The Jacksonville environmental groups trying to tackle racial disparities

At a meeting last spring, a climate action advocacy group in Jacksonville, Florida, acknowledged it has a problem.

“I’m thrilled to see the leaders here today, but we’re a bunch of white people, and we need to be a much more diverse organization,” said Dr Todd Sack, speaking to members of the Jacksonville Resiliency and Climate Change Coalition (today called Resilient Jax).

The group’s steering committee agreed: increasing the racial diversity of its membership should be a priority. The acknowledgment represented a shift from the historical pattern across the globe: environmental movements have long been dominated by white voices, even as people of color are more affected by climate change and pollution.

That’s been the case in Jacksonville too. For decades, the city at the mouth of the St Johns River was less known for its sights than its stench. Night and day, paper mills and other industrial facilities belched foul odors – most of them in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city’s north-west and urban core.

“That was intentional,” said Irvin PeDro Cohen, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Jacksonville. He said the city allowed polluting industries in Black communities, where land was cheap and citizens’ wellbeing largely overlooked by the political and business establishment. This phenomenon, dubbed “environmental racism”, isn’t unique to Jacksonville. A 2017 study found that Black Americans are 75% more likely to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste.

Today, some of Jacksonville’s factories are gone and others have changed their ways. But the legacy remains: industrial pollutants – among them, major contributors to the climate crisis – persist in the neighborhoods’ soil, water and air.

Cohen, a Jacksonville native, said local leaders have evolved over the last century from taking a largely lackadaisical approach that allowed polluters to contaminate Black neighborhoods to today acknowledging climate issues – and beginning to talk about tackling racial disparities. The city council has formed a special committee to focus on the climate crisis and sea level rise, which disproportionately affect poor and minority communities. The city is also poised to hire its first chief resiliency officer. And local organizations have begun working with and advocating for Black residents on environmental issues, including addressing the pollution that’s harmed their health for generations.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the vast majority of pollution cleanups in Jacksonville are in majority-Black neighborhoods.

“Those are all sites that are in fragile neighborhoods today, and I guarantee you that kids are playing on those sites,” Cohen said. “So whatever they have buried beneath them, they are giving off, and those communities are literally taking in what those sites are emanating.”

Extreme weather caused by climate change exacerbates the issue, as pollutants are stirred up.

But even where there’s the political will to clean up contamination, bolster infrastructure, or build homes that are resilient to storms, the cost is often seen as prohibitive by leaders and residents alike.

“The economics of it all hasn’t made a lot of sense to some people,” Cohen said.

He’s seen this attitude as LISC works to help people in vulnerable communities achieve home ownership. LISC connects these communities with funding from investors and other non-profits and during his time at the organization, Cohen says he has seen both residents and outside funders alike downplay the need for more climate-resilient infrastructure in their communities.

“Part of our job … is convincing the people we work with on the importance of investing in [storm resistance] as well,” he said.

He said Hurricane Irma opened many eyes. Still, it can be difficult to convince residents to move out of the floodplain, as two buyback programs are incentivizing. Proposals to invest in infrastructural improvements will be costly and take time to mobilize both residents and local city leaders around. It’s even more difficult without effective communication with the Black community, which Cohen said had historically been an “afterthought” among local leaders.

Allen Moore, a Duval Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor, said the disproportionate effects in poor communities can partially be blamed on poor environmental regulation enforcement and also leaders’ unwillingness to address residents’ concerns.

“They don’t have the political clout or connections to really force the politicians’ hands,” he said.

When a hurricane hits, that power disparity plays out with devastating effect.

“If you look at the location of the minority communities, usually they’re located in low-lying areas, flood-prone areas, areas that have been blighted over the years, due to economic depressions and just the lack of access to good resources in the communities,” said Moore.

Nearly a year after setting its own membership diversity as a priority, Resilient Jax is still working on establishing a dialogue with Black communities. It has encouraged Black residents to attend meetings and otherwise engage on environmental issues, and is seeking to diversify its steering committee.

“We are trying to do that work and are extremely open to any community organization that represents communities of color, any community that doesn’t feel represented in the resiliency effort,” said coalition chair Shannon Blankinship, who is also the St Johns Riverkeeper’s advocacy director.

She said Resilient Jax has connected with some civic organizations in north-west Jacksonville, and while there’s been some interest and a few promising conversations, so far no residents from that area have joined.

“I wish I could say that our steering committee had representation from all groups in Jacksonville … [but] right now we just don’t,” said Blankinship. But she added that “the momentum is there”.

In the meantime, Resilient Jax is working to educate the community about environmental issues facing Black residents. Local leaders like the state representative Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, have given presentations on a number of topics, including flooding and drainage in Black neighborhoods, environmental racism, and how zoning decisions cause urban communities to warm faster than other areas. The organization is also encouraging Black residents to engage in the city’s special committee on resiliency that formed last spring.

Meanwhile, extreme weather caused by the climate crisis continues to pose a risk of polluting Black and brown communities. For example, Blankinship notes that increased flooding also causes contamination from failing septic tanks, which have been a sore spot in north-west Jacksonville for decades.

Teri Sopp’s work as head of the juvenile resentencing project at the local public defender’s office has led her to investigate pollutants that have negative impacts on behavior. She said that many of her Black criminal defense clients were exposed to lead and other pollution as children.

Groundwater migration of pollution is considered “uncontrolled” at one Superfund site in Jacksonville, located in the majority-Black zip code 32206.

According to a documentary from the Eastside Environmental Council, 32206 has the highest asthma rate in the city, 132% higher than Jacksonville as a whole. A 2011 report underwritten by the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund found that the urban core, which includes part of 32206, also has the highest rate of diabetes. Both have been linked to exposure to pollutants.

The Eastside Environmental Council says that its advocacy helped convince the EPA to prioritize cleaning up a Superfund site in 32206. But Joey McKinnon, a local geologist and legislative liaison with the Florida Association of Professional Geologists, said that the average Superfund site cleanup could take years, even decades.

“There’s rarely a remediation option that’s a quick fix or silver bullet,” he said.

Edward Waters College professor Prabir K Mandal has dedicated his research to health issues affecting African Americans. A 2017 paper he co-authored notes African Americans experience the highest death rates and shortest survival time from cancer. While the causes are myriad and include lack of access to preventative care, research has shown that exposure to known carcinogens, such as exhaust fumes and dioxins, are among them.

“If you are exposed to dioxin and you are breastfeeding your kids, your kids are getting the dioxin from childhood, from infancy … These are very dangerous things,” said Mandal.

His research is finding an engaged audience among today’s students at Edward Waters College, Florida’s oldest historically Black college. Mandal said his colleagues told him he was “crazy” when he proposed adding a course dedicated to African American health.

“Every semester the class is full,” he said.