Young Alumnus Reports on NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program

Katie Fink '12 discusses how coal fired power plants impact communities of color...

comments

Katie Fink '12
NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Fellow
Former Energy Conservation Intern at Cornell’s Campus Sustainability Office

Maryland Offshore Wind press conference held by Governor O'Malley
Maryland Offshore Wind press conference held by Governor O'Malley

I had always approached my Science of Natural and Environmental Systems major through a social justice perspective, but had anyone told me in May 2012, I would have a 6-month fellowship at the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), I would not have believed it. Like many people, I did not know the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program existed. Although the Environmental and Climate Justice movement originated in communities of color, like the Warren Country protests of 1982, initially, it did not seem to me, like a priority issue for the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

NAACP headquarters
NAACP headquarters

After only a short time in my position, through working with members, checking data, researching coal fired power plants, looking into state renewable portfolio standards, and understanding the relationship between asthma and pollution, I came to realize that environmental and climate justice is the root cause of many of the other NAACP issue areas, like health, employment, and housing quality. I learned that coal fired power plants are more likely to be placed in communities of color, and African Americans across this country are disproportionately more likely to ingest the polluting emissions from these toxic facilities that cause health issues. Data shows that African Americans have a 36% higher rate of incidence of asthma than whites, are hospitalized for asthma at 3 times the rate of whites, and die of asthma at two times the rate of whites.

These same emissions that cause health issues are also the known drivers of climate change that cause catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy, Isaac, and Katrina, as well as drought across the United States. People of color have a higher tendency to live in coastal areas, which are disproportionately impacted by increased severe weather events and sea level rise. They are also often under-insured or more reliant on the land for sustenance that is destroyed by these catastrophic events. They bear a far heavier burden when it comes to disaster recovery.


GenOn Coal Fired Power Plant in Alexandria, Virginia
GenOn Coal Fired Power Plant closing, Alexandria,Virginia

Similarly, African Americans are more likely to live in inner cities, which tend to be 10 degrees hotter than non-urban areas; therefore, African Americans experience heat-related deaths at a 150-200% greater rate than for non-Hispanic whites. Also, at 25.7%, African Americans experience food insecurity, a known consequence of climate change, at a much higher rate than the national average of 14.6%.

Environmental Defense Fund's booth at the Black-Green Pipeline Career Fair
Environmental Defense Fund's booth at the Black-Green Pipeline Career Fair

While working as an Environmental and Climate Justice Fellow, I got to have a hand in protecting against environmental and climate injustices by contributing to research for reports, and putting together events. I was able to help put together a toolkit to engage the NAACP Youth and College Program in environmental and climate justice issues called 10,000 Steps to Environmental and Climate Justice Project (pdf). I also worked as a contributing researcher-author of the Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People report. (pdf) .This report ranked and profiled 378 coal fired power plants across the country based on five factors: and emissions; the total population living within three miles of the plant; the median income of the people living within three miles of the plant; and the percentage of people of color among populations living within three miles of the plant. As part of Black History Month, I was given the opportunity to put together the Black-Green Pipeline Career Fair. The goal of the Black-Green Pipeline Career Fair was to expose youth NAACP members to environmental career opportunities while also allowing environmental organizations to network with potential employees. Environmental organizations in attendance included Union of Concerned Scientists, BlueGreen Alliance, Institute for Policy Studies, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, Environmental Integrity Project, among others.

Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People report release.President Benjamin Todd Jealous, and Environmental and Climate Justice Director, Jacqui Patterson
Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People report release

Since my fellowship ended, I have been in the thick of my career search. I hope to find a career, which is equally rewarding as my fellowship at the NAACP. I am hoping to continue on a career path that will allow me to transform structural inequality and promote social justice and inclusion.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.