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A Journey of Personal Growth: One Environmentalist’s Path to Fighting for Environmental Justice

Jul 23, 2019

By Matthew H. Davis, LCV Legislative Director

For me, spending the past two decades as an environmental activist, organizer, health scientist, and advocate has allowed me to understand the deep and inextricable links between protecting our environment and advancing racial justice. However, I didn’t just wake up one day and realize that I wanted and needed to do more to advance equity and justice in my work to protect the planet. It’s been a journey, one that has developed from working alongside leaders of color, one that has challenged my own understandings of privilege, and one that ultimately informed my decision to leave the EPA after Trump took power. 

My journey in the environmental movement began in high school when I joined an effort to stop a massive housing development from replacing open fields and forests in the Boston area town where I grew up. I worked with community leaders to fight the development, and, in the end, we successfully forced the developer to drastically scale back and concentrate the development in and near already-developed areas. In our community, within the racially-segregated Boston area, almost all of the people involved in both sides of the fight were white.

While attending Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, I consciously saw, for the first time, that not all communities experienced pollution in the same way as my predominantly white community — nor did all communities experience success in their attempts to organize against development and pollution. Also on the outskirts of Philly but worlds apart, I began volunteering alongside community leaders in Chester, PA as they fought against the construction of a polluting soil remediation facility in their city. This community bore the brunt of air and water pollution from one of the country’s largest trash incinerators, a county-wide sewage treatment plant, a coal-fired power plant, a pulp and paper mill, and a medical waste incinerator. And it was no accident that this predominantly Black community — in which a third of residents lived below the poverty line — was saddled with living near these highly pollutive sources. While working alongside the leader of Chester Residents for Quality Living, Zulene Mayfield, I saw that systemic racism and injustice had shaped the city planning in and around the community, exposing families in Chester to unacceptable risks to their health. This experience forced me to see the privilege I had grown up with, and I started to understand the connection between racial justice and our health.  

I had another wake-up call while pursuing my graduate degree in public health. I went to graduate school so I could help advance the fight to protect our air and water, and after a year deeply engaging with research that continually showed health disparities in communities of color and low-income communities, and continually linked these disparities to structural racism — in our government, in our healthcare system, in our own doctors’ offices — my goal became more focused. By the time I graduated, I better understood the structures, systems, and trends that put what I’d witnessed in Chester in a larger context: racism and inequitable exposure to environmental contaminants result in vastly disparate health outcomes. 

This understanding drove me to work at the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, where I helped develop air, pesticides, and chemicals regulations to ensure that those most vulnerable to these toxins — often children, and particularly children of color in frontline communities — were protected. For seven years, I took great pride in this work at EPA because our dedication understanding communities and science meant we were enacting lifesaving and health-improving standards that advanced the needs of communities of color through policymaking. 

But abruptly, in 2017, things at the EPA changed — all the progress we’d worked for began to be taken away when the Trump administration took over.  Rule after rule was rewritten or rescinded, and the mission of the EPA was subverted at the behest of Big Polluters. Public health was rarely mentioned. Climate change was stricken from the EPA’s vocabulary. I stayed at the EPA for two and a half years, and tried, as best I could from the inside, to protect the existing policies that would protect our families’ health and our planet. 

During this administration, I saw science thrown overboard by Trump’s appointees. I saw countless ethical violations, lapses in judgement, and financial entanglements of key appointees stemming from their clear conflicts of interest with former Big Polluter clients and the industries they had represented. Eventually, it became too much to bear, and I knew I had to leave the EPA — under an administration that prioritized polluters and disregarded communities, I felt unable to move our country forward and improve the health of the most affected, those children on the front lines of environmental inequity and pollution. 

So, I came to LCV because it has built a track record of success in passing environmental policies, holding elected officials accountable, and supporting candidates who fight for clean air, clean water, climate action, protections for public lands, and our children’s health. What’s more, LCV has also made a conscious, deliberate effort to integrate racial justice and equity in every aspect of its work.

I think we can all agree that every human deserves clean air, clean water, healthy lands, and a hospitable climate. It is not fair that African-American and Latino children are more likely to live in areas that don’t meet air quality standards than white children like my toddler — and I am fighting to change the structures that perpetuate this inequity. 

There is a long legacy of environmental racism in America — and it’s going to take all of us to change the systems and structures that perpetuate it. As with many things, I’m still figuring out my role in dismantling environmental racism — but I’m honored that my journey has brought me to LCV where I can really center my work to advocate for strong environmental policies on the needs of those most impacted. I’m here at LCV because I owe it to my son, all those community leaders fighting for environmental justice, my EPA colleagues still on the inside, and many others, to stand up for equity and a healthy environment that allows everyone to thrive.