Webinar Offers Insight Into Complexities of Environmental Justice Reporting

May 19, 2021

SEJ News: Webinar Offers Insight Into Complexities of Environmental Justice Reporting 

By Perla Trevizo

What would real environmental and health justice look like?

Screenshot of May 11 panelists

Video recording and chat log

That was the theme of a May 11 Society of Environmental Journalists’ webinar launching what will be a year-long discussion culminating with the 2022 annual conference in Houston.

The term environmental justice has been a familiar one for frontline communities and advocates on the ground, but until recently many failed to grasp its full meaning. It certainly had not been touted as a top priority for the White House. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the definition of 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.

To Bidtah Becker, an attorney with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, it is also what she calls a balance in our society. 

“How do we balance the needs of the environment with the needs of human health?” she asked the more than 130 webinar participants, defining human health to include economic development, education and physical, spiritual and cultural well-being. Becker is also vice-chair of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and co-lead on Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities, under the Water and Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin.


Recent spurs to environmental justice

Heather McTeer Toney, climate justice liaison for the Environmental Defense Fund and senior advisor for Moms Clean Air Force, credits three specific things that have happened over the last year for the current attention and resources being dedicated to environmental justice.


‘[The pandemic] shone a light on a lot of the

disparities that people of color and people

in communities have been expressing

for some time but went ignored.’

— Heather McTeer Toney,

former regional EPA administrator


One is the pandemic, said the former regional EPA administrator for the Southeast region. “It shone a light on a lot of the disparities that people of color and people in communities have been expressing for some time but went ignored.”

Another, McTeer Toney said, was the highlight of racial injustice in the country and the reckoning with the deaths of Black men and women by white police officers, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “We watched time and time again the disparities and violence that took place in our communities and [that] really was a call to action for true equity across the board,” she said. 

Lastly, she added, is the recognition by scientists, big environmental groups and environmental justice groups that they need to come together if they want to have a fighting chance to avoid irreversible harm. 

Partly as a result, President Joe Biden has ordered every federal agency to review their state of equity. Through executive orders he’s established an environmental justice office in the Justice Department and an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity in the Department of Health and Human Services. He’s also mandated that 40 percent of the benefits from new climate investments “flow to disadvantaged communities.”

“Everybody across the federal government right now is working on agency equity teams that are looking at everything as mundane as procurement and contracting, to big time policy decisions, to how we allocate grant resources, what sort of data we use,” said Matthew Tejada, director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. “Just the fact that we're going to allocate resources based upon justice ideas, that's a big deal.”


Finding more layers in the story

What can journalists do?

“Journalists can help by recognizing issues that are being politicized,” Becker said.

With environmental justice there’s not always a clear “good guy” and a “bad guy.” She gives the example of the potential economic impact when a coal-fired power plant closed. A school district with 1,700 students lost 300. “So what is environmental justice for some of us on the Navajo Nation? It's being able to live and thrive on our nation, not having to move on,” she said. 

As someone who was at first reluctant to talk with reporters, Becker also suggested media training for community members and advocates to learn how to talk with the press, develop trust and share their stories.

McTeer Toney recommends reporters better research the areas we want to cover and make sure we also include experts who are from those communities. She mentioned a recent article where there was a clear line: “The people who they talked to that were community people were Black, and the people that were the experts that had written the books were white,” she said. 

“If you're going to talk about environmental and climate justice, if you're going to work in a space that is identified with people of color or marginalized communities, there is such a thing as a community expert. … When we do that, then we get a deeper story, and you can find way more layers.”

For Tejada, it’s the ability to do more long-form reporting, when possible, that really goes into the story of that community, which to him has more impact. “Those are the ones that folks are like ‘Wow, this is a really big deal,’” he said. 


Reporting beyond a community’s pain

What are some of the under-told stories around environmental justice?

“Innovation, you know, this is this wonderful new space where we are coming up with new ways to talk about infrastructure,” McTeer Toney said. “I love the stories about how historically Black colleges and universities are really talking green, sustainability and resiliency. We don't see that all the time.” 

Instead of focusing on stories she feels only showcase a community’s pain, she would like to see work that shows how communities are using resources. “How are they using the access to additional funding to create in their own communities where the next generation of environmental work and sustainability will be?” 

Some examples include the creation at Texas Southern University of a new environmental and climate justice center named after Robert Bullard, considered the father of environmental justice.

In Spartanburg, South Carolina, there’s a story of how environmental justice was turned and leveraged into a multimillion dollar community development program. “It's a great way to show that there are huge wins in this space,” McTeer Toney said. 


Understanding how we got here, where we’re going

What did local leaders do during the previous administration? 

“Just because we had four years of an administration that really did not focus on environment and climate did not mean the work was not being done,” added McTeer Toney. “So you have mayors and governors and tribal leaders all across this country, who stayed in and they continued, and we need to understand what were their success stories, how did they do it? In Colorado and New Mexico, how did they maintain this energy around climate action in these spaces and let's share that across the country?” 

Becker suggested looking at what tribes are doing. For example, the Navajo Nation has the oldest, largest old-growth forest and participates in California’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. So it could explore ways to marry traditional cultural values with a modern monetary system, she said. (ProPublica’s Lisa Song recently examined the efficacy of California’s program.)


‘It's really hard to solve problems

if you don't understand how

we got to where we are.’ 

— Bidtah Becker, 

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority


“The other thing I would suggest too, though, is helping people understand how they got to where they are today,” Becker added. “It's really hard to solve problems if you don't understand how we got to where we are. Tying it back to the Colorado River Basin, I think it's very important to point out, how did Los Angeles grow? How did Phoenix grow? How did Las Vegas grow with access to water from this river system? Digging into complexity is critical.”

“The bureaucrat in me hopes that somebody still reports on the more boring stuff. The stuff that really gets into the government, like what are we doing on strategic planning?” Tejada said. “Are we really making clear commitments that are meaningful to communities in our strategic planning, or in our long-term budget planning? … What's the 2022 budget going to look like? Those are the lasting things that years from now will still be paying off for communities.”

What should environmental journalists be following a year from now?

For McTeer Toney, it’s what was done with infrastructure and justice funds. She said she looks forward to communities understanding the need for diverse energy sources and why we must invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, particularly after the Texas power grid failure and the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.

Becker suggests you pick what you're interested in and follow it for a year. 

“I think it's very interesting that we're not hearing a lot about Texas. So, I think that would be a fascinating, critical story to cover because it covers everything — the way the electricity went out, where do we get it, why did the water go out and what did it lead to.”

For Tejada, it’s to hold the administration accountable. 

“To me, that’s gonna be a real litmus test, you know, are we putting it on paper and telling Congress we're gonna do it, and telling the communities we're going to do it and holding ourselves accountable to making some clear commitments?”

Perla Trevizo is a reporter with ProPublica/Texas Tribune Investigative Unit. A Mexican-American reporter born in Ciudad Juárez and raised across the border in El Paso, Texas, where she began her journalism career, Trevizo spent more than 10 years covering immigration and border issues in Tennessee and Arizona before joining the Houston Chronicle as an environmental reporter. She has written from nearly a dozen countries, from African refugee camps to remote Guatemalan villages and her work has earned her national and state awards, including the Dori J. Maynard Award for Diversity in Journalism and a national Edward R. Murrow. She was also honored as the 2019 Arizona Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Newspaper Association. Trevizo was a presenter at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2019 conference in Fort Collins, Colo., and will chair the 2022 conference in Houston. You can follow her on Twitter at @Perla_Trevizo.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 20. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: