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Real World: An Open Letter To Democratic Leadership

Yesterday, Blue America joined with with other progressive groups sending a letter to President Biden and the congressional leadership. Let me share it with you.

October 15, 2021

Dear Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Senate Majority Whip Durbin, House Speaker Pelosi, House Majority Leader Hoyer, House Majority Whip Clyburn, and President Biden,

Thirty years ago this month, grassroots environmental justice leaders from across the country stood on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. at the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit demanding justice for communities devastated by decades of environmental contamination. Black, Latino, Asian Pacific Islanders, Indigenous and other communities in the United States have for too long been on the front lines of our nation’s most dangerous environmental and health hazards. Oil refineries, power plants, ports and waste incinerators are just a few of the many industrial facilities that pump billions of pounds of pollution into the air and water. These are disproportionately sited in communities of color, leading to higher rates of cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, neurological issues and other life-threatening health problems for the people living there. This undermines these communities' ability to participate equally in the economy and live safe, healthy and prosperous lives.

Congressional leaders and President Joe Biden have a critical opportunity to join forces to turn the tide against environmental injustice, economic inequality and climate change. Congress must pass a Build Back Better package that delivers economic, public health and environmental benefits and tackles climate change. Additionally, the Build Back Better Act must create pathways for environmental justice communities to access high quality and family sustaining jobs and enter a new green economy.

We urge you to ensure that the following programs remain in the Build Back Better Act. We believe these programs are crucial to achieving a rapid shift towards a pollution free, inclusive and just economy.

  • Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants: Congress must support this new block grant program by investing at least $5 billion to reduce pollution and climate threats in communities on the front lines of our nation’s most dangerous legacy environmental and health hazards. These grants would provide up to $500,000 for 1 to 3 years to support community-led priorities to reduce pollution and improve public health and climate-readiness.

  • Healthy Ports: Congress must invest in at least $3.5 billion in healthy ports by providing rebates and grants for zero emissions port equipment to reduce diesel emissions, improve public health and mitigate the cumulative impacts of air pollution on neighborhoods near ports, often communities of color and low-income areas.

Pollution Clean-up: Congress must invest at least $25.5 billion in cleaning up toxic pollution in communities to improve public health and quality of life, including by providing funding to: replace refuse trucks and school buses with zero emission vehicles; support Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) programs; allow the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor community air quality and share information with residents when pollution levels are unsafe; clean up Superfund sites; replace lead service lines; and reduce air pollution and toxics at public schools in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

  • Equitable and Sustainable Community Development: Congress must invest at least $22.5 billion in safe, healthy, prosperous and climate-ready communities by providing funding for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), and reconnecting communities deliberately segregated and divided by highways.

  • Investments in the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for community engagement: Congress must invest at least $950 million in the technology, staff and grants needed to effectively engage communities and secure their early input on large infrastructure projects. This engagement is critical for federal agencies to understand the cumulative impact of the pollution on clean air, water, and wildlife, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Department of Energy, the Department of Interior, the Department of Transportation, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

  • Civilian Climate Corps (CCC): Congress must invest $30 billion towards the Civilian Climate Corps to train a new workforce in long-term careers in the new clean energy economy, and directly create the equivalent of 300,000 new full-time positions cleaning up pollution, expanding clean energy, strengthening community resilience, protecting public lands, and recovering from climate disasters. Every CCC position, as well as every existing AmeriCorps position, must ensure a $15 minimum wage and strong benefits to reverse the exclusionary structure of the original New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps as well as the contemporary limitations of AmeriCorps, and ensure these national service programs are equitable and accessible to all. In addition to strong salaries and benefits for all corps members, the CCC must advance equity and environmental justice by hiring at least 50% of corps members from frontline, environmental justice communities to complete projects and develop career pathways in environmental justice and climate mitigation and adaptation in their own communities.

A full list of critical environmental justice investments that must be included in the Build Back Better Act can be found here.

We believe investing in environmental justice priorities and worker training programs such as the CCC go hand in hand. We must redress the harms of environmental injustice and systemic racism while investing in programs that allow the new generation to build sustainable careers in implementing climate and environmental justice solutions and building healthy climate-ready communities. Breaking down barriers to economic opportunities is crucial to ensuring that the new generation of workers are treated fairly and supported by quality job training programs, especially in communities with disproportionately high underemployment and unemployment as well as communities that have been historically reliant on fossil fuel extraction and energy production. The jobs in the new green economy must also pay fair and sustainable wages and provide benefits such as healthcare, child care, and more, with the opportunity for collective bargaining. We stand united and will not let our priorities be pitted against each other.


America's Service Commissions

Blue America

Center for American Progress

Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy

Deep South Center for Environmental Justice


Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform

Grassroots Global Justice Alliance


League of Conservation Voters

Los Jardines Institute

Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

Midwest Environmental Justice Network

Natural Resources Defense Council


Rights & Democracy - New Hampshire and Vermont

Service Year Alliance

Sierra Club

States for Service Coalition

Sunrise Movement

The Corps Network

The Harambee House / Citizens for Environmental Justice

The New School Tishman Environment and Design Center

Union of Concerned Scientists

United We Dream

WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Working Families Party

Erica Smith, the progressive Democrat running for the open North Carolina seat that is also being contested by half a dozen conservatives from both parties, told me that when she was 7 years old she "developed a political consciousness in Warren County, protesting the toxic PCB dumping that was taking place right on the land of Black farmers. Forty years later, while representing Warren County in the state Senate, I saw homes and livelihoods destroyed by storms and flooding. For generations, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live on has been neglected for the sake of corporate profits. These practices have now brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe and the climate crisis has manifest itself most violently in the communities that have benefited the least. Corporations have pillaged our resources and polluted our communities while hollowing out our local economies. In forty more years, it'll be far too late. This may very well be our last best chance to confront the climate crisis and in the process achieve climate justice and create millions of good paying jobs. We have an opportunity, not just to create the energy system of the future, but to empower communities that have been left behind for far too long. We cannot build back better if there's no planet left for us to build on. For the folks I marched with all those years ago, for the people suffering from a rigged economy and a climate emergency, for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places we call home, we must include bold climate action in this plan. Let's meet this moment and change the course of history." Now watch this inspiring video and consider contributing to Erica's campaign here.

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