The role was created in 2020 as Biden made environmental justice a priority for every federal government agency, as part of an effort to correct historical mistakes that have disproportionately increased pollution and disease in disadvantaged communities.
Biden’s focus on environmental justice led to a year of progress — and burnout
“Jalonne is a strong and effective advocate for communities overburdened by pollution and exposed to decades of ecological injustice,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the council, said in a statement. Her “ability to listen carefully, bring people together and find creative solutions” is invaluable to the job, the statement said.
“We have a wonderful opportunity to institutionalize practices that not only transform lives, but save lives,” White-Newsome said in a statement. “I look forward to rolling up my sleeves to increase the number of environmental justice champions within the walls of our agencies as I continue to listen and collaborate with environmental justice leaders in communities across the country.”
White-Newsome, a Detroit native with a PhD in environmental health sciences from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, will take on a daunting job at a small, understaffed agency. She will work with 25 members of the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council, some of whom believe the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is lagging far behind in fulfilling its mission.
Mallory and CEQ have yet to explain how Biden will ship hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in states with Republican governors opposed to their mission. Activists on the ground in states including Louisiana, Alabama and Texas have said they doubt they will ever see such funding.
Recent studies have shown that federal policies of redlining — racial discrimination in housing policies for more than a quarter century — resulted in the placement of pollution sources in and around Black and Hispanic communities, degrading air quality in those locations.
A study by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that particulate air pollution disproportionately harms black Americans across all states and income brackets.
Other studies have shown that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the country’s white majority, but that its damage is felt primarily by African Americans and Latinos.
Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It still harms minorities today.
Biden’s vow to build environmental justice into every federal agency has met with limited success. Some agencies, such as the Departments of Transport and Health and Human Services, have warmly welcomed the effort, while others have lagged behind.
White-Newsome is expected to urge departments like agriculture to pay more attention to how their work can help advance environmental justice.
The Biden administration also pledged to measure its progress on environmental justice with an annual report. So far, she has not managed to create this list of achievements and shortcomings.
But Biden has made strides to lessen the burden of environmental injustice. At least $55 billion from the Infrastructure Act is earmarked for improving sewage facilities, including $15 billion to remove lead pipes that have contaminated drinking water in cities like Flint, Mich.
About $28 million has been spent on preventive coastal erosion on Native American lands at the Kenai River Bluffs in Alaska, $65 billion has been spent on improving the country’s power grid, and $1 billion is said to be for the dissected Communities, including many blacks, were reconnecting through massive freeway projects that began in the early 1960s.
The harder work lies ahead, but Mallory runs an agency of just six people dedicated to environmental justice. Council members say at least 50 staff are needed, along with more funding that the government’s climate leadership, including national climate adviser Gina McCarthy, has failed to muster.
Martinez was an acclaimed choice to lead CEQ’s first-ever environmental justice initiative. Like White-Newsome, she is an academic with extensive experience working with activists. But the lack of staff support and the long working days were killing her, she said.
“I felt like I wasn’t as high quality as I should be,” Martinez said of her final days at CEQ. “You know, like I can feel myself just getting tired. I just needed a break.”
Martinez told Mallory about her retirement plan long before she did. But it came as a shock to some members of the panel.
Biden officials launch screening tool to identify polluted communities
“Every person you lose like Cecilia Martinez is a step backwards,” said María Belén Power, an environmental justice panelist and associate executive director of GreenRoots, after Martinez resigned. “You can’t entrust all the work to one person, two people, or three people. … I see in this work … people who burn out year after year.”
Peggy Shepard, advisory board member and executive director of New York-based We Act for Environmental Justice, said White-Newsome has the credentials to make her new job stand out.
“She has a wide range of experience,” Shepard said. “She has worked in business, at the state government level and with environmental justice groups.”
White-Newsome is a former analyst for We Act. She was also a Senior Program Officer at the Kresge Foundation, where she created the Climate Resilience and Equitable Water Systems Initiative to address climate and water inequities.
In addition to her Michigan degree, White-Newsome holds a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
“She’s had the opportunity to get a really good grasp of politics and grassroots people. She knows how government works, which I think is pretty crucial for this role,” Shepard said. “Of course you have to know about environmental justice and environmental justice policy.”
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