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New Environmental Health and Racial Equity Book Out in Time for Earth Day 2011

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What started out as an environmental health scan using a racial equity lens for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has now been  expanded into an American Public Health Association Press (APHA) book to be be published in time for Earth Day 2011. Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable, and Livable Communities was a year and a half in the making. My colleagues and I at the Environmental Justice Resource Center (EJRC) researched hundreds of books, articles, reports and websites and interviewed dozens of environmental and health leaders at conferences, forums, roundtables, and seminars for this project.

Using more than four decades of lessons learned, Environmental Health and Racial Equity chronicles the major accomplishments and milestones of the environmental justice and health equity movement, program in academia, near and long-term needs and collaborative opportunities, and effective decision making models that employ a racial equity lens. Our research is rooted in the premise that eliminating environmental and health disparities will make us a much stronger nation as a whole. It is clear that as communities grow smarter they also need to grow healthier by addressing longstanding equity issues.

We use the environmental justice and health equity framework to understand the relationship between the built environment, community conditions, social determinants, and public health.  Our analysis presents connections among various environmental factors that contribute to a healthy community, and identifies protective and negative environmental effects on community health--with emphasis on low-income and people of color communities. Here, social determinants of health are the circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, work, play, learn, and age, as well as the systems put in place to deal with illness.

The book builds on the rich environmental justice, health equity, community based participatory research (CBPR), and community mobilization literature. Our goal is to reach a general audience as well as inform practitioners, planners, policy analysts, government and nongovernmental organizations, and funders on the strengths and contributions of the environmental justice and health equity movement. It also details programs in academia, near and long-term funding needs and collaborative opportunities, and effective decision making models that employ a racial equity lens.

Healthy places and healthy people are highly correlated. The built environment --infrastructure and environmental quality all have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing. The poorest of the poor within the United States have the worst health and live in the most degraded environments. The election of President Barack Obama didn't launch a post-racial era. Race still matters in the United States. Race also maps closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.  More than 100 studies now link racism to worse health. More than 200 environmental studies also have shown race and class disparities.

Place also matters. One of the most important indicators of an individual's health is one's zip code or street address. Individuals who physically live on the " wrong side of the tracks " are subjected to elevated environmental health threats and more than their share of preventable diseases. Even money does not insulate some communities from the pollution assaults. For example, African American households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are, on average, more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $10,000 live. Clearly, these disturbing disparities can't be reduced to a poverty thing.

Reducing environmental disparities should be a national priority not just for African Americans but for other people of color. A s the U.S. becomes more diverse and moves toward becoming a majority people of color nation by 2042 , eliminating environmental and health disparities is not something that should be given mere lip service or raised only in April at Earth Day events. This is important given the fact that p eople of color now represent the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population--making up about 35 percent of the population, an increase of 5 percent from 2000 . Nationally, 46 percent of children under 15 are people of color, compared with 40 percent in 2000. About 311 of the 3,143 counties -- one in 10 -- have people of color populations of 50 percent or greater. That's up from around 250 counties in 2000.

In the last two decades we have seen some progress made in getting environmental health and racial equity move from the sole confines of grassroots community groups to city halls, state houses, and the hallowed hall of Congress--and even the White House. Four decades as the first Earth Day in 1970, all 50 states have some form of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy designed to address environmental health disparities.

Today, there are 13 university-based environmental justice centers. Of the 13 centers, four are located at Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's); and 22 legal clinics that list environmental justice as a core area (one located at an HBCU), and six academic programs that grant degrees in environmental justice, including one legal program. The last two decades have seen environmental health and racial equity work make important inroads in national and international policy arenas. Their leaders are now getting long-overdue recognition. For example, from 1990-2010, more than two-dozen environmental justice leaders were singled out for prestigious national awards that included the Heinz Award , Goldman Prize , MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship , Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World Award , Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leaders Award , and others.  This is significant in light of the fact that none of the environmental justice leaders won any national awards for their important work prior to 1990.

Growing generations of new leaders has always been a top priority of the Environmental Justice Movement. Community based organizations play an important role in providing a space and training ground for growing youth leaders. The key to a successful environmental health and health equity movement building rests with how effective the movement solves "pipeline" challenges.  Not surprising, resources continue to be a major barrier to building, supporting, and sustaining strong national youth and student leadership development initiatives.

New generations of youth and student leaders are being educated, trained, and mentored by community based organizations, networks, and university based centers and programs to join the movement in various leadership roles. Bringing young people into the movement to address environmental health disparities, from activist to analysts to academics, can only strengthen the movement. Much of the youth work takes place within an intergenerational form (community based organizations, networks, centers, legal clinics that have youth-focus or youth component) and youth-led form (organizations founded by and led by youth), and both are important and complementary.

The number of people of color environmental groups has grown over the past two decades, from 300 groups in 1992 to 1,000 or so in 2000, to more than 3,000 groups and a dozen networks in 2010. An increasing number of community based groups, environmental justice networks, environmental and conservation groups, legal groups, faith-based groups, labor, academic institutions and youth organizations are teaming up on environmental and health issues that differentially impact poor people and people of color. Although the principles of environmental justice were conceived in the United States, they are now applied and embraced by millions around the world. The core issues have expanded from civil rights to human rights.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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