Environmental Justice in the U.S.

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Environmental Stewardship
Environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The goal is to ensure a sustainable community for future generations through participation in democratic processes. This is an important method for healing the environment and for developing thriving communities with active citizens.

Michelle Parker 



The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental justice is based in the well-documented fact that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms, such as pollution. 

Justice and equity must be foundational to all philanthropic work, especially those efforts aimed to solve for social issues stemming from centuries of injustice and inequity. Given that the environments in which people live determine their overall health and quality of life, environmental justice is a critical factor to consider across all concerns for the public good. 

Philanthropists are responsible to ensure their actions are responsible, respectful, and truly helpful for those they wish to support. Philanthropists are also responsible to understand how they, themselves, benefit from the systems causing harm to others. This is especially true for philanthropists whose giving position and resources result from generations of advantage in an inequitable system.


Historic Roots

In 1978, Lois Gibbs, a homemaker in Love Canal, New York, raised alarms about the contaminated landfill the community was built on. Gibbs’ work led to a presidential declaration of Love Canal as a federal disaster area, the community was evacuated, and the Toxic Waste Control Act was passed to prevent future harmful waste disposal. During this time in 1979, Warren County North Carolina was under consideration as a toxic waste disposal site. Warren County citizens staunchly opposed the landfill for the following thirteen years, until the EPA greenlighted the project in 1982. That summer, as construction began, so did a six-week long protest that saw over 500 people arrested. The landfill was eventually constructed, alongside what many consider the birth of the Environmental Justice Movement. In 1991, Warren County protest leader Reverend Benjamin Chavis organized the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, at which the “Principles of Environmental Justice” were adopted by national environment justice leaders.

Environmental justice is based on the premise that every person should have equal protections from environmental harm and equal access to environmental benefits. In the decades since the Warren County protests, the U.S. environment justice community – from single voices to national networks – have fought for equal protection and access, often against powerful corporate and governmental interests. For example, Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Kim Wasserman created Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) in the Southwest Chicago neighborhood, Little Village. The majority Mexican immigrant neighborhood was home to two coal-fired powerplants, and abnormally high rates of respiratory illness and cancer. Wasserman led a 20-year campaign to close the powerplants, alongside lobbying for the transformation of a neighborhood Superfund site to a 21-acre park, which opened in 2014. Wasserman’s work is not done, however: the city of Chicago recently sold one of the powerplant sites to a distribution company, Hilco, which will cause drastic increases in diesel truck traffic through Little Village, a significant source of dangerous air pollution.

As the country continues to develop land and consume resources, the basic tension between who benefits and who is harmed is ever amplified. The Keystone XL Pipeline conflict is based on risk to tribal water sources against broader demand for fossil fuel resources. The national fracking controversy also asks who should carry the risks of water contamination to meet the demands of a gas-hungry society. The lead crisis in Flint Michigan begs the question of who pays the true costs of shrinking urban centers. Environmental justice and equity require perpetual intention and investment, otherwise we risk solving problems for some at the expense of others.


Important Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Environmental justice is a critical perspective for all philanthropic work as the environments that people live in dictate much of their health and quality of life. Beyond the environment, equity and justice should not only help philanthropists understand social issues: ideally, equity and justice should also guide decisions on who determines the pathways forward and who receives the resources to do the necessary work. Too often, philanthropists attempt to help communities in need by supporting non-community members, including themselves, to enter the communities with pre-conceived solutions. Philanthropists who wish to help would be wise to learn more about their own biases and assumptions towards the issues and communities they care about and take the necessary steps to ensure their support is valuable to the community, according to the community.


Important people in the U.S. environmental justice movement

  • Dr. Robert Bullard: Preeminent environmental sociologist who wrote Dumping in Dixie, one of the first major texts on environmental justice.
  • Luke Cole: Co-founder of The Center on Race, Poverty and Environment. Cole is credited with laying legal grounds for environmental justice, expanding traditional environmental law to include civil rights and advocacy.
  • Rev Benjamin Chavis: Famous for coining the term “environmental racism,” Rev. Chavis was a leading voice in the 1982 Warren County protest that is often cited as the beginning of the environmental justice movement in the United States. Rev. Chavis also organized the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 at which the “Principles of Environmental Justice” were adopted by movement leaders.
  • Tom Goldtooth: Founder and Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, the lead organization for the ingenious response to the Keystone Pipeline, tar sands development, and other environmental threats to native lands. Goldtooth received the Gandhi Peace Award in 2015 in recognition of his leadership in environmental justice.
  • Lois Gibbs: Founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. Credited with uncovering severe land contamination in Love Canal, NY, in 1978, which eventually led to the evacuation and buy-out of the entire community in 1980.
  • Hazel Johnson: Commonly considered the “Mother of Environmental Justice,” Hazel Johnson founded People for Community Recovery in 1979 to fight the City of Chicago for knowingly building public housing on contaminated sites.
  • Kim Wasserman: Kim Wasserman is the founder and executive director of Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) in Chicago’s southwest side. Wasserman led the fight against the City of Chicago to shut down two coal-fired powerplants in the city, based on illnesses suffered by nearby Little Village residents. Wasserman received the international Goldman Environmental Prize in 2013 in recognition of LVEJO’s work.


Related Nonprofits

  • Center for Health, Environment, and Justice
  • Center for Race, Policy and the Environment
  • Climate Justice Alliance
  • Green Latinos
  • Indigenous Environmental Network


Reflection Question

  1. When environmental clean-ups occur - e.g. superfund sites - where should the waste be stored?
  2. How do we prioritize remediation of environmental hazards alongside the climate crisis? What should come first - actions that curb future climate change or actions that remedy current environmental hazards that disproportionally impact low-income communities?



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