PennFuture started this new podcast in February 2022 for one simple reason: to lift up voices in communities across Pennsylvania that are fighting against pollution, environmental injustice, and for healthy communities and people.
Our goal on Environmental Voices: The PennFuture Podcast will be to tell the critically important environmental stories facing Pennsylvanians throughout all regions of the state. Large swaths of the state still, on a daily basis, suffer disproportionate impacts of dirty air and polluted water and we want this podcast to be a venue for those on the frontlines to share their stories. We also hope it will be an avenue to connect you with the work we’re doing here at PennFuture: in the courtroom, at the State Capitol, and in your communities, to help protect our common environmental rights.
Our guests for our first episode include:
Travis DiNicola, Host (00:12):
Welcome to the very first edition of Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast. For our new podcast we will engage with the voices of frontline communities and explore the environmental and justice issues that impact everyone across the Commonwealth. My name is Travis DiNicola, PennFuture's director of development. And I'm your host. Our goal of environmental voices will be to tell the critically important environmental stories facing Pennsylvania throughout all regions of the state. Large swaths of the state on a daily basis, suffer disproportionate impacts of dirty air and polluted water. And we want this podcast to be a venue for those on the front lines to share their stories. We also hope it will be an avenue to connect you with the work we're doing here at PennFuture in the courtroom at the state capitol, and in your communities to help protect our common environmental rights.
We're going to start our first show with a focus on environmental justice. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection defines an environmental justice community as any census track where 20% or more individuals live at or below the federal poverty line and/or 30% or more of the population identifies as a non-white minority. There are more than a thousand such areas in Pennsylvania, alone, and residents who live in these communities don't just suffer with increased pollution. They also suffer the consequences of that pollution in the form of increased rates of asthma cancer and cardiovascular disease among others. Later on in today's episode, I'll speak with representative Donna Bullock, as well as PennFuture's, Emily Gale. But first we turn to the Western part of the state. A microcosm of Pennsylvania's ongoing struggle with environmental justice can be found in Allegheny county. Pennsylvania's second, most populated county and home to Pittsburgh.
It's also a place that is in the top 1% of US counties for cancer risk from toxic air as such the county has some of America's highest rates of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or C O P D and cardiovascular disease, especially among low income communities of color who are most exposed to these pollutants. About 60% of the region's pollution still comes from industrial sources, like the Clairton and Cokeworks situated about 15 miles to the Southeast of Pittsburgh in an area known as the Mon valley. The Cokeworks owned by US Steel and owning the distinction of being north America's largest coping facility is named after Clairton a town of 6,600 residents with a population that's about 40% black, according to nonprofit media outlet, state impact Pennsylvania, an air monitor situated one mile from the Clairton Cokeworks as some of the highest readings of sulfur to oxide levels of any city in the country and readings a fine particulate matter that are the highest of any location east of the Rocky mountains.
It should come as no surprise then that Clairton experienced an above average death rate from cancer from 2011 to 2015. According to a survey conducted by the county health department, Clairton's kids are three times more likely to have asthma than kids nationwide Clairton residents are still 20 times more likely to develop cancer as a result of air toxics than people in most areas surrounding Allegheny county simply put Allegheny county has some of the most polluted air in the country and Clairton has the most within Allegheny county. The ongoing struggle for clean air in places like Clairton isn't new and is never easy today to kickstart PennFutures, inaugural environmental voices podcast. We wanted to take time to lift up one of the many voices who are fighting for a cleaner future in Clairton. Melanie Meade is a bilingual environmental activist practitioner of Buddhism certified natural health coach and mother of two boys living in Clairton PA. She lives in a third generation family home that sits atop of a hill overlooking the Clairton Coke works and routinely experiences air that smells like rotten eggs or burning rubber in the last decade. Meade has lost both parents and two siblings. One of whom died of lung cancer and the other from heart valve failure. Since 2017, she's been an outspoken activist fighting for cleaner air and a better future for residents in the Mon valley, outside of Pittsburgh. Melanie, thank you for joining us today on our very first podcast of environmental voices.
Melanie Meade (05:04):
Thank you so much for having me. It is a pleasure.
I've been looking forward to chatting with you for a while. I wanna start by asking you to describe for us your hometown of Clairton. I know you, you sort of grew up there and then you left when you were, what about like sixth grade and then came back later. So, you know, it, it's not always been your hometown it's, but tell me a bit about Clairton
Definitely it was my parents' hometown and my family they were very old fashioned in that you kept your roots where they were. And my father's family actually had a farm and land here before the mill started. So we had already been established here. His father came from Maryland up here to work in the mills. So my maternal grandmother, she was from west Newton area. So they have a rich homage here. But what I realized is that the loving community that it's represented or portrayed as isn't really what takes place here. If an industry that is harming the health of the people who live here is doing so without any accountability from our public health department or without any care to change what they, what is preventable. Then I think that it's a major issue that needs to be addressed.
This is if people are living a lie in this community, and we have a mayor who works for the industry that doesn't address the harm to health, the industry has even caused for himself. And that, that is very disturbing disheartening because the people won't know how to take action. If the leaders aren't taking action and speaking up for them, that's usually how communities like ours, get their restore, their hope and, and ignite the passion to figure out what issues they can address, what resources and what tools they have to change their experience.
So I, I wanna get back to the mayor and, and talk about him in just a moment, but first how, I mean, how did you get involved in this activism? I mean, was it, so is that what in encouraged you to move back home or is this after you move back home, did you become aware of, as you say, sort of this lie of Clairton
Right. It's actually, after I returned home, I went to school in early elementary. But we, I never remember them discussing air pollution or the harm to health by USX Cokeworks. When I left here and went to school in Northern Virginia Winchester, Virginia, that's where I was educated about pollution and environmental pollution and environmental health and how communities like mine could change, could advocate for change with the right knowledge and information, the right education. So when I returned to bury my father I, within six months buried my mother and I, I met with a gentleman who was advocating for starting a group here in the community called the Leaders of Ten. And I was Dave Smith with the Clean Air Council. Okay. And I didn't know the gray statistics and data that existed for this small 3.7 mile radius town it's cancer, autoimmune, and the people who are most highly affected by it, the poor and black and brown the poor white, poor black and brown people in the community who are most affected, are the least to speak about it.
They are the least to identify that they can advocate for change. And that is what became a stark moment for me where it says I can take action. I was a caregiver to a couple of my relatives who passed away. So being there in a person's time of need is, has been something that's within me, it's innate. It's something that I have the skill and tools to do. And when I found out that our community wasn't speaking up and that we needed more community voices, I immediately wanted to encourage the people because I feel that speaking out releases that farm to health from taking on such an because I have the natural health background, I believe that when we voice what we experience, then we release it and then it gives us the right to find and link with people who can work for change. But because many of the people here are holding in their experiences, they lack the hope and faith that the people, the leaders will change. They, they, their sickness even worsens and, and, and, and shortens their life even more than the pollution does already.
Well, it may be, I mean, very obvious, you know, if you're, if you're standing right there and you see the pollution, but help understand, you know, how do you really link what's happening in, you know, the coli, what us steel is doing there to the increased, you know, asthma rates and cancer rates. I mean, you know, how, how, how is that all linked together for you?
It it's actually been linked together for me from, from the environmental orgs, like breeze gasp create lab, those organizations, Sierra Club, PennEnvironment, those organizations are great with providing the data. However, the data isn't broken down for the average, common person to see, anyone with a basic education may not be able to understand it. And so it, it, it, it was important to me to take time. And, and fortunately enough, I had the, the time energy and the resources to attend meetings with the brief project and gas and attend their webinars so that I could learn how important the information is, and then learn how we can link with graduate students in the field to break the information down so that when you have a statistics, like the city of Clairton a 3.7 mile radius city has four times the national average of asthma just in it's it's school, the school we, we, we have three, we have two other charter schools who serve Clairton. So that means all of the children in the community aren't attending that one school. And that one school is carrying four times the weight of the nation and asthma and respiratory health. I think they, we need to show the number, you know, like spell it out thousands of the students, because then the, it, I think that it makes it it, it shows the graveness of it. And it also makes it understandable for who aren't being, who don't have the time to take time to sit in webinars and hear the information broken down.
But unfortunately it sounds like there's a lot of deaf ears there. I mean, you, you mentioned the mayor earlier, and I believe the mayor has been suffering from cancer that, you know, could be attributable to where you live and yet he really hasn't done a whole lot. Is that correct?
Yes. That to me is very misleading for the people here. He is possibly experiencing some white privilege in that he may get early screening and early detection that the people in the community don't have access to. So he isn't able to identify himself as a victim of environmental racism. And I think that that is where our community really lacks a space to, to bring us together, to unify and unite us when you're mayor, who should be desiring to be in that status, because they care about the public health of the community is actually holding that status so that the people in the community don't know the truth about their public health. He will point to the stacks and say that isn't pollution, that's just steam. And he said it in several council meetings at the, at the city building. And, and, and it should, it's, it's a, it's an outright lie. It's misleading, misguiding, misinforming. And he works for the industry. That's doing the harm to, so to me, it's a blatant conflict of interest that the Allegheny Department should support communities like ours, so that we never have to experience anything like this. We should never have a mayor that puts profit and industry over the people. And we have a mayor that is doing just that.
Let's talk about the Allegheny County Health Department. You mentioned them. I mean, you know, what is it that you want them to do here?
I want them to create transparent information and education for communities specific to communities like ours. I want them to broadcast it and make that every time you know, the USX Cokeworks or, you know, the USX still makes an announcement that their workers are happy. I want the Allegheny County Health Department to have the information about how the harm to health is experienced in these communities where USX is so that they don't get to pretend anymore. The truth is transparent, it's available and accessible to those with education and those with little education. And there are actionable steps for those with money and those without money to figure a way as to how they can change their experiences either by addressing policy, by actionable things to do within their home, taking pictures being educated on how to look at the, the stack smoke and decipher, whether it is something worthy of fines.
I believe that we could encourage the community if we were to give them tools and resources and show them how to use them, to make their voice more powerful. It's not just a story, but here are the pictures and the images of what people are saying doesn't happen. Then, they can no longer lie. They have to be held accountable. And the fact that the mayor is still hired, that there was never, he was never given any form of punishment for allowing fires to burn for 17 days without informing the community. And then they burned six months later. How could anyone believe people who are subjected to this would take a stand ? Their ears are deafened because the people who are supposed to stand up for them, haven't they haven't ever stood up for them. And the environmental organizations that do end up seem to just be on a, like the, the will, you know, the it's, it's just spinning it's, it's not actually making an impact where we see the USX still stop. I mean, when the, after the fires, you would think that they would do everything they could possible to change what they could prevent. And they haven't, they chose to take their money somewhere else and build a greener industry and, and refuse to clean up the industry here or to make it right. So that it wasn't harming the health, you know, it's, it's preventable air polluting.
Is, you know, they're, they're moving to places like Arkansas and Alabama. You mentioned other places, but you know, they're not fixing what's going on with the Mon Valley Works. Is this environmental racism?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And, and it's, it's disheartening because we have black and brown faces in politics and in these spaces that aren't speaking up and they aren't out. And, and that's really why I think the, the people's ears are deaf because they don't believe, they lack, lack, hope, and it, we need to see something actionable, you know, against USX still so that they will know it's, it's almost as if they don't mind getting fines, because they're still making so much more money. The fines aren't giving them anything to worry about. It's not hurting them. And as well, these thoughts that like the fine monies, we, I haven't found an environmental group that has found a way to access the clean air, fine monies. And then if we don't access them, what is, what's happening with the money? Who is, if our mayor who works for the industry is using the clean air funds. And he's the one telling us that the air is clean. That's just steam. We're in a very bad situation, you know, and, and it's almost as if we're living in a third world country.
Melanie, let me ask you this. Are you concerned about your own health by staying there?
Absolutely. I wake up there are plenty of nights. I don't get sleep. I in believe it was 2005, 2006 returned home from Washington DC. I was working at Bowie State University and American University there. And I came home because they have a, a big community event during a labor day weekend. And I went to a party at a bar that was at the base of the mill and we were outside. And the next morning I woke up in the hospital, they said, I have epilepsy. Oh my gosh. And I said, what do you mean? And they said you were having seizures. I hadn't been home in a couple of years. And what the doctor believed was that my body wasn't used to the poor air quality and right. And so it changed my life. I struggled with accepting the diagnosis and I also struggled with the healthcare received, because I didn't have much support. It was just saying, go along with what we say, not trying to figure out what was the cause or how that cause could be mitigated. So, yes, I don't want to live in Clairton for the rest of my life. I don't want my or grandchildren to live here. I do want to get my family land, my father's house in my name, which the city of Clairton has refused since.
So is that they have tried, I mean like why you don't just leave.
Yes, that's absolutely. The only reason why I haven't just left because I stand to lose our property. Most of the people here had their own land. Like I said, my paternal grandmother, family had land and a farm here. They built their own houses, they were masons. And the mayor allows for them to go over people's property and redevelopment for their own interest and not for the interest of the community. And so that's why I'm here. I'm fighting to get my family land in my name. And then I would provide space that I believe the community needs, which is education on how to, to begin to use the data, how to start tracking the air, how to start monitoring, how you feel. I mean, I notice, you know, through the night, if I'm waking up too much, I'll, I'll get on the, the internet and check the air quality because I'll fill it, you know, but they, the people who've lived here and haven't been educated about it, believe that it's just what they're supposed to experience. It's their fate because they can't get out of it. And that's -
Not fair cause they don't have a voice and they don't the way it's always been. Right.
Yeah. And they, they, they believe that they don't have a voice, but they do. They really do. And, and sometimes for me, the people who have money, don't allow them to know that they have a voice when they should. You know, we have doctors here that don't talk about the environmental health issues as they relate to their medical diagnoses. And, we shouldn't have that. Shouldn't exist. Doctors who work in areas like this should all embrace speaking to environmental health issues. So everyone's on one accord. Everyone has a complete understanding of what's within their control and what isn't as well. People who want to buy housing should be informed about what, where they're purchasing their house and, and what they're exposing themselves and their future family to.
No, of course, Melanie, I, I really appreciate the work you're doing and the time you're taking with us today before I, I let you go, I know you've also been doing some work lately with the Black Appalachian Coalition. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yes. The Black Appalachian Coalition has been my safe house, my safe space, because when I couldn't understand why people's ears were deaf and why there was little action. I found a group of people who showed me about the history of how the inaction had been promoted and how, when you speak out about the perpetuation of being blacklisted, you know, it happens. It also showed me about funding and how many black people aren't at the table, or don't have organizations large enough to hold the capacity of funding that we need to address these issues. So we don't have enough people because we're unable to pay people to do this work. It's a lot of work. It's hard work. It's emotionally taxing and physically as well. And so what it, this allows us to have a space to bring all of our issues together, to see that we are all dealing with them and to find intricate and unique ways that measure up to that community.
Don't just try to create a one size fits all for an environmental justice area. Every area has its own issues. And ours, I think, is a little different than say Kentucky. Sure. Where the people are speaking out and taking action, just not having enough unity of other voices here in Clairton. We haven't added many voices to speak out and that has to change. And I think it will because we have more people who are moving, who are being directed to move here because of low rent, but they're not being informed about why the rent is low, why the property is valued, and that's important. And I think that when those people are educated, then they take action. And that's how we have to increase the numbers.
Well, Melanie, again, thank you for the work that you're doing in the Clairton area. We appreciate it and good luck. I know it's not easy. It certainly does not sound easy, but really appreciate you taking the time today to join us on environmental voices.
Thank you. Thank you for giving voice to the work and, and the needs of the Mor valley. I appreciate it.
Welcome back to Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast. The fight for clean air there in Pennsylvania's environmental justice communities is a hard one, but residents there are increasingly being heard by those in a position of power to do something about it. In October State Reps, Donna Bullock, Malcolm Kenya, and Chris Rabb, and Senator Vincent Hughes introduced legislation that would codify the Office of Environmental Justice and Environmental Justice Advisory Board, making them permanent, regardless of who is in the executive branch, the legislation will also increase transparency and public input before polluting facilities are built or expanded in overburdened communities, Representative Bullock, who represents the 195th legislative district in north and west Philadelphia has served in the General Assembly since 2015. In addition to her role in the General Assembly, Bullock serves as the chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. Today, we are honored to speak with Representative Bullock about her experience with environmental justice in Pennsylvania, why she is fighting to get this new legislative package passed and her hopes for these communities in the future. Representative Bullock, welcome to Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast.
Representative Donna Bullock (28:37):
Thank you for having me.
It is great to have you on our first podcast. And I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk with you. I wanna start with it. It's obvious from your career that environmental justice is extremely important to you, but let's begin by defining exactly what it, what is environmental justice? How do you define it?
Rep. Bullock (28:59):
Thank you for that question. For me, environmental justice means including all of our communities around the environmental laws and policies and regulations, but also making sure those communities have a say so in how their neighborhoods and their schools and their places of work are developed. How do we decide what kind of are located near their homes? How do we decide, you know, how their water is treated? All of those questions, all of those decisions, particularly by policy makers should have the input of the communities that are disproportionately and most impacted by those environmental decisions.
One thing that I find really interesting about your career is that I remember in 2018, when PennFuture honored you with the Women in Conservation Woman of Environmental Justice award, you said at that time that prior to being an elected official, that you had very little engagement in environmental issues. So this is something that you've become much more aware of through your work as a representative.
Rep. Bullock (30:12):
Absolutely. I talk all the time about this because I grew up in a household and in a community where we didn't really use the words environmental or being an environmentalist. And when I thought of those folks who did that work, that great work, it just seemed so far removed for me. I just imagined people going out there to save whales and, and butterflies and hugging trees. Like that's, that's what I thought about. And for my family, when we were working and, and trying every day to put food on a table and, and just make sure that you know, I can go to school and, and my grandmother, you know, was safe and was living a healthy life. This was the last thing we were thinking about even though for most families, just like that, the environment impacts us every single.
Rep. Bullock (31:02):
And when I became elected, that became even more apparent to me because at, almost at the same time, my youngest son was tested to have high levels of lead in his blood. And so I started to make these connections about the environment. Isn't just about some, you know, icebergs melting in some place that I can't see. It is about the air thatI breathe right here in Philadelphia. It is about the water that my children are drinking right here in Strawberry Mansion. It is about the schools that my children and their friends are learning in every day and exposing them to toxins, you know, 6, 7, 8 hours a day. That is our environment. Our environment are the places where we work, go to school, where we live, live, where we worship, where we play, this is our environment. And unfortunately in communities like Philadelphia, there are a lot of concerns about what we are breathing, drinking, and, and just where we are living and making sure that folks have you know, the, the, the, the best conditions in which to
Representative Bullock. I wanna go back to something you said that must have been terrifying when your son tested positive for lead.
Rep. Bullock (32:12):
It was. And as a parent, you know, I didn't know what I did wrong. Right. I went through every scenario. Was it his daycare? Was it his grandmother's house? Was it this space? What did we, as parents, do wrong? And honestly, you can't really blame yourself or try to do that because in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, our housing, our building, our structures are so old and historic, beautiful, beautiful historic buildings, but more than likely have some lead exposure there. Sure. Depending on what, you know, the, the, the condition of the building. And so, you know, it was a very frightening moment. We were able to work with his, his pediatrician to get it under control, to, to identify some, to exposure sites, address and remediate those situations in our, in my grandmother, in my mother's home, his grandmother's home and re and, and address other health in, in diet to make sure that it wasn't, you know, it didn't become too much of an issue, but look as a parent and as he got older and, you know, he was a toddler, then he's a, a adolescent now and listen, everyone, you're doing great.
Rep. Bullock (33:24):
He's doing, he's an, A student, but I do question sometimes when he doesn't listen to me, if he's just ignoring me, if there's something else going on, but I think it's just him being a typical adolescent. But definitely, I, like many parents who have been with the lead issues in our communities, in our schools, it was a frightening moment for us.
It does sound that way. I'm, I'm glad it's worked out. And, you know, he should not be able to use the lead excuse for teenage behavior, but that's a whole other thing. Right. So let me ask you specifically about the legislative package that you helped to in the fall, which tackles environmental justice issues. Tell us, tell us more about that.
Rep. Bullock (34:05):
Right. So you know, I think starting with that experience as a parent and having a child exposed to lead around the same time I started having these conversations in my community and with others who were engaged in the environmental justice advocacy community and saying, you know, how do we engage others? So about five years ago, I had an environmental justice mixer in the heart of north Philadelphia. It was on the anniversary of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the environmental justice principles. And it was a great event. We had block captains and community, any folk that do cleanups and all kinds of gardens and things like that in the same space with members of the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action and PennEnvironment and other organizations. So it was a really great event and we were honored to have and the current I believe President of Clean Water Action, Morrie Sampson in the room, who was actually at the, the conference now 30 years ago that adopted these environmental justice principles.
Rep. Bullock (35:11):
So this October was the 30th anniversary of those environmental justice principles. And in that five year timeframe I and several of my other colleagues in the house have individually been working on pieces of legislation that would address environmental justice. And I said, you know what? This is a year, a monumental year. It recognized this 30th anniversary of the principles for us to come together and pull together all the different bills that each of us were working on and see if we can create an environmental justice legislative package. And so we introduced that package in October. It includes a bill to codify the Office of Environmental Justice, another bill to codify the office. I mean, the Environmental Justice Advisory Board, a bill to create an environmental justice policy center that is independent of the Department of Environmental Protection. And then lastly, a bill that somewhat mirrors the environmental justice bill that was recently passed in the state of New Jersey that would authorize the Department of Environmental Protection to permits in communities that have had that have been impacted and have shown that these facilities being located in their communities have created a cumulative impact that has been harmful environmentally harmful to their community.
Rep. Bullock (36:34):
It requires the facilities as they're applying for the permit to go through a process that would include some community engagement, and it would result in an environmental justice impact statement so that we know what the impact of that facility would be in, in the community. So those are the bills that were introduced along with an executive order from the governor that mirrors most of that bill, which would be those bills, which were the codifying of the Office of Environmental Justice and the Environmental Justice Advisory Board. So it was a great launchpad to remind folks of the work we were already working on, but to bring it all together and to also celebrate, you know, the work of the environmental justice principles over the last 30 years.
So how confident are you feeling right now that your fellow lawmakers are going to support this badly needed package?
Rep. Bullock (37:28):
Yeah, it's a challenge. You know, we, we are not you know, naive about the challenges of having a, bipartisan it across both chambers in, in Harrisburg. And so we have a lot of work to do. We have to continue to share with our colleagues from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and those communities in between about why environmental justice is so important. You know, that environmental justice for, for us in Philadelphia looks like one thing, but in some of our more rural communities, it has a different outlook, but the same kind of impact where those communities are not engaged, they're not included in the conversations about where fracking is, is conducted and where pipelines are built and all of these other activities that have significant impact on those communities. You know, Chester is a prime example of a community that has historically been overburdened by, you know, the incinerators and other environmentally hazardous facilities that have just been dumped on one community. You know, that community has stood up and has, has really, you know, spoke for itself over the last few years. And there are some environmental justice giants in that community who I deeply admire and, and, and their work, but there that is there's other Chesters throughout the Commonwealth that we need to empower. And, and let them know that these, this, this is a tool that can be helpful for them, so that they can share that with their legislator and tell them to vote for this, these bills.
So I, I, it seems obvious to me why I would wanna support this and I'm sure to our listeners, and, but what sort of pushback are you getting? I mean, in terms of saying like, why wouldn't someone want to support this type of package,
Rep. Bullock (39:29):
Right. I think that there's always some concerns around codifying offices and what the budget implications would be about that. But I think we can get over that hump. The, the, the, the hardest bill in this package is the bill that would allow for that process for the issuing of permits or denying of permits, if there's an environmental impact that we can, you can identify and improve that is challenging, cuz there are some folks who are in other spaces trying to strip DEP of any permit power and allow some of these companies to continue to operate without any real oversight. They see those companies as job creators as comp you know, industries that feed into other ancillary industries or in those communities, the, the, the small businesses that feed off of these unfortunately environmentally hazardous industries, but, you know, we need to help those communities move into more, you know, clean energy and renewable energy industry and help replace those harmful ones. So that is going to be the challenge. It's trying to figure out how we secure it and support communities who are saying, we don't want this in our backyard because it's harmful. In fact, we don't want it in anybody's backyard, with and balancing that with the potential economic benefits of certain companies or facilities in those communities.
I mean, there's obviously a lot of education that you have in front of you to, to do with your fellow lawmakers, but what are in terms of what you're hearing from the constituents you represent? Do you get a sense that they're becoming more aware of environmental justice issues or is it also still an educational process for you there?
Rep. Bullock (41:41):
No, a absolutely it's I think it's always gonna be an educational process, but more and more, my constituents are engaged in this conversation. I will say that it, to just backtrack a little, we've created a Blue-Green Caucus in the House to work on how do we address these blue collar jobs along with the, the issues, the green issues that we wanna promote. So I think, okay, you know, that's a space where we can find some alliances with labor and, and other sectors for the, these goals. And in the communities like Philadelphia, we tend to be more progressive on these issues. And even if they're not right in front of us, right, we don't see the pipelines, we don't see the, the fracking. We don't see necessarily the incinerators unless you live in a certain part of the city. And so what I I know is by connecting those very real issues, like the ones, the one that helped bring me to the conversation led right, led in our schools and led in our water that helped bring me to the conversation.
Rep. Bullock (42:45):
And then I met organizations like Moms for Clean Air Force and all those kinds of other organizations like PennEnvironment and PennFuture and Sierra Club and Conservation Voters and, and Clean Water Action. All of those organizations gave me a quick tutorial to be a better and more effective legislator, but that's awesome. They also realized that you had to meet people where they are, right? So if you wanna talk about environmental issues in north Philadelphia, you gotta talk about illegal dumping. You have to talk about illegal dumping in our community. You have to talk about the conditions of our homes and our schools. You have to talk about gun violence that we see as an environmental justice issue. These are, this is our environment. This is the environment that we want to address.
Rep. Bullock (43:36):
And once you address those immediate environmental environment issues that we see in our face every single day, now we can move forward to these more global and universal environmental justice issues that, you know, that are not something in our face, but will have these, these impacts over climate change and impacts over other other concerns for our, our, not just our Commonwealth, but basically our planet. Right? Exactly. So we can't get there until we can address what people are dealing with right now today. How do I get food on the table? You know, what, the food is more expenses in the grocery store because of these natural disaster that are happening in other parts of the world. And those natural disasters are happening in those other parts of the world because of climate change. And then there's this whole supply chain that then impacts your ability to purchase groceries in your store.
Rep. Bullock (44:31):
So connecting those things are so important. Yeah and understanding, you know, just even talking about climate resilience, for example, the reason why we may have floods in, in, in just maybe just a little flood at the corner of your block, because it's not going down the drain, right. That drain is blocked for their trash yet, again, going back to that illegal dumping situation, but we also have an addressed storm water management in the city of Philadelphia. So talking about climate resilience in these cities, why is it hot and hotter? I mean, literally almost five degrees hotter in one part of the city than it is in another. Well, now we can talk about trees and, and, and the greens gap and all the, and you know, all those other things, again, climate resiliency, climate change, climate, you know, issues that are relatable. And we can see today. They aren't so abstract.
Yeah. Starting with the local, connecting to the global and back again, Representative Bullock. I really appreciate your passion for this. I'm gonna wrap this up with just one last question for you. And, and that is so what can we do better? I mean as Pennsylvanians over the, you know, the coming year and, and then some to ensure that environmental justice communities are being heard,
Rep. Bullock (45:49):
Right. I think continuing to how are those communities creating space for them to speak and of course supporting this package of bills, talk to your legislators, call your state Senator and your state representative, encourage them to support this package. But also support the current governor and, and the next governor and executive actions that will hopefully continue to empower the Office of Environmental Justice and the Environmental Justice Advisory Boards. Those are some really, you know, easy steps to take. And then, you know, every day as you are, you know, walking down the street or in the grocery store, you pay attention to your own you know, individual contributions to, to the environment, right? So that trash, that trash isn't ending up in your neighborhood think about whose neighborhood it is ending up in. And if you can reduce your, your trash, then the less trash that goes to that particular neighborhood. So, you know, those are some small things that we all can do. But you know, hopefully we can get some legislation passed that actually empowers those communities,
Absolutely Representative Bullock. I really wanna thank you for your time today. This conversation's been terrific. And we appreciate you joining us on Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast for our first podcast, appreciate your time and the work that you do best of luck to you.
Rep. Bullock (47:22):
Thank you. Take care.
You are listening to Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast, the communities that are most affected by climate change pollution and environmental justice are the same communities that our country has traditionally left out of the democratic process. These are voices that have been ignored or actively silenced for far too long across the country, but especially here in Pennsylvania, several years ago, PennFuture created a civic engagement program born from an understanding that every Pennsylvanian deserves equal access to our democracy and that a healthy environment cannot be achieved without every voice being heard. And every person getting a seat at the table to build a more, just an equitable democracy that is responsive to all people and their will to protect the planet. PennFuture Democracy For All program is improving access to and trust in our democracy. So communities that our country is traditionally left out of the decision making process can reclaim their rightful influence.
We do this by advocating for structural democracy reform registering and turning people out to vote and transformational community organizing democracy for all PennFuture is specifically working to connect single women, people of color and young people under 35 to our country's civic process, because our democracy fails when any voice is excluded and these communities overwhelmingly want to solve all of the climate crisis. We are thrilled to be joined today by Emily Gale, who acts as PennFuture's director of civic engagement and the head of our democracy for all program, Emily, welcome to environmental voices, the PennFuture podcast.
Emily Gale, PennFuture Director of Civic Engagement (49:26):
Well, thank you, Travis. And thank you for having me.
Absolutely. It's great to have you on our first. So I want to start out Emily, by asking you just to describe for us what exactly is PennFuture's Democracy For All program that you've been running.
So our Democracy For All program is basically, as you had stated in the introduction we are a nonpartisan civic engagement program, and we understand, again, that the people that are most affected by climate change pollution and environmental justice are low income communities, communities of color and young people. Those same people have been historically underrepresented and marginalized in the political process. So we work to increase the civic engagement participation. And again, because if our democracy fails, we fail and when voices are excluded, democracy fails.
So part of that is, is what getting people registered to vote, getting them out to vote.
Yes. Yeah. So this year we have a large scale voter registration program. And our goal is to register people in these marginalized community of these and develop relationships with them. So the first step in getting people to have their own voice is registering them to vote, then we need to educate them on the voting process, educate them on how non-voting and voting affects them and that their voice needs to be heard in order for change to happen.
So this is, to me, sounds like something that is traditionally very much a grassroots on the ground sort of effort. I mean, how have you been doing that? Since so many things are virtual these days.
Yeah. We started this program two years ago and we ended up having to be all digital. So we've made a lot of phone calls and we've had some virtual events. We've tried to do some hybrid tabling at some outdoor events. This is actually the first year that we'll be in the field developing the most relationships face to face because you, you know, the trust comes when you see a person face to face. Sure. We're excited about that. And then the other part of that is, is, you know, when we go into a community, a lot of times when people go into a community to register their people to vote, they go in and then you never hear from them. Again, we have specifically targeted communities that we plan to stay in and develop relationships with even when voting is not the priority.
OK. What, what does that look like? Help me understand that a little bit better.
All right. So we have a ladder of engagement and the first step is registering voters, and then it's educating voters on voting issues and voter suppression and how we can make a change in that. And then it's working them into our defender democracy program, which is a volunteer program that we plan to implement this year where we'll educate them on advocacy issues. And as we work up the ladder, you know, we, we start to ask them and learn about their community and what affects them, for example, air pollution, water pollution. And then we engage with the Field Team and then they start to engage and advocate for environmental issues.
Very cool. Now, a lot of this work has been primarily in Eastern and Central PA over the past couple years, but you're expanding now into Western Pennsylvania for the first time with the hiring of a Allegheny county director position. Tell me a little bit more about that.
Yes, we're so excited to expand out into a Western PA in Allegheny county. We will be beginning. We just hired our area director. Her name is Nicole, and we will be beginning the process of developing relationships within the community with other organizations, with the people in the community and then, and learning about them and what their issues are. And then they'll work on a vote by mail campaign to educate people about voting by mail and that you can still register to vote by. It's still a process. As we know in the news, there's a lot of confusion when it comes to voting by mail right now there is, but anyone can still vote. Yeah. And, but anyone can still register and sign up to vote by mail at this point. And we're encouraging that so that more people will be able to vote and have their voice heard, you know, people work two and three and four jobs just to make ends meet, which would exclude them from, you know, the voting process, if we have to go to a voting booth. So it's very important to educate and, and get people to register, to vote by mail so that their voices can be heard.
Emily, this is really important work, and I wish you and your team the best of luck with the work that you're doing and want to thank you again for joining us on our first broadcast of environmental voices.
Well, thank you. It was it was a pleasure to be here and I'm honored to be on the first podcast,
And that does it for our first episode of Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast. Thank you to Melanie, Representatives, Bullock and Emily for coming on for our inaugural episode. If you'd like to learn more about the work each of them do, you can check out our show summary at pennfuture.org/podcast. And of course, make sure to subscribe and leave behind a review of Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast, wherever you get your podcast, please let us know what you'd like to hear on the show. Today's show was written by Jared Stonesifer. It was produced by Donna Kohut, Michael Mehrazar and Jared Stonesifer. The executive producer is Matt Stepp. Our music is thanks to Pixabay.com. I'm your host and audio engineer, Travis DiNicola. Thank you for listening to Environmental Voices, the PennFuture podcast.