Meaningful involvement: Local grassroot organizations collaborate around environmental justice

The Environment Protection Agency 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. In the spirit of meaningful involvement, during the summer of 2019, the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Sustainability launched a Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4) to bring existing grassroots organizations together to help create awareness, understanding, agency, and capacity within communities of color around climate change and environmental justice.

The C4 was created in part to provide resources to grassroots organizers that can enable them to create a climate change and environmental action agenda to serve as guidance to environmental organizations and the City to help ensure equitable outcomes for communities throughout Grand Rapids. The C4’s planning team is made up of residents, nonprofits, neighborhood organizations, academic institutions, businesses, health care professionals, equity-based organizations and government employees who all play an active role in leading Grand Rapids’ environmental justice movement.

One C4 community collaborator is Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, whose mission is to improve children's health and well-being by eliminating harmful housing conditions. Jackie Hernandez serves as the organization’s community connections organizer and manages its Get the Lead Out program. Hernandez says she first became aware of Healthy Homes Coalition’s work to combat Grand Rapids’ lead problem through her former employer Linc Up – as both organizations were involved with a separate initiative to increase equitable health outcomes in historically low-income areas of Grand Rapids.

“Before officially joining its staff, I did contract work for Healthy Homes with its FEMA smoke alarm program,” says Hernandez. “This gave me the opportunity to interact directly with the organization’s work and to see how much impact it had.” “Healthy Homes Coalition’s approach to its work is family-oriented,” she continues. “The families drive how they affect and contribute to the changes they want. It is what attracted me to working here.”

As a C4 community collaborator, Hernandez says one of Healthy Homes Coalition's primary goals “is to advocate for the inclusion of resident perspectives and input into the process of developing equitable solutions.” This goal lends itself to the exact definition of a key principle of environmental justice – meaningful involvement. This means people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and health; the public's contribution can influence a regulatory agency's decision, community concerns will be considered in the decision-making process, and decision-makers will seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.

When asked what she most wants the Grand Rapids community to know about the work that is underway in the City to improve environmental health and equitable outcomes for all, Hernandez says, “Our communities need to know and understand how climate injustices impact their daily lives. Work is being done by real people who are showing up. It is ongoing and still so much more to do.”

The Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4) meets monthly and is currently focused on equity training.

Photo courtesy Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan

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