Achieving progress on environmental justice policy implementation: Community organizer and policymaker perceptions on equitable solutions

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Achieving progress on environmental justice policy implementation: Community organizer and policymaker perceptions on equitable solutions

A new study uncovers community organizers' and policymakers' perceptions of the historical causes and proposed solutions to urban environmental injustices in the United States. Equitable implementation strategies shared by interviewees for program and policy design include meaningful engagement processes, building trust, avoiding unintended consequences, and incorporating procedural and distributional equity.

Siddiqi, S. M., Mingoya-LaFortune, C., Chari, R., Preston, B. L., Gahlon, G., Hernandez, C. C., Huttinger, A., Stephenson, S. R., & Madrigano, J. (2022). The Road to Justice40: Organizer and Policymaker Perspectives on the Historical Roots of and Solutions for Environmental Justice Inequities in U.S. Cities. Environmental Justice, env.2022.0038.

Urban environmental injustices are rooted in structurally racist discriminatory policy outcomes like segregation, redlining, highway construction, and deindustrialization. Uncovering policymakers’ and community organizers’ perceptions can guide equitable solutions to systemic environmental harms. To address decades of underinvestment and ongoing environmental injustices, Executive Order 14008 launched the Justice40 Initiative. Justice40 set a goal of directing 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain federal investment flows to address the following environmental justice program areas: climate change, clean energy, energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable housing, workforce development, cleanup of industrial pollution, and development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure. Justice40’s implementation processes must incorporate policymaker and organizer perspectives to ensure equitable program and policy design.

In an October 2022 article, researchers from RAND Corporation investigated the perceptions of community organizers and policymakers on existing and proposed environmental justice policies. Motivated by Justice40, the authors explore perceptions of environmental justice-oriented policy design and implementation processes. Published by the journal Environmental Justice, the researchers interviewed 19 environmental leaders across eight U.S. cities. They used a semi-structured interview guide and developed a codebook of shared patterns and concerns among organizers and policymakers. When asked about how environmental history shapes their current priorities, interviewees across sectors reported on the value of cultivating trust through meaningful engagement, prioritizing procedural and distributional equity, and demonstrating awareness of unintended consequences.

The authors find that gaining community organizers’ trust involves transparency, accountability, and avoiding false promises. Policymakers can address this challenge by committing to procedural and distributional equity in policy design and implementation. In this study, procedural equity prioritizes meaningful community engagement and consultation through scoping and decision-making processes. Distributional equity aims to ensure equitable percentages of benefits from solutions are allocated to historically underserved and underinvested communities. Interviewees in this study shared policies underway to tackle urban environmental injustices that align with Justice40’s goals.

Procedural and distributional equity also include community education and outreach. Organizers believe residents also need to know the connections between historical actions and current challenges. They advocate for educational programming on the systemic origins of environmental injustices. Across interviews, organizers named the ways discriminatory policy outcomes like segregation, redlining, racial covenants, highway construction, and deindustrialization entrenched environmental harm across generations. Yet organizers highlight a gap between these histories and current community perceptions and priorities.

The authors also called attention to the unintended consequences of environmental justice policy implementation. Across interviews, organizers and policymakers expressed concerns about green gentrification, affordable housing, and physical and cultural displacement. Accordingly, the study unveiled frustrations from community members when funding allocation and attention toward environmental justice policies disregard their broader economic, social, and political livelihoods. The authors’ analysis suggests combining environmental justice policy design with affordable housing and anti-displacement initiatives to ease these sentiments.

It is necessary to use policymaker and organizer perceptions on environmental justice policies as critical insight for Justice40 implementation. This study highlights the importance of embracing meaningful community engagement to avoid unintended consequences, such as gentrification and delayed investment in housing, parks, and infrastructure. Integrating procedural and distributional equity can help address urban environmental injustices and guide progress on policies aligned with the goals of Justice40.

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