Moving forward towards environmental justice

Caroline Frischmon (writer)

The MPCA connects with community organizations to address environmental inequities in the state

People of color in Minnesota face a 91% chance of breathing polluted air at home, compared to just 32% of the general population. Your likelihood of living near a facility in Minnesota that emits pollution above health guidelines more than doubles if you are a person of color. These statistics, while shocking, are not coincidental. Policies like redlining and racial covenants segregated people of color into communities that have since faced resource disinvestment and disproportionate environmental burdens. For example, highways into Minneapolis like I-94 and 35W were intentionally cut through neighborhoods of color, especially Black neighborhoods, while leaving white neighborhoods more distanced from the traffic’s air pollution. “Environmental racism is not created in a vacuum,” explains Jose Luis Villaseñor, the MPCA’s Environmental Justice Outreach Coordinator.

The MPCA is committed to addressing these inequities so that pollution does not disproportionately impact any group of people. As part of these efforts, the agency formed the Environmental Justice Advisory Group, a committee of community members and stakeholders that advises the MPCA on its environmental justice framework. Villaseñor oversees the group, which he describes as “a powerful platform for community members to be at the table and share their opinions and perspectives,” particularly on environmental justice strategies. “It’s important for those that are directly affected by environmental racism and disinvestment to be part of the conversation,” he says. For Villaseñor, building trust and forming relationships with community members is an essential part of addressing the state’s environmental injustices.

COPAL, a Latinx-led advocacy group in Minneapolis, is one of many organizations the MPCA has connected with in the community. COPAL focuses on Minnesota’s Latinx population, which too often bears undue environmental burdens. Marco Hernandez, COPAL’s environmental justice organizer, explains that immigrants from Central America are increasingly moving to the United States after losing viable farm lands to mining, pollution, and climate change. Once in Minnesota, they are disproportionately situated near factory farms and other industries with elevated environmental concerns. The organization hopes to highlight this cycle of environmental injustice by amplifying the narratives of Latinx people in Minnesota.

Part of COPAL’s environmental advocacy focuses on a bill in the Minnesota Legislature that would limit the cumulative environmental burden placed on any community. If passed, the bill would require the MPCA to weigh existing environmental impacts and socioeconomic factors in its permitting process. Hernandez felt optimistic about the constructive conversations between COPAL and the MPCA about the legislation. “With pushing this bill, we hope to have more conversations and to really grow together to come up with solutions together,” he says.

As a lifelong environmental justice advocate, the MPCA’s Villaseñor is excited by COPAL’s work. “It’s great to see a rebirth and a reclaiming of Latino voice within environmental justice,” he says. Beyond a growing Latinx presence, Villaseñor has seen “more people of color involved and demanding more space around conversations on environmental justice” in recent years. The focus grew even more following this summer’s racial justice protests, as the public demanded further action from the agency regarding environmental justice. “Based on the cultural climate we’re in, in the country and in the world, this is a great opportunity to push environmental justice perspectives with a racial and social justice lens,” he says.

COPAL agrees with Villaseñor. “Now more than ever, this is the time to really look into how we can bring equity into the state, and one good start is looking at how environmental regulations can help in relieving environmental discrimination for frontline community members,” Hernandez says. To do this, COPAL hopes the MPCA will continue reaching out to community organizations, especially those led by people of color, to listen to the experiences of Minnesotans affected by environmental discrimination. Hernandez also urges the agency to look inward and reflect on how its past decisions have impacted frontline communities, and how it can change course. This is especially important now that the Twin Cities, a region that ranks poorly in environmental equity, has become an epicenter for racial justice. “There’s a lot of recognition that has to happen,” acknowledges Villaseñor, but he says the MPCA feels ready to reflect and take action for authentic environmental justice in the state.

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