Achieving the “Justice” in Environmental Justice: Why Diversity in Environmental Law Is Vital

“Environmental Law impacts other people” is a refrain we have heard throughout the years from law students and young attorneys of color questioning the value of pursuing a career in Environmental Law. The idea that environmental issues are unimportant to the Black community or other communities of color has been touted as one of the reasons why there is a dearth of environmental attorneys of color. In reality, Environmental Justice is poised to be the great civil rights issue of the 21st century. This is very much our issue.

Accordingly, it is important for the legal community to understand the meaning of Environmental Justice. The Environmental Justice movement addresses the reality that the individuals who live and work in America’s most polluted environments are disproportionately poor people and people of color. This injustice is not by happenstance. In fact, Environmental Justice advocates have long argued that communities housing large populations of impoverished people and people of color are targeted to host facilities that cause the most negative impacts on the environment. Also, communities with limited financial resources often lack the infrastructure to nimbly weather the impacts of modern day natural disasters, like the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Maria in 2017. Environmental Justice seeks to address this imbalance.

Attorneys of color have a vested interest in Environmental Justice because their communities are being directly impacted. Consequently, their voices are essential to correct environmental injustices. Unfortunately, Environmental Law lacks the diversity required to give those voices the megaphone that they need.

The lack of diversity in Environmental Law mirrors the absence of diversity in the Bar as a whole. To be sure, the law has been described as the least diverse profession in America. While there have been no formal studies on the specific racial demographics of the field of Environmental Law, the lack of diversity has been anecdotally observed for many years by Environmental Law practitioners. Organizations like the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, and the Environmental Law Institute have implemented initiatives to promote diversity in the field, including diversity fellowships and action plans to enhance diversity in Environmental Law.

Unlike other areas of the law, Environmental Law is a relatively new specialty that burgeoned when the first set of federal environmental statutes were passed in the 1970s. Decades later, Environmental Law remains fertile ground for young attorneys to develop a thriving practice. When Department of Justice alum, Quentin Pair; Earth Justice VP of Litigation, Patrice Sims; Holland & Knight Partner, Nicholas Targ; and Beveridge & Diamond Chairman, Ben Wilson, began their respective environmental practices, Environmental Law was still in its infancy. With a hope to bring more attorneys of color to the field, they launched an Environmental Law program at Howard University School of Law 12 years ago. Working with Daria Neal of the Department of Justice, they have helped bring in a new generation of Environmental Attorneys of color by teaching Environmental Law and Environmental Justice at Howard and establishing an Environmental Justice Clinic there.

Recruiting and retaining talented attorneys of color is essential to help correct the disproportionate impact that vulnerable communities face as it relates to pollution, unsafe drinking water, and other environmental problems. Advocacy groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center lead the charge in fighting for Environmental Justice. However, diversity is needed throughout the different sectors of Environmental Law, not just public interest organizations.

For example, environmental attorneys of color in the local, state and federal government agencies are needed to help develop and enforce policies that protect the environment for all citizens. Similarly, attorneys of color working for corporate environmental health and safety legal departments can ensure that their companies’ actions are not damaging the environments of the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Further, the transboundary impacts of Environmental Justice are increasingly being felt around the world, and therefore it has become an issue of international importance. If attorneys of color have a seat at the table, they can address and help remedy the problem of certain communities being targeted for environmentally-hazardous conditions or otherwise facing the health consequences of environmental injustice.

Environmental Justice is an issue that deeply impacts people of color, which means that Environmental Law cannot be relegated to the “others” in society. It is time that we recognize environmental injustices for the civil rights issues that they are and lead this emerging movement as we led it in the 1960s. Without our voices ringing loud and clear, the Environmental Justice we seek will continue to elude us.

©2018. Published in National Bar Association Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 1, April 2018, by the National Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.