Michele Roberts, 62, has worked in the environmental justice space for more than 20 years. Now she advises the Biden administration as a member of the recently-formed White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, while also serving as national co-coordinator for the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. Now a longtime resident of northeast D.C., Roberts also created a community-based special justice arts program based out of her church in her hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
Kayla Benjamin, WI reporter: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Wilmington.
Michele Roberts: Growing up in Wilmington was interesting for me, and that was where activism came into an early portion of my life. I grew up in a segregated Wilmington — a legally segregated Wilmington — that sought to be integrated. I was in second grade when Dr. King was assassinated. We didn’t have school for weeks. The National Guard patrolled our streets for months, it seemed like they would never leave.
Fast forwarding into 1976, when the Bicentennial was being celebrated, I was learning about apartheid in South Africa from an awesome high school teacher. I was in an all-Black educational setting; that’s how our public school was. But where my schools were located, I could smell the pollution in the city, the stench from tanneries and what have you, coming up the hill. Meanwhile, there were many people in my circle who were sick, and/or dying. Especially my elders, who were older, would all of a sudden get these mysterious illnesses and die.
KB: How did you connect that experience to the environmental justice fight nationally?
MR: The funniest thing was I had this affinity for science, and for policy. I was learning about this apartheid. And this was before you had access to computers and internet. So I’m learning from my school. And then as I grow older, and I’m learning in depth about the interconnectedness of racism and the political structures that have held people at bay– but I wound up becoming an environmental scientist [for the government].
And it was through that, when I was working as an environmental scientist, going in and out of these industrial facilities, [I began] seeing the disconnects — the real protection of human life, health, and the public was more just protection for the bottom line, if you will. And meanwhile, my family and friends around me were sick and dying, and put me in a space. Fast forwarding on to where I am now, I came to Washington, D.C. in 2000. And just like Joe Biden, and these folks come to D.C., I came to D.C. for the people — but not through a vote. I just took it upon myself to come to really try to address these issues and bring these issues to bear. I thought [it would be] for my community. I did not know I would be catapulted into serving communities across this nation and beyond — we have even taken our voice to South Africa and linked up with South Africans.
KB: Are there connections between advocacy on the local and national levels that people might not think about?
MR: Well, in 2015, we wrote a report just after Beau Biden, Biden’s son, died from brain cancer. We — Environmental Justice for Delaware — co-authored this report, and we compared communities in Delaware to Biden’s community. We wanted to show the stark disconnect between white privilege and poor folk of color.
It was out the wazoo to see the number of cancers and heart disease and all of these things. The health department came out with a blazing op-ed and said our report was incorrect: “the problem was the people’s lifestyle.”
Right now the state is finding out there was lead in the drinking water of 47 schools, and there’s PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a group of manufactured chemicals) contamination that’s actually moving in plumes underneath of people, in addition to all of the legacy pollution. But, no, “it was the people’s lifestyle.”
KB: Throughout your time in environmental science and advocacy spaces, have you found yourself the only, or one of the only, Black women in the room? How does that shape your work?
MR: In the beginning — as they say, back in those days — you saw mostly white men. I started off in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I worked in water and wastewater. And in all of my work, I was indeed the only person of color. And in some spaces, I was the only woman.
But the fortunate thing for me is that I come from a strong foundation — a strong family and educational foundation. I was raised in an all-Black public school setting. And I then matriculated at Morgan State University in Baltimore — as I call it, the crown jewel of the HBCUs. But the importance of HBCUs is how they nurture you, so that you’re able to stand so firmly that even if you need to stand with and to yourself, you can. And that’s how I was able to navigate my way through that. And through my faith, because I really felt called.
KB: What’s one accomplishment you’re most proud of?
MR: Responding to the Elk River disaster in Charleston, West Virginia, where over 300,000 people’s water was contaminated by [a chemical spill caused by] Freedom Industries.
We were able to sue the United States government, and we won, to get remedy and redress for the folks. That work is still a work in progress. But to be able to see people who felt they were on their own be supported by everyday people, and then just really stand up to the system and win? It’s heartfelt.
This is the third in a series highlighting local Black advocates fighting for climate, environmental justice, and our Earth. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured in our next Spotlight, please reach out! I’m at email@example.com