Navigating environmental justice with data
Conversations with Data: #102
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For decades, communities of colour have fought for environmental justice in the United States. While some progress has been made, Black and Latino communities still disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental degradation and climate change. Heavily polluting industries are more likely to be based in these communities, resulting in more health and respiratory problems among locals. The data backs this up with higher rates of asthma and COVID-19 deaths among Blacks and Latinos than their White counterparts. Even more frustrating, they suffer higher displacement rates due to natural disasters and less generational wealth from past discriminatory policies like redlining.
So, the question remains: How can today's journalists reflect the impact of the climate crisis through the lens of such marginalised communities? In this episode, we spoke with two award-winning journalists from Los Angeles to the Carolinas to find out: Dana Amihere, executive director and founder of AfroLA News, and Melba Newsome, a freelance journalist reporting on environmental and racial justice. The pair provide insight into how they cover this important issue using data and solutions to inform their reporting.
Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Dana Amihere and Melba Newsome below.
What we asked
Tell us about you and your work on environmental justice.
Melba: I am a veteran independent journalist with over 20 years of experience in health and science reporting. Since the pandemic, my focus has shifted to environmental journalism, environmental justice issues, environmental health, and environmental racism.
Dana: I'm the executive director and founder of AfroLA News, a local non-profit newsroom in Los Angeles. Our goal is to provide solutions reporting and news for Los Angeles through the lens of the Black community. We also focus on other historically marginalised communities, showing how disproportionality and inequity affect them and us all.
Can you give us an overview of how the environmental justice movement first began?
Melba: I live in what's considered the birthplace of the environmental justice movement: North Carolina. That's attributed to an event that happened 40 years ago, which was the Warren County protests. This happened in Warren County, when the state government was going to dump PCB chemicals in this mostly Black community. They protested against that and they received training from the people who were in the civil rights movement. The protests lasted for weeks, and about 500 people were arrested. It also got international attention. Ben Chavis, who was leading that protest when he was arrested, famously said, "This is environmental racism". Dumping was always happening in Black communities because they had no political power to stand up against it. The Warren County protests was the beginning of the environmental justice movement, and we're really proud of that here in North Carolina. But 40 years later, I'm not sure how much progress we've made, given certain communities are still experiencing this.
How do you explain the intersectionality of racial justice and environmental justice to naysayers?
Dana: From the very beginning, AfroLA News was built on the premise of intersectionality. I truly believe that nothing can be boiled down to just a monolith. No person, no ethnicity, no community is just one thing. It's more complicated than that because we are complicated creatures, and this is a very complicated world, including environmental and racial justice. They're connected. It's a very complex set of circumstances in which multiple things are set into motion, and they have varying outcomes and impacts on people and communities.
Tell us about AfroLA News' 2035 climate solutions series. How did it come about?
Dana: The 2035 series has been in progress since the inception of AfroLA News. It came about when we conducted an audience needs assessment survey to understand better what editorial priorities we should focus on. We asked them what they wanted from us as their local news provider. Over a third of participants said they wanted climate change coverage. We noticed that the year 2035 kept coming up as a target for federal and local governments under environmental policies. As a result, we used 2035 as a framing for the series to explore some of these issues using a data-driven solutions-reported perspective. Our first story focuses on the pollution legacy of segregation in LA. Some say, "Well, we don't have until 2035". My response to that is we absolutely agree with you. 2035 is not our deadline. That may be the deadline for the government, but we're saying we've got to do something now.
What data challenges do you encounter when covering the climate crisis through the lens of Black communities?
Dana: I think the problem extends not just to covering climate change for Black communities but also for many historically marginalised communities. In terms of data collection, sometimes the data isn't there. We don't have it because nobody has bothered to collect it. In other cases, someone has collected it, but a government agency has it, but they don't want us to have it. Another scenario is the data exists, but the format we get it in is deplorable. You need the skills and experience to convert those files into something more easily accessible to use and analyse. It can be a very long, drawn-out cycle.
One workaround that has helped me is collaborating with other developers and groups in the non-profit news space who have built APIs to tap into these government agencies. The programs they've built constantly pull in new reports or data from these systems. One such project is the Data Liberation Project led by Jeremy Singer-Vine. The whole initiative aims to identify, obtain, reformat, clean, document, publish, and disseminate government datasets of public interest.
How do you use data to inform your reporting of local and marginalised communities impacted by climate change in North Carolina?
Melba: So much of what I write about is people and places. For instance, people living in those places and the impacts they face. There is a good deal of data out there to show where certain industries are located and what communities are most impacted. Most of the environmental groups here have geo-mapped them. While we have many issues in North Carolina, industrial animal farms are a huge issue for us. I use the data to paint a picture and show where all of these poultry farms and hog farms are located. This is very telling and helps me explain to people what is happening. By looking at income and race, you can see that clearly. For almost any story linked to environmental justice, I can find the numbers to back it up. Another example is the wood pellet industry, which is booming in North Carolina. The first places where they were situated were all in Black communities, particularly economically depressed Black communities. They manage to get there by promising jobs. However, none of that ever comes through. These industries have deliberately situated themselves in these neighbourhoods.
What one thing do you wish to see changed?
Melba: The one thing I'd like to see is some actual justice. But how that would come about, I don't know. It starts with awareness. Even though we've made strides within the impacted communities over the years, I think that it needs to become as prominent as the civil rights movement became. That is how we can engage people across the strata. And it starts with realising how much is at stake.
Dana: I would love to see better data collection and transparency. When we ask some agencies for the data, sometimes I encounter a defensive attitude. That has to go away. In terms of action, I think the onus is more on local government, federal agencies and policymakers. Our legislators are the decision-makers. They've got to step up to the plate to make this happen.
Finally, what books do you both recommend journalists read to learn more about environmental racial justice issues?
Melba: Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality is a seminal book on environmental racism by Robert Bullard. He is considered to be the father of the environmental justice movement, and he's an adviser to President Biden on this issue. Another book I recommend is WASTELANDS: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial by Corban Addison. It's solely about the hog farm industry in North Carolina and tells the whole story about how this started, where it's going, and follows that lawsuit.
Dana: I recommend the Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet. The book makes the connection between environmentalism, racism and privilege. The bottom line is we're not going to save the planet if we are not listening to people who are marginalised and most affected by this. They have to be part of that conversation as well.
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