as part of my research on a more inclusive economy. Find excerpts from our conversation below.
Chris Marquis: What drew you into climate and environmental justice work? And how did you land in your current role?
Abre’ Conner: I grew up in a rural part of Florida between Tampa and Orlando, and I had breathing issues while I was growing up. I didn’t fully understand the connection of growing up in a rural community in the South in a place of, for example, toxic waste incinerators and poor air quality and the direct impact on my health. But what I realized later was that there was this direct impact. I knew I wanted to address that and some of the other injustices that I faced through civil rights work. So I actually approached getting into this space from the civil rights lens. Once I got to law school, it became clear to me that I really needed to fully understand environmental issues if I really wanted to be the civil rights lawyer that I wanted to be after I graduated. I started doing a bunch of reading, including two reports on Toxic Wastes and Race from UCC that framed the issue for me.
It was one of the first reports done in the ’80s where they were looking at the placement of toxic waste incinerators and where there was likely to be more environmental injustice in different regions in the country. They were able to draw that connection that if you were in a black community or a community of color, you were more likely to be in a location where there was a toxic waste incinerator.
In most situations, things were at least at the same level of injustice, and in some instances it was worse. That helped me see this was an area where the communities who are being the most impacted needed to be in the room — they needed to be at the decision-making table in order for us to really advance civil rights work. We couldn’t do that without really highlighting environmental justice. So I took environmental law, then critical race theory on environmental justice, and how we could think creatively on how to do advocacy in that space.
When I graduated from law school, I had an opportunity to work for an environmental justice organization called the West Harlem Environmental Action Coalition where I was introduced to understanding Superfund issues and how that connected with community advocacy. After that I worked for Legal Defense Fund, where there was a connection between the work and civil rights statutes and how that could be used in the environmental space.
But then I went to California to work for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, and I was representing migrant farm workers. We were taking on a lot of the companies that were putting the toxic waste incinerators and plants in communities — typically they were unincorporated communities, places where people didn’t necessarily have the power on the ground to fight these companies that were spending millions of dollars to ensure that their message was highlighted.
That also gave me the opportunity to understand what it meant to build out environmental justice work as an inherently local issue. I was working on pesticide issues there as a farm worker rights issue — a huge issue in California. I know Agricultural Labor Relations Board there. But gaps in the regulations continue to allow for the people who are most vulnerable not to be at the tables. I led a health program at a legal aid organization working in medical/legal partnerships with entities that were seeing the social determinants of health on the other side. We were also doing some of our justice work.
That led me to this work at the NAACP where the way that we look at our advocacy is really multifaceted. We’re looking at it from a political landscape, a legislative landscape, litigation, community mobilization and organizing landscape, and then of course really centering our members and those who are in the communities in our work. This work with environmental and climate justice (ECJ) is really about dismantling obstacles so we can have sustainable communities with clean air, water, and soil, and we’re able to build resiliency now that we’re in the midst of the climate crisis. We need the infrastructure within our communities so that we can build the future that we want moving forward.
We do our work with an intersectional lens as well. Oftentimes we focus on issues that of course will prioritize communities who’ve been left out of the conversation. But to that point, we feel there is a need for black women, for young people who are black to also be prioritized in the decision-making and solutions spaces. They’re more likely to bear the brunt of the decisions. There’s a lot of research that shows that women are more likely to be harmed by natural disasters. They’re more likely to have health harms as it relates to environmental injustices, but they’re not the most likely to be in the rooms as it relates to decisions around climate solutions. We feel like our role is also to amplify and highlight that without those voices being in the room, we’re likely to perpetuate a lot of the decisions that have been made.
Marquis: Your work now is a nice sort of culmination of all the things you’ve done through your career and education. Can you say a little bit more about the work at NAACP? Part of it might be drawing attention to the issue, part of it might be lobbying in Statehouse. Some of it might be lawsuits against various companies. What are some of the ways you can effect change in this area?
Conner: I see litigation as a tool to further the shared goal of creating that vision of black communities having the sustainability to be able to move forward. For example, the Jackson water issue. We wanted to take on the state, as the city, the mayor, the residents have been sharing the problems for years and years. It was a really intentional decision for us to do that as well, because we were able to have complainants who have been sharing their narratives for a number of different years.
The former mayor, Harvey Johnson, who was the first black mayor in Jackson, Mississippi, shared his struggles about having a background in planning and still being ignored at the state level when it came to trying to get resources for infrastructure issues, which is his actual expertise. Community members who share how they don’t trust the water, and they’ve been sharing for a long period of time that the state needs to actually give more money to the city of Jackson so that the water issues can be fixed. Now we have that administrative complaint that’s open. But we also really utilize community mobilization and public education. One of the things that I noticed in Jackson is that the state had really done a job in trying to create smear campaigns and misinformation about who was actually at fault, trying to make it seem like it was the mayor.
It’s an issue that seems somewhat simple – it’s just water – but it’s actually very complex. Oftentimes people don’t realize there are multiple systems that actually create a water system for a city. If you’ve been conditioned to feel like you have to drink bottled water — some people knew there was something wrong with that, it’s not something that most people have to do. Also explaining to people the importance of having safe drinking water, safe tap water in your communities. We created a number of public education materials for mobilization where we outline the different water systems, outline the importance of having safe drinking water, outline how money actually flows. It flows to the state first, and the state gets to make the decisions around where the money gets allocated. Everything we do involves a civic engagement component. One of the areas that Gen Z and the younger generations in general feels is an important reason for them to actually go out and vote — no matter what political party — is climate. It’s also important that we’re also explaining how your vote — for governor, for other roles — connects with these issues, especially in the work within our center.
I gave congressional testimony explaining why there should be more direct intervention, why they should be looking at statutes around technical assistance for communities, and the need for data transparency. There’s an urgency we try to convey in that testimony. Congress plays a huge role in fixing some of these issues as well. We also engage with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The way that we look at our work is that there’s not any one particular tool that’s more important to get the end result.
Marquis: For these complex issues, I imagine many different tools are important. You mentioned the complexity of water systems and funding. Are you doing anything to prevent things like what’s happened in Jackson from happening again? Are there other hot spots that need intervention?
Conner: We see our work in Jackson as a model, a template, because a lot of our work involves other branches within the NAACP. We do work with our state conferences, and so we have regular conversations around the work we’re doing nationally on ECJ issues with folks who serve as our local ECJ leads. One of the things that we’ve continued to stress, even with our work with the EPA, is that it provides an opportunity, for example, for the EPA to build out a model of what it want civil rights complaints to look like that have an environmental focus. Right now, it’s really about ensuring that we build out some of these next steps so that we can have this toolkit available for other communities to use.
We have places that we’re keeping our eye on now, and we’re having conversations with some of our local branches, our state conferences around. But it’s really about making sure that we have all the factual evidence so that we can go in fully ready to deploy all the different advocacy strategies that I outlined as it related to Jackson. What grounds our work is ensuring that if we’re talking about an issue that is inherently local, we must amplify the voices of what residents on the ground say. We don’t want to be one of those organizations that kind of feels like we get it because we’ve read the news but haven’t done the work to actually build the mobilization base, the understanding on the ground to make an informed decision about how we’re going to think about our advocacy there.
Chris Marquis: How are you bringing people that are affected to the table? And how are you fostering more resiliency, as you mentioned? Black entrepreneurship and green innovation in those communities?
Conner: One recent example came from our state conferences across the country. Kind of represented was the bill to speed the permitting process for energy projects, which Joe Manchin was hoping to push forward. Recently there was another iteration of a permitting bill that would allow for a bypass of some of the laws, the statutes that would allow for there to be permitting of plants — what we would consider the kind of infrastructure that would lead to environmental injustice in the communities that are already experiencing a lot of harm. That was also coming off the heels of approval of the Inflation Reduction Act, which we were excited about.
If the permitting bill were to actually move forward in that way, we felt that there was a high likelihood that the environmental justice investments in the Inflation Reduction Act wouldn’t actually see the communities. That was definitely going to impact our state conferences, our branches in West Virginia soon because of a pipeline under construction. But the longer-term implication is that it would impact communities across the country.
We had people with state conferences and our branches meeting with members of Congress. Some members of Congress were on the fence or weren’t sure how they felt about the permitting bill, and others were squarely supporting or opposing the bill. It’s important for them to hear different perspectives. We were able to be a part of those conversations that inevitably did mean that the permitting bill did not go through. It was important for us to have people from our state conferences and our branches be a part of the Congressional federal policy conversations — we don’t necessarily need our lobbyists, our staff people in that space.
Oftentimes what I’ve noticed over the years is who has been left out of the conversations around environmental decisions. Are folks actually from black communities? Those are some of the opportunities we try to make available.
During our regular communications with our group of ECJ leaders across the country, we asked what data is important to them and what is missing. We were happy to see some of those changes reflected in the most recent version of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. We believe that’s the way that we’re able to build power. We actually talk with and hear from folks: What are you seeing? What do you feel is missing? Those are the stories that we try to ensure we’re incorporating.
We’re doing the same thing with our work around disaster resiliency. We do a lot of work with FEMA, and they are working hard to correct the gaps in communication they’ve had with black communities. Obviously FEMA plays a huge role in which communities are prioritized and how quickly a community is able to rebuild after a natural disaster. Because oftentimes they know what grants are available or they are sending information to communities about available funding. We had several conversations with FEMA and our local branches about not being prioritized. That’s an ongoing conversation. But our local branches are very much in the midst of that kind of advocacy to help FEMA rethink how they actually include black folks in their disaster resiliency work.
Marquis: You mentioned some environmental justice components of the Inflation Reduction Act. What advocacy is happening at the federal level, with regulations or in other ways, to systemically address these issues?
Conner: There are a few things. I’ll start with justice. Of course, that comes out of the Biden administration. What are some models that can be helpful for what implementation and justice needs to look like. We know that the data has to be there. There needs to be an expanded amount of data as to what constitutes a disadvantaged community.
Because if, for example, there’s a metric that’s missing but it has an environmental impact, and it’s based on an environmental injustice that’s happening in a community and that’s being left out, that community may not be considered a disadvantaged community for purposes of justice. So helping agencies understand that while the EPA is, of course, the regulatory enforcement agency for environmental issues, there are many other agencies that can stop them from being able to move forward.
We want to ensure there are stopgaps if, for example, a state isn’t using the money in the way that it’s supposed to. We’re looking at intended use plans as one of the ways the EPA could tell a state they need to revise or they could reject their plan. In the past, the intended use plan has been more of a rubber stamp. The state will determine infrastructure funding in different cities and send the plan to the EPA. It has to go through public comment and then they’re supposed to incorporate the public’s input and then send that to the EPA. In Mississippi they did not publicize their public comment period for the intended use plan and we had to publicize it in our newspaper.
Then we created a mechanism on our landing page to let people know that it was the public comment period, and we helped ensure that those comments that the intended use plan was not going to prioritize Jackson, Mississippi, made it to the EPA. It was nowhere on their state website. It wasn’t on their department of Environmental Quality or Department of Health website that they were in the midst of public comment.
One of the things that we’ve been pushing is to create these accountability places, like in an intended use plan. Giving Congressional testimony, continuing to see if there are committees interested in amplifying the voices of community members. This is not our work per se. But Congressman Benny Thompson and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney recently had some questions for state officials about the federal funding —what they’re doing with that money and where the funds are going. That was due to the members of Congress understanding the issues as we had outlined them in our testimony and the work that we’ve been doing in Jackson, Mississippi.
There are different levels of work happening around Jackson, but also other work at a federal level. Seeing where there are gaps and how certain statutes may have an environmental justice impact. How can that look differently? And continuing to push for more community voices at the table when issues come up.
At COP27 there is for the first time a loss and damage fund that’s been established that frames out climate reparations. Quite frankly one of the things that we feel is really important is that while the United States may be grappling with loss and damage, as it relates to our role with other countries, that black communities aren’t left out of that conversation because some of those same injustices that we have done internationally have done here as well. It’s still in the early stages, and we feel like it’s important for us to be a part of those conversations to help to shape that narrative.