Domingo Morales grew up in foster care and public housing in New York City. Following high school, he found himself working a dead-end job, unsure about his future and unaware of what environmental justice could mean for communities like his own.
But that changed when Morales joined Green City Force, a local organization that prepares young people from low-income communities of color for careers in the green economy through service programs, including a recycling pickup service, and five sustainable farms located on public housing property across the city.
Working on those farms, Morales fell in love with composting, the natural process of recycling organic waste into soil-enriching fertilizer. Using food scraps and other materials that otherwise would be thrown into the trash, he could cultivate green spaces, grow fruits and vegetables, and help make his community healthier and more sustainable.
Morales subsequently started his own composting company, Compost Power. He recently was named one of five winners of the David Prize, which annually gives a $200,000 grant to five individuals who “create a better, brighter New York City.” He plans to put that money toward building out 10 more composting sites in the city while educating other under-resourced communities about sustainability.
Morales’s story reflects a bigger one: how the broader movement for social and racial equity intersects with the environment.
Across the country, a rising environmental justice movement is seeking to rectify how the United States’ history of systemic racism and segregation has left people of color bearing the brunt of pollution and other forms of environmental degradation.
For decades, research has shown that communities of color often have been relegated to live in areas that are disproportionately affected by air pollution and located in closer proximity to hazardous brownfields and fracking waste sites, and they are more likely to be adversely affected by lead poisoning and climate change than white communities are.
To ameliorate these problems, environmental justice advocates have proposed a number of measures, including passing regulations to reduce toxic waste and air pollution, increasing access to affordable clean energy, and making sure that communities of color are no longer targeted to host landfills, industrial plants, truck depots, and other facilities that produce pollution linked to long-term health problems.
Another complementary solution? Building a diverse, inclusive green economy that enables those same communities to gain equitable access to the resources and opportunities that produce healthier environments and contribute toward greater economic prosperity.
On a national level, that means ensuring that communities affected by segregation and environmental disparities are not left out when states such as California make large investments to combat climate change or when prominent politicians call for significant federal spending on job training and skill development for the workers needed to install solar panels, build wind turbines, and otherwise transition the U.S. to a low-carbon future.
For Green City Force, that means not only teaching young people living in New York public housing about energy efficiency, sustainable farming, and other environmentally sound practices but also showing them how to build previously unimagined—and lucrative—career pathways with their new skills and knowledge.
“I didn’t have time to think about things like environmental justice [before] Green City Force,” Morales says. “If I had learned these things when I was younger, I would have loved it. But I never got that chance. It’s amazing to see the change. When you give people opportunities and education, it can really help them start their own careers.”
The high price of “environmental racism”
In many communities of color already cut off from economic opportunity due to segregation, redlining, and other forms of discrimination, the arrival of a new highway, landfill, or refinery is framed as a kind of economic trade-off, with potential jobs and commercial investment coming at the cost of environmental degradation and pollution-linked sickness and disease.
While there’s no guarantee that local residents will actually secure jobs or otherwise financially benefit from the introduction of pollution-producing facilities, they do pay a high price. For example: In a stretch of Louisiana extending from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that has the densest concentration of petrochemical plants in the country, the risk of negative health effects in the predominantly Black communities nearby is so great that the area has been dubbed “Cancer Alley.”
Similarly, the New York City neighborhood of Mott Haven, which is 97 percent Latinx and Black, has been nicknamed “Asthma Alley.” Located in the South Bronx just 15 miles from where Morales now lives in Brooklyn, the area has an asthma hospitalization rate five times greater than the national average—largely because of its proximity to four nearby highways that carry heavy commercial truck traffic.
Climate change is another area in which communities of color pay a heavier price for pollution than white communities do. In Tucson, Arizona, Latinx communities have been disproportionately affected by so-called “heat islands,” urban neighborhoods that have fewer green spaces and less tree coverage. One study showed that 94 percent of the hottest areas in 108 cities are those where racist housing policies historically have denied Black people municipal services and home ownership.
When members of low-income communities of color are forced to rebuild after hurricanes and other destructive weather events—supercharged by rising global temperatures—they can be subject to “climate gentrification,” in which they are permanently displaced from their homes and neighborhoods. In Miami, for example, rising sea levels have pushed wealthier developers and homeowners away from oceanfront property and toward traditional communities of color in Liberty City and Little Haiti, which are situated on higher ground.
HOW ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM IMPACTS PEOPLE OF COLOR
From greater exposure to pollution to neighborhoods with hotter temperatures, environmental racism has created dire circumstances for traditionally marginalized communities.
Higher mortality rates
Black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than white people are.
Greater exposure to pollutants
On average, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide than white people, which can lead to respiratory diseases like asthma.
Hotter neighborhood temperatures
Due to a lack of green spaces, low-income areas in cities—primarily populated by people of color—have been found to be 5 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than high-income areas, a phenomenon that contributes to heat-related illnesses and deaths.
For environmental justice advocates, all of the above are examples of “environmental racism”—a term coined by one of the leaders of a group of protestors who had lain down on a highway in Warren County, North Carolina, in the early 1980s to block dump trucks carrying contaminated toxic soil that were headed for a landfill in their mostly poor, predominantly Black community.
Today advocates and organizations continue that work, in part by attempting to flip the Faustian bargain driving many instances of environmental racism on its head. That means pushing for programs and policies that protect communities of color from harm and include and empower them to share in the financial upside of eco-friendly development.
In Miami, a number of nonprofits have purchased land in areas affected by climate gentrification, allowing residents of those communities to remain in their homes and control their futures. Citi is among the companies that have backed those efforts: Both Citi and the Citi Foundation have provided philanthropic grants to Miami organizations that not only help low-income residents prepare for disasters but also promote job opportunities in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“The work we focus on is about helping people build financial resilience, which allows them to participate in and contribute to their communities,” says Ines Hernandez, Senior Vice President, Citi Community Relations. “The number one issue preventing lower-income communities from being more prosperous is economic vulnerability.”
Jobs of the future
Green City Force Executive Director Tonya Gayle concurs. A longtime advocate for young people of color, she says that new recruits to the program seldom have a big-picture view of environmental justice—nor a desire to pursue it.
“It’s not like these young people come to us saying, ‘I want to eliminate climate change,’” Gayle says. “They’re saying, ‘I need a job.’ So that’s what gets them in the door.”
At first, the connection between the program’s daily work and its larger purpose can seem faint. For many, the idea of a “green economy” conjures images of solar panels and hydrogen-powered cars; meanwhile, maintaining Green City Force’s urban farms requires trainees to literally get their hands dirty by growing and harvesting crops such as squash and kale, exchanging those crops for compost with public housing residents, and then using that compost to replenish the soil.
But agriculture has a key role to play in fighting climate change: While petrochemical fertilizers increase carbon emissions, sustainable food-growing practices can reduce them. Moreover, farming has found a home in the environmental justice movement, with advocates working to increase Black and Latinx access to healthy, locally sourced food while seeking to reverse the systemic racism that has dispossessed 98 percent of Black agricultural landowners in the U.S. over the past century.
A 2019 report from the City University of New York’s Urban Food Policy Institute found that Green City Force’s urban farms turned otherwise vacant spaces into social hubs and play spaces for children. More than 75 percent of public housing residents surveyed by the institute said that the farms improved the look of their developments, while nearly half said they were now eating more vegetables.
One trainee noted in the report that residents’ attitudes toward the program were similarly transformed: “We’ve had people yell out the window … ‘That’s slave work,’ and we respond, ‘Are you sure I’m a slave, or am I learning how to grow my own food?’ Then the next week, those same people are downstairs getting this produce.”
The farms aren’t the only way that Green City Force, which has received $1 million in grants from the Citi Foundation’s Community Progress Makers Fund, attempts to prepare trainees for green jobs. Over four-to-10–month stints in the program, participants learn about energy efficiency, waste management, and sustainable building operations by completing public housing service projects that have included refitting residential units with LEDs and water-efficient shower and sink heads.
Green City Force says it has graduated more than 500 young people, and it boasts an 83 percent job-placement rate after six months. Its graduates who are a year past their service term earn an average wage that’s higher than the various minimum wages in and around New York City.
Those numbers only hint at the potential economic impact of environmental justice on a national scale across the entire green economy. According to a 2019 study, workers in clean energy earn higher and more equitable wages when compared to all workers nationally, with mean hourly wages exceeding national averages by 8 to 19 percent and workers at lower ends of the income spectrum earning $5 to $10 more per hour than they would in other jobs.
To make sure that communities of color fully and equitably enjoy the health, wealth, and empowerment that will come from that economy, however, much more work needs to be done. For example, Black workers currently hold less than 10 percent of all jobs in clean energy, a sector that is expected to grow dramatically in the coming decades as the country shifts away from fossil fuels. “It’s not just about green jobs but about the jobs of the future,” says Hernandez, the Citi vice president.
Environmental justice advocates have their eyes on that prize. So does Sadiqua Minor. Before joining Green City Force, she was unemployed and living in public housing; today she’s a graduate of the program—and working for a state program that helps low-income New Yorkers make their homes more energy efficient. “Before Green City Force, I was just trying to make money to pay my bills,” Minor says. “That’s all I knew about sustainability … For me, knowing the importance of and caring for my planet while also helping and educating others has been extremely profitable mentally, physically, and financially.”