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Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome recently joined the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) as its new Senior Director of Environmental Justice, becoming the second person to hold the position since its creation.
The formation of an environmental justice department within CEQ serves as part of President Biden’s efforts to put equity at the forefront of environmental policy throughout the federal government. However, some have criticized the administration for understaffing a team that faces an enormous task.
White-Newsome assumes her role after a career spent working on environmental justice in both the nonprofit and private sectors. Most recently, she founded and led her own consulting firm which focused on finding solutions for communities grappling with climate resilience and other environmental equity challenges.
In June, at the end of her first week in the role, White-Newsome spoke with the Informer about her biggest priorities and challenges. (This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Washington Informer: I know you’re pretty new to it, but so far what does a day in the life of the senior director of environmental justice look like?
Dr. White-Newsome: Right now, it entails a lot of meetings, a lot of conversations, a lot of problem solving and a lot of engagement with internal and external stakeholders. Internal folks that work in the executive office and external meaning the agencies that are part of the federal family, as well as the folks that we’re doing this work for: communities and leaders across this country that are living in places and spaces that might not have clean air, clean water or a healthy community.
WI: You mentioned working with other federal agencies. How is your work impacted by the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency in which the court reduced the agency’s ability to tackle climate change and air pollution?
Dr. White-Newsome: The decision was stunning and disappointing and clearly, this ruling aims to take our country backward. I take it personally because several years ago, I worked as an advocate with an environmental justice community-based organization on the Clean Power Plan with the goal of reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants. But I would say the president and our team at CEQ will not relent in how we go forth in protecting public health and tackling the climate crisis. There are many other ways and avenues to achieve what this ruling aims to take away from us.
WI: What would you say are the biggest obstacles to achieving environmental justice?
Dr. White-Newsome: I think environmental justice is something that is not very familiar to a lot of folks. I think one of the beauties of the Biden/Harris Administration is that it has amplified the acknowledgement of environmental justice throughout this country. So, the biggest challenge with most of this work is education, connection and having a vision.
For one, you have to know what environmental injustice is and that maybe what you’re doing – a policy you’re writing, the investments that you’re making – might be making a community a worse space for some people, particularly low-income communities and those of color. So the education factor is critical, whether I’m talking about an agency or an external stakeholder.
The second thing is folks don’t understand the connection. Environmental justice is not just an environmental thing. It encompasses transportation mobility, the fact that we have more of our babies burdened with asthma because of dirty air and the fact that we have communities that were redlined and are now dealing with more extreme heat and extreme flooding. We have to connect this to what people care about and value.
Then it’s making sure that we have a vision because without one, we will flounder and perish. We have to make sure that as the Council on Environmental Quality, working with our external stakeholders and partners like the White House Environmental Justice Council and environmental justice leaders across this country, that we are creating a shared vision of a country that we want to see, of the communities that we want to live in – communities people deserve to live in that have clean air, clean water and are safe and healthy.
WI: What’s the difference between working on environmental justice from a government perspective versus from a nonprofit or from the private sector?
Dr. White-Newsome: The difference is in the access to power and resources. But the main point that I want to emphasize is that it takes all of us. Regardless of where you sit, what role you hold, how much you get in your paycheck – we have to have these pushes and influences from different points [in the policy process]. Advocacy on the outside will only be more powerful if I have folks on the inside, in all these different spaces. And so I really see it as the same work. It’s just a different strategy.