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An Environmental Justice Advocate Inspires Others to Become Agents of Change

Yvette Jordan is teaching communities impacted by environmental injustice about the power of speaking up.
Jordan, Newark Water Coalition cofounder Sabre Bee, and West Ward resident Shakima Thomas discussing race, equity, and environmental justice at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, March 9, 2020

Demetrius Freeman for NRDC

As her work in Newark continued, Jordan began participating in national panel discussions about the fight for clean water and became involved in conversations about the role of women in addressing injustices like the Newark lead water crisis. Today, she also serves as co-chair of the Lead-Free New Jersey Advocacy Coordinating Committee, where she works in concert with other members to recommend and implement a coordinated strategy that will result in holistic lead remediation. In that process, she tries to empower those who are not traditionally heard to speak and elevate the issues in their own community.

This inclusive stance is critical to the organization’s mission. Through its work, it is pressing for equitable lead-free policies at the local and state level, building the capacity for collective action, and amplifying the voices of affected communities and individuals. Its ultimate goal: a lead-free state within the decade. A recently signed New Jersey law, which is in no small part due to the achievements in Newark, also requires the state to replace all of its lead water pipes within roughly the same time period. Together, this is monumental in a country where an estimated 12 million lead pipes carry drinking water to 22 million people.

That targeted and equitable approach extends to much of Jordan’s advising. In fact, the first thing she tells any community looking for change is to form a coalition. “I tell them coalitions are an excellent example of using your voice and not feeling as if you’re alone.” Plus, she says it makes your aim something less likely to be ignored.

The other major piece of advice she has is to be clear in your purpose and goals. And most certainly to center who you’re advocating for. For example, the mission at NEW Caucus was to advocate for students, families, and the community. So when NRDC approached members of the group to serve as plaintiffs, the lawsuit dovetailed perfectly with what they were doing.

THE COMMUNITIES AT STAKE

But speaking up, especially for disenfranchised groups, can be complicated. From polluted air to dirty water, communities of color nationwide bear the brunt of environmental injustice. Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from every source. Being Black is also a bigger risk factor for lead poisoning than poor housing. And Black Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near oil and gas refineries.

Unfortunately, this is what makes Black and brown communities the experts. Because of this burdensome expertise, Black communities have been leading on environmental justice (E.J.) for decades, yet were largely ignored by a predominantly white environmental movement for about as long.

In 1987, a landmark report revealed race was the greatest determining factor of whether an individual lived near a hazardous-waste facility. In 1991, hundreds of E.J. advocates descended on Washington, D.C., for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, where participants drafted 17 E.J. principles. By 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the first-ever executive order on environmental justice.

President Clinton, with Representative John Lewis (fourth from right) and Hazel Johnson (third from right), signing Executive Order 12898, February 11, 1994

Sharon Farmer/White House

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