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EJ Clinic Conversations: Listening to Environmental Justice Voices

October 2, 2020

By Sophia Battle JD'21, Ricardo Edwards MARJ'19/JD'22, Tyler Kirkpatrick JD'21, Maeve McDermott JD'20, and Allison Rogers JD/LLM'21

Welcome to EJ Clinic Conversations, a series in which Environmental Justice Clinic student teams interview clients and partners from across the country. Today's post features Kerene Tayloe, Director of Federal Legislative Affairs at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Kerene Tayloe headshot
Kerene Tayloe

“I can’t breathe” - the haunting last words of George Floyd as he lay under the weight of systemic racism, personified by the four white police officers who took his life, one of many unarmed black men killed at the hands of the police.

“I can’t breathe” - these same words are spoken by the more than 18 percent of Black children who suffer from asthma, and who die from the disease at a rate more than three times than that of asthmatic white children.

When you hear “systemic racism,” the killing of George Floyd likely may come to mind. You might think of police brutality in general. Perhaps the phrase invokes thoughts of the injustices of mass incarceration, or perhaps it suggests redlining or gerrymandering. But do you think of environmental injustice?


Beyond Police Brutality: Environmental Injustice

Kerene Tayloe, a civil rights and environmental justice attorney with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, suggests that “it’s really easy to focus on the immediacy of police brutality but so many other things are right below the surface and are killing [Black Americans] at disproportionate rates.” Tayloe, who currently works as an environmental justice and renewable energy strategist in WE ACT’S Washington, D.C. office, believes that “while the Movement for Black lives might resonate more to people from [the perspective of] the criminal justice system, it’s imperative that we understand that through systemic racism [Black lives] are impacted in so many different ways.” One way that systemic racism impacts the lives of Black and Brown persons is through the environmental injustices that occur disproportionately in Black and Brown communities throughout the United States.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ released its seminal report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which found that ⅗ of Black and Latinx Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. The report further found that “[m]ore than 15 million [Black Americans] lived in communities with one or more uncontrolled toxic waste sites.”

Thirty-three years after the release of this report, we continue to see an alarming pattern of racial disparities in exposure to environmental and health hazards. Why? Is it a coincidence that these communities are exposed to more sources of environmental and health hazards and, ultimately, more pollution? No. Tayloe explains, “[T]he people who are most inclined to have political power are White people, people with wealth.” That is, due to our country’s systemic racism, White communities are more often able to afford the resources to ensure that sources of pollution are not located in their own neighborhoods.


The Path to Becoming an EJ Pioneer

Tayloe developed a strong understanding of environmental justice when she founded Florida A&M’s Environmental Law Society, as well as through her work as an intern for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Throughout law school, Tayloe aimed “to increase [her] classmates’ interest in environmental issues, understanding that environmental law and environmental justice specifically are just extensions of the civil rights movement when [one] look[s] at how race and capitalism impacts the life and quality of life of people of color.”

In 2015, Tayloe began working for WE ACT as a Policy Associate, becoming, as she says, a “student of the [environmental justice] movement” and “serving the folks who have been a part of the movement for years.” Tayloe cherishes her work at WE ACT. She describes herself as working behind the scenes, advocating for the voices of persons of color affected by environmental injustices and finding ways to include them within the environmental justice discussions happening in DC.


Addressing Environmental Issues with Equity

Based on Tayloe’s experience in the environmental justice movement, we asked her for her perspective on how to address systemic environmental injustice. Is there a more just way to address environmental issues?

One starting place, according to Tayloe, is to fund communities of color so that they have a seat at the table: “Until we have state and federal and local governments that prioritize public health at all costs, environmental justice communities and organizations are going to need to be better-funded.” If the philanthropy community is genuinely interested in addressing the disparities that Black Americans face and legitimately wants to support the Black Lives Matter movement, then it “needs to make sure organizations that [support Black lives] are receiving the funding they need” and should provide that funding without trying to dictate the goals of the organizations they fund.

"When we prioritize Black lives, all lives will benefit. All of our struggles are tied together."
– Kerene Tayloe

While Tayloe emphasizes the need for providing effective funding for organizations that work to support Black lives, she notes that many other steps can be taken as well to address systemic environmental injustice. Tayloe notes that despite the various steps that can be taken, the underlying key to solving the problem is prioritization. “In understanding what Black Lives Matters means, when we prioritize Black lives, all lives will benefit,” states Tayloe, who added that the Movement for Black lives needs and demands a response from elected officials and policy makers. Ultimately, she said, “All of our struggles are tied together.”

Tayloe’s statement echoes another call within the Black Lives Matter movement. That is, until the voices of Black communities have the same force of action as those with power, influence, and position, then we will continue to see systemic racism and environmental injustice in communities of color.

As clinicians in Vermont Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic, we are extremely grateful to Tayloe for her time, as well as for her inspiring leadership within this movement. Tayloe has provided us with hope that with all of us working together to take the steps she mentioned, we may make meaningful headway in the elimination of environmental injustices and racism.