Conservation

Five Lessons in Environmentalism From Peggy Shepard

After 30 years of rallying for justice, the WE ACT leader has plenty of insight on building a resilient movement.

It’s been more than 30 years since Peggy Shepard logged her first environmental win. She’d just been elected as West Harlem’s Democratic Assembly District Leader—her official debut in politics—when her people came to her with a problem: A sewage-treatment plant had recently opened on the Hudson River, and the odors and fumes were making families sick.

After hearing their concerns, Shepard started asking the tough questions. Why was the plant built in West Harlem after it had been planned for a different part of Manhattan? Was it because the majority of the neighborhood was black? Was it because the median income was among New York City’s lowest?

The answers were yes and yes. In the end, the city shelled out $1.3 million to West Harlem residents and made $53 million worth of updates to the facility. The story also made the front page of The New York Times; “it was above the fold,” Shepard says proudly. It was a turning point in her life, too. After years of moving between suburbs and cities—from Washington D.C. to Trenton to Indianapolis—and jumping between professions—from journalism to grassroots organizing for the Jesse Jackson 1984 campaign—Shepard had finally found her home and calling. To mobilize against the plant, she co-founded WE ACT, a nonprofit built to battle environmental racism and unequal access to natural resources. Three decades and dozens more lawsuits later, WE ACT has grown into a formidable force, and its leader has drawn admiration for her savvy. (The Audubon President's Award is the latest example.) She's also picked up a few lessons along the way, which she shared with us earlier this week.

No. 1: Advocacy and Activism Are Powerful, But Not the Same

Shepard stresses that WE ACT’s environmental work is rooted in advocacy more than activism. While activism is the initial spark of a movement, advocacy is all about the long game, she says. “It’s something you must maintain. It isn’t just about creating changes, but ensuring that they’re enforced.” An activist, for instance, may successfully lobby for a chemical ban and focus their energies on the next pressing issue. But an advocate will follow up and monitor practices to make sure new rules have a lasting impact.

Here's a more specific example. WE ACT is currently rallying against lax lead testing in NYC public housing and schools—an investigation into which led to the resignation of a city official. While WE ACT has helped pass anti-lead legislation in the past, the standards simply aren’t being upheld. So, the fight continues.

No. 2: Progress Takes Persistence and Time

Some of bigger projects WE ACT has helped push have taken upwards of a decade to yield results. In the early 2000s, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it a priority to create more waterfront parks, Shepard noticed that Harlem was missing from his list. “Our piers were falling [apart],” she says. She and WE ACT’s partners made a case for the neighborhood, and 10 years later, they got their park. “The point we made was that it didn’t only affect our community, but the whole city,” Shepard says. “The riverfront can now be enjoyed to the tip of Manhattan.”

Public policy is similarly complex, Shepard says. The EPA passed a fresh Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016, but the guidelines have yet to take shape in the real world. “We’re still working on the implementation years later,” she says. It’s the reason why environmentalists have the keep the pressure on.

Shepard at an Earth Day event in Harlem, New York City. Photo: Courtesy of WE ACT

No. 3: Don’t Assume That Poverty Equals Environmental Apathy

Poll after poll has shown that Latinos and blacks prioritize sustainability more than other populations. In fact, the lion’s share of WE ACT participants are black public-housing residents, Shepard says. “We don’t see the same turnout from homeowners at our meetings.” These folks are especially charged up about climate change and energy security. The damage left behind by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 hit some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in New York City. This, Shepard says, is a product of 1900s urban planning, which pushed public housing onto industrial waterfronts. “At that time, the river was a gritty place—not a spot for million-dollar views,” she adds.

As a result, Shepard thinks poorer communities are more engaged when it comes to the environment. “People most affected are the ones that you can organize the easiest,” she says.

The connection is obvious with WE ACT’s latest efforts to bring solar co-ops to northern Manhattan. In the past, neighborhoods in and around Harlem have experienced a string of brownouts, or short-term power outages. As a fix, the community wants to decrease their reliance on big utilities like Con Edison by bringing in renewable companies in to build independent grids. The movement has hit a snag, however, with newly imposed tariffs on solar panels; the contracts that Shepard’s group was drawing up have now become a lot less affordable.

No. 4: National, Statewide, and Local Interests Often Match Up

“I can’t think of a federal law that I’ve ever worked on that hasn’t had an impact of every individual [in my community],” Shepard says. National standards set the stage for regional progress; once the framework is in place, it can be catered to a neighborhood’s needs.

For instance, the Farm Bill is a mammoth piece of legislation that involves billions of dollars in agricultural grants. Currently up for a update in Congress, the bill also has major implications for birds. But how does it relate to kids in West Harlem? “They get school lunches, and we want them to get high-quality ones,” Shepard says. The federal funds affect food production across the country, and so its weight is felt far beyond the cornfields of Iowa.

No. 5: America Leans On Its Grassroots Champions  

Looking at environmental progress in other nations, Shepard is convinced that “the United States couldn’t operate without the nonprofit community.” Tight-knit, motivated groups like WE ACT keep constant pressure on governments to do better. In New York City, for example, the group is the main roadblock against buses reverting back to diesel. (Back in the 2000, WE ACT got the public-transit system to switch to hybrid engines.) The same can be said about recent collapses in EPA enforcement. Whatever gains environmentalists have been made since the Nixon era are slowly being lost to Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ill-aligned motives.

Troubling environmental times and all, the resistance is strong in the United States—a good thing, Shepard says, given that there’s plenty of ground left to cover. “There’s so much legacy pollution that people are living with,” she says. “It’s affecting rural communities; it’s affecting birds.” She’s also concerned about the growing rift in wealth and health inequality. But the smallest victories and steps forward lift her spirits. “There’s always that ying and yang,” Shepard says. “That’s sort of how life goes.”

Purbita Saha is the associate editor for Audubon. She really likes birds and people who like birds. Look for more of her writing in the Birding and Science sections, or in the front of the magazine.

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