When Yaritza Morales-Gonzalez walks around Chelsea, she sees apartment buildings and asphalt, but not many trees. She sees hundreds of trucks driving in and out of the produce distribution center at the edge of the city. She sees tanks of jet fuel and piles of road salt lining the rivers that ring the city, but she can’t see the water.
“I see industries taking advantage of access our community should have,” says Morales-Gonzalez, who grew up in Chelsea and is now raising her children there.
Trying to right this disparity is at the heart of her work as director of operations at Chelsea-based nonprofit GreenRoots. It is also the force driving Massachusetts’ burgeoning environmental justice movement. At the most basic level, the movement contends that people’s income and race shouldn’t affect their ability to live in healthy communities free from pollution, and that neighborhoods with lower incomes and more people of color shouldn’t disproportionately bear the burden of economic development, as they do now. Environmental justice aims to engage affected communities, remedy existing damage — and to create opportunities for positive change into the future.
Problems related to environment, race, and poverty have long intersected, but historically, they’ve gotten little attention from those in power. Now, a shift seems to be underway. The environmental justice movement is having a moment, thanks to a combination of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, heightened awareness of systemic racism, and intensifying concern about climate change. “People are waking up to those impacts in a way I’m not sure they always have in the past,” says Mariama White-Hammond, chief of environment, energy, and open spaces for the City of Boston, and the founding pastor of New Roots AME Church in Dorchester.
In the spring, the state adopted a major new climate bill that included measures aimed at advancing environmental justice. As the state works to implement the law’s provisions, women are among the most influential figures pushing for accountability and change, whether they’re expanding access to electric vehicles, finding ways to fund renewable energy, or spearheading Boston’s efforts to fight climate change.
1. A Champion for Chelsea
Morales-Gonzalez did not know what environmental justice was when, at 14, she applied to join the Chelsea Greenspace and Recreation Committee’s Environmental Chelsea Organizers Crew, a group of young people organized by Chelsea Collaborative who conduct environmental campaigns in the city. She just wanted to find a paying job.
The crew’s first task was clearing invasive reeds from the banks of the Chelsea Creek to improve water flow and soil health. Later, they raised funds to build a walkway to access the creek, reclaiming a small bit of the industrialized waterfront for residents. Increasingly, Morales-Gonzalez started noticing the ways Chelsea’s people had to live with the effects of industries that weren’t even serving their community. “When companies think of Chelsea, they don’t think there’s going to be a community that’s going to fight back,” she says.
Then, in 2006, energy developer Jim Gordon, the man behind the now-defunct plan for the Cape Wind offshore wind farm, proposed constructing a diesel power plant across the street from a shared campus of Chelsea elementary schools. Morales-Gonzalez was galvanized. She joined a group of protesters who confronted Gordon at an event, accusing him of hypocrisy for offering clean energy to Cape Cod and diesel fumes to largely low-income, Latino Chelsea. The plant was eventually defeated. “What we wanted was being able to breathe in the community that we’re being raised in,” she says.
After high school, Morales-Gonzalez studied medical administration. She later worked at Boston Children’s Hospital, but she felt drawn back to the grass-roots work she had done in Chelsea. When Chelsea Greenspace and Recreation Committee split off from Chelsea Collaborative (known now as La Colaborativa) to form GreenRoots, Morales-Gonzalez jumped at the chance to join.
Today, the 33-year-old is found more often behind the scenes, managing the needs of a rapidly growing organization. And when she walks around Chelsea with her daughters, ages 5 and 8, they can see the waterfront walkway their mother helped create, the park she helped build, and the basketball court she secured funding for. “I love the outcomes that we are achieving in the community,” she says. “Those are the things that are imprinted in their minds, so they can make a difference when they grow up.”
2. Driving Change
Susan Buchan’s path from residential architect to environmental justice champion started with a skylight. Right after architecture school at Virginia Tech, Buchan had a job at a firm that worked with a low-income housing agency. When one client daydreamed about getting a skylight to give her houseplants more light, Buchan and her boss figured out how to make the modest dream come true.
That moment, Buchan says, opened her up to the power of bricks-and-mortar projects to enhance the environments of people too often left behind. The sense of possibility stayed with her as she moved from architecture into county planning work, and then into work managing energy-efficiency programs.
“That sparked my interest in equity,” says Buchan, who today works as the director of energy projects for Framingham-based nonprofit E4TheFuture, where she manages a portfolio of projects designed to find innovative solutions to the problems of environmental injustice.
This spring in Roxbury, Buchan led the launch of Good2Go, an electric vehicle car-sharing service that uses tiered pricing, so low-income residents pay $5 per hour — half the basic rate. The service aims to take polluting cars off the road and to help erode the stereotype that electric vehicles are just a luxury option for the affluent. The cars can also improve residents’ access to basic necessities that might be harder to reach by foot or public transit. “To see a single mom be able to take her kids safely to a doctor’s appointment or grocery shopping — I just can’t think of anything more meaningful to work toward,” Buchan says.
Buchan is also helping Roxbury Community College develop curriculum for a residential energy-efficiency jobs training program. In Worcester, she’s advocating for the regional transit authority to use solar and battery storage to power a fleet of vans, replacing some diesel buses, which are ridden most often by low-income residents.
3. Shining a Light on Solar
Jessica Brooks always wanted to make a difference in her community. So, after graduating from Brown University in 1993, she took a job at a social services nonprofit in New York City. A year later, city funding cuts meant many of her co-workers were laid off, and Brooks had a realization. “The lesson that I took away was that financing matters,” she says. “The sources of funding matter.”
That insight has determined the trajectory of Brooks’s career ever since, all the way to her current role as chief development officer at Cambridge-based clean energy investment firm Sunwealth. When she left her social services job, Brooks took an entry-level position at a securities trading firm, where she spent a year learning everything she could about finance. A few years later, she joined Boston Community Capital (now BlueHub Capital), an organization that makes loans to projects that strengthen low-income communities, such as affordable housing developments and day-care centers.
After 17 years, Brooks moved to Sunwealth, where she merges her idealism and financial savvy by raising money to finance solar projects, particularly ones built in and for low-income areas. These projects lower overall carbon emissions from power generation and provide opportunities for moderate- and low-income residents to buy clean electricity at a discount.
“The projects prove clean energy can be a reality to residents who have long seen it as out of reach,” Brooks says. “There’s something to be said for seeing your clean energy economy locally, seeing it benefiting the businesses and the organizations and the people that you see every day.”
Sunwealth’s model has yielded some 500 solar installations on the roofs of churches, schools, and affordable housing, in Massachusetts and around the country. These projects are projected to provide more than $34 million in savings for power consumers, while delivering consistent returns to investors. Much of this impact can be attributed to Brooks, says Sunwealth cofounder Jonathan Abe: “She’s been instrumental. She brings expertise, a network, leadership, and commitment.”
And Brooks, now 50, has every intention of keeping at it. “My vision is, you walk through a neighborhood and if you look up you should be able to see solar panels everywhere,” she says.
4. From the Pulpit to City Hall
Mariama White-Hammond, now 42, has been an activist since she was a teenager growing up in Boston, but she came to environmental justice incrementally. After graduating from Stanford University, she worked as executive director for Project HIP-HOP, a Boston nonprofit aimed at nurturing the next generation of civil rights activists.
Like many people, she knew about the intersecting issues of race and the environment, but they were never totally real to her. Then, in 2005, she traveled to Louisiana and witnessed the brutal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Seeing communities like mine really struggling and suffering — that was my huge wake-up call,” she says.
In 2014, she decided to study theology, following in the footsteps of her parents, noted Boston pastors the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond and the Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond. She became the minister for ecological justice at their church, Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. In 2018, she founded New Roots AME Church, where environmental justice is an explicit part of the mission.
White-Hammond contends that environmental justice is intimately connected to faith. “We have a whole society that is based on stealing resources for our children and leaving them the bill,” she says, her voice thickening with emotion. “This is a moral, ethical issue.”
Over time, White-Hammond has also amped up her advocacy work, fighting for policies that would make it easier to install solar panels on nonprofits’ buildings, speaking on environmental justice issues, and joining the Green Justice Coalition, a partnership of Massachusetts community, environmental, and labor groups.
Then the call from the Kim Janey administration came, and she was skeptical about taking a job in City Hall. But after prayer and reflection, she realized she had an opportunity to deepen her impact on a broader scale. And the heart of the work, she says, is still the same.
On her agenda: finding ways to alleviate the heat islands that endanger residents in Chinatown and other neighborhoods with little tree cover, installing measures to protect some of the city’s most vulnerable areas on the waterfront from climate change-related flooding, and implementing the city’s new regulations requiring all large buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
In mid-November, Acting Mayor Janey, who appointed White-Hammond, will be out of office. If the new mayor shares White-Hammond’s drive to fight for environmental justice, she would be eager to stay on in her role. There is essential work still to be done.
“I am very clear that our story, the story of humanity and whether or not we survive, it’s a nail-biter right now,” White-Hammond says. “I choose hope every day and I fight like heck and I want to believe the tide is turning even if I don’t see it yet.”
Sarah Shemkus is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.