By: Alex Knutte
On Thursday March 5, Miami University welcomed Peggy Shepard, the co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, to campus. Shepard was this year’s speaker for the annual Dr. Gene and Carol Willeke Frontiers in Environmental Science Distinguished Lecture put on by Miami’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability. Students, staff and alumni gathered in Shideler Hall for this event.
Shepard spoke about how people must address the ethical and human rights dimension of climate change. She touched on the fact that in this country, one’s zip code reflects their health status. Low-income communities, usually communities of color, are the most at risk for high pollution rates in their hometown or city, as well as other health and environmental risks. Shepard referenced the ongoing clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan to demonstrate how low-income citizens are dying from pollution, toxins and policies that have scarred lands.
In an effort to combat these issues, Shepard started an organization called WE ACT for Environmental Justice. It started off in March of 1988 as a volunteer organization with goals to institutionalize and build community assets. WE ACT highlights local community struggle and environmental problems. Through WE ACT, Shepard is currently working on establishing environmental regulations in communities where, for example, citizens are living in an area surrounded by 13 toxic landfill sites.
Living on an ever-changing planet due to effects of climate change, Shepard emphasizes how low income communities will be first to experience catastrophic effects from this issue. She discussed how currently, there is a record number of climate migrants from places of drought, and more often than not, climate refugees cannot return to their homes. Shepard spoke about how today, almost 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, people are still not back in their homes. These extreme environmental events can disrupt civil society.
Shepard used the Katrina example to discuss a phenomenon called climate gentrification. In New Orleans, once people moved out due to the hurricane, wealthier people bought their land for cheap prices. Public schools were taken down and replaced with charter schools. For those who evacuated, they could not come back to the lifestyle they previously knew. People all over the world are still experiencing the effects of natural disasters. Shepard informed us how she recently has visited Puerto Rico, whose citizens have been out of electricity for a year.
Another central idea of Shepard’s speech was how this nation should balance the economy and our policies in a way that it works for all people and as a result of climate change. Shepard argued that the country must be prepared for effects of climate change, and that we must develop inclusive strategies to combat this issue. She believes that students are the new emerging leaders in regards to these issues, and that in the future, roles and jobs regarding climate that can’t even be imagined today will need to be filled.
Shepard concluded her talk with a key question, asking the audience “So how do we meet these challenges?” She emphasized that we simply must take action together. Shepard was clear that active participation is critical to enable change at the community level and involve and educate officials on local issues. Without participation, change will not be possible. Shepard claimed that we must message the public on how climate change will impact everyone’s lives in a comprehensive way, and that no community is left behind in this struggle. She argues that we must take action at the governmental level, but also that all residents should think critically and get involved on how to solve or advise their cities elected officials to resolve problems in a way that meets their needs. Interestingly, Shepard emphasized that every campus and community must have their own climate action plan. These issues must be addressed because all people have the right to breathe clean air, access healthy food and enjoy a vibrant economy.
On Friday, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Ms. Shepard and a few other Miami students. She spoke to us further about her career, some of the failures and successes she faced along the way and how students can get involved in environmental justice issues.
Shepard began her career as a writer and reporter. She eventually worked as a volunteer on environmental justice issues and was able to turn this passion into a career. Shepard emphasized to us students that having skills outside your concentrated area of study is very important. She told us to foster all the additional skills we have and to not be discouraged if we are not working in our dream job right out of college. She said that there are many opportunities and that we might surprise ourselves with where we end up. Some other advice she shared was to get as many internships as possible, especially in settings we might see ourselves in the future. She also stressed volunteering at nonprofit organizations because volunteer positions can eventually turn into a steady job.
Shepard told us that in her area of work, one cannot be discouraged by failure, but should rather let it ignite you further. To support this idea, she explained to us about how it takes years to get a bill passed, and how sometimes after working on something for five or ten years, it doesn’t go through. While Shepard has had major successes, she stated that she failed every day to lead up to her success.
For the campus community, Shepard’s advice to get students involved is to start a club to have open and honest conversations regarding environmental issues and climate justice. She believes that people do not like to be taught or have information thrown at them, but if students can create an environment where there is a no-judgement zone and open conversations can occur, it will begin to foster change in our community.
Overall, I am very honored to have had the opportunity to meet with such an inspiring leader in environmental policy and justice issues. I am beyond grateful that she took the time to share what she has learned throughout her career and how that can be of use to us students to propel the climate justice movement even further.
Photo courtesy of Holly Flaig