Tompkins County Environmental Management Council Talks Environmental Justice

This article is a transcription of Izzy Frabotta's October 10th report on Talk of the Town.

On Thursday evening, the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, or EMC, hosted a community outreach event on environmental justice. Specifically, the October 8 meeting was dedicated to discussing the ways in which environmental issues disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Although the issue of environmental justice has been of importance in Ithaca and throughout the country for decades, its discussion is especially salient now as anti-racist activism pushes to the forefront of public consciousness. This event provided Tompkins County residents with another way to understand and become involved with social and racial justice movements.


The EMC is a citizen advisory board focusing on local environmental issues, and has been active for nearly fifty years. Members of the organization play two major roles in the community: they advise the County legislature on environmental issues and educate citizens on the ways natural resources are preserved, developed, and used. Previous events have addressed topics including eco-friendly real estate development, a Green New Deal in Ithaca, and ways to promote and support sustainable transportation methods like ride-sharing and biking. Needless to say, the EMC provides citizens of Tompkins County with a great deal of important information, and Thursday night’s event was no exception.


Three speakers each gave a short presentation on the ways they personally understand and interact with environmental justice, a concept defined broadly as the intersection between environmentalism and social justice. Relationships between people and the environments in which they live are influenced by many factors including race, class, and gender. As discussed over the course of the evening, this relationship can be a matter of life and death for individuals living in polluted, isolated, or otherwise unsafe environments.


Richard Rivera, a member of the Tompkins County Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources organization, presented first, addressing the difficulties homeless individuals face in becoming part of Ithaca’s socioeconomic community. Rivera works extensively with individuals living in The Jungle, an encampment located in the forest on the west side of Ithaca, near the inlet of Cayuga lake. Rivera disputed the widely held belief that The Jungle is lawless and dangerous, believing this to be an unfortunate misconception. The individuals inhabiting this space, he says, are simply people who have had difficulty integrating into the Ithaca community, and this does not render them less “worthy” than anybody else. At the end of the night, during a Q&A session, Rivera urged empathy and action. He hopes to work with other Ithaca residents to help clean litter around the encampment, and encourages citizens to visit with something to offer, whether that be a coat, hand warmers, or a meal.


Rebecca Evans, the second speaker, is the campus sustainability coordinator of Ithaca college. In her work, she examines the relationship between racism, pollution, and the climate crisis. Referencing the ongoing lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan, and the displacement of Black and Latinx communities by the development of the New York City Highline, Evans urged the audience to consider ways in which property and profit has been placed above human life. In particular, she emphasized the perils of eco-gentrification, or the development of eco-friendly residences, commercial buildings, and greenspaces in previously disenfranchised neighborhoods. She cautioned that these developments often raise rent prices and drive away low-income residents whose families may have been part of the community for generations.


Finally, Anne Rhodes, a community activist and longtime Cornell Cooperative Extension worker, discussed the shared root causes of both racism and the climate crisis. These two issues, she explained, need to be thought of as complex systems with many interacting parts, and policy addressing one issue must necessarily address the other. For example, the framers of the Green New Deal have described how solutions to solve the climate crisis, such as building sustainable energy infrastructure, will also provide jobs and help lift citizens out of poverty.



Overall, the night was both informative and engaging, as evidenced by a number of audience questions and comments during the Q&A section. Those looking to view a recording of the event or attend future meetings should visit tompkinscountyny.gov/emc.

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