September 24, 2018

Coopted environmental justice? Activists’ roles in shaping EJ policy implementation

Environmental Sociology
ISSN: (Print) 2325-1042 (Online) Journal homepage:
Jill Lindsey Harrison
To cite this article: Jill Lindsey Harrison (2015) Coopted environmental justice? Activists’
roles in shaping EJ policy implementation, Environmental Sociology, 1:4, 241-255, DOI:
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Coopted environmental justice? Activists’ roles in shaping EJ policy implementation
Jill Lindsey Harrison*
Department of Sociology, University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA
(Received 11 May 2015; accepted 4 August 2015)
In this article, I augment scholars’ explanations for why agencies’ environmental justice (EJ) programs often fail to meet EJ movement principles. Other scholars have shown that countermovement actors within the state and from industry have coopted EJ policy implementation by reframing ‘EJ’ away from activist principles. Drawing on insights from social
movement theorists who have shown that social movement outcomes are shaped also by movements’ own internal struggles,I focus here on the cleavages among EJ activists and how those factions shape EJ policy implementation outcomes. I do so through an analysis of agencies’ EJ grant programs in the United States. I use agency documents to describe how most of the programs were implemented in problematic ways that deviate from long-standing EJ movement priorities, and I use qualitative interviews with movement leaders influential over other EJ advocates and agency EJ efforts to help explain those outcomes. I demonstrate that EJ policy implementation often deviates from long-standing EJ movement priorities not only because of cooptation by countermovement actors and other factors that scholars have rightly noted, but also because some leading EJ activists are reframing what EJ means in problematic ways and shaping agency EJ efforts to accord with that vision.
Keywords: cooptation; environmental justice; environmental movements; factionalism; framing
In the past 20 years, government agencies in the United States and elsewhere have adopted and implemented ‘environmental justice’ (EJ) policies, programs, and practices in response to the EJ movement. Largely grassroots and loosely networked, EJ activists fight the unequal clustering of environmental problems in low-income communities
and communities of color; criticize the mainstream environmental movement for ignoring environmental inequalities; frame environmental protections as rights; hold industry and the state accountable for environmental inequalities; and continue a long struggle against environmental racism in the United States and beyond (Agyeman,
Bullard, and Evans 2003; Benford 2005; Bullard 1990; Bullard et al. 2007; Cable and Shriver 1995; Capek 1993; Cole and Foster 2000; Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts 2009; Pellow and Brulle 2005; Sandweiss 1998; Schlosberg 2007; Taylor 2000, 2009).
Agencies’ EJ efforts to date appear to coopt the concept of EJ, disappointing movement members and academic supporters (Bullard et al. 2007; Eady 2003; Goode and Keiner 2003; Gordon and Harley 2005; Harrison 2015; Holifield 2004, 2012, 2014; Lewis and Bennett 2013; Lewis and Owley 2015; Liévanos 2012; Liévanos, London, and Sze 2011; London, Sze, and Liévanos 2008; Payne-Sturges et al. 2012; Scandrett 2007; Shilling, London, and Liévanos 2009; Targ 2005; Vajjhala 2010; Walker 2010). While scholars attribute these outcomes to numerous factors, many highlight cooptation by countermovement actors in the state and industry, who reframe ‘EJ’ to neuter EJ policy design and implementation (e.g., Eady 2003; Holifield 2012; Liévanos 2012; Sandweiss 1998).
Yet, studies of other social movements suggest that we might be missing part of the story by attending only to the framing conflicts between EJ advocates and countermovement actors. Social movement scholars have long shown that framing conflicts and other forms of factionalism abound within social movements in ways that shape movement outcomes (Armstrong 2002; Balser 1997; Benford 1993; Clemens 1996; Gamson 1975; Jenness 1995; White 1999). Here, I apply these insights to explain why one type of EJ policy implementation – agencies’ EJ grant programs – largely deviates from the EJ movement’s historical practices. Notwithstanding Holifield’s (2001) argument against establishing one stable definition of ‘EJ’, the movement does evince some long-standing emphases from which agency EJ grant programs deviate in two important ways. First, in contrast to EJ activists’long-standing framing of environmental protections as a right to be protected by the state and associated pursuit  of change through regulatory and policy protections rather than market-based and voluntary mechanisms, most agency EJ grant programs in the United States instead emphasize individual lifestyle change and voluntary agreements with industry. Second, whereas EJ advocates have long focused on hazard reduction, most agency EJ grant programs increasingly focus instead on other targets, such as developing parks and gardens, installing solar panels, and educating youth about nutrition, cooking, exercise, and wildlife. Although all of these practices and substantive foci have roles to play in environmental problem solving, these patterns indicate that agency EJ grant programs are not adequately supporting projects that pursue socio-environmental change through the mechanisms and foci that long distinguished the EJ movement from mainstream environmentalism. Drawing on ethnographic interviews with EJ activists influential over other EJ advocates and agency EJ efforts and attending to conflicts among them, I explain that these EJ policy implementation outcomes stem in part from the fact that many EJ activist leaders advocate for ‘EJ’ to be reconceptualized in this way and for agencies’ EJ grant programs to take these forms. Often motivated by numerous structural factors constraining EJ advocacy, they craft a ‘new common sense’ about what EJ means – disparaging regulatory and policy protections against hazards as unnecessary, outdated, and ineffective – and influence the design of agency EJ programs accordingly. I thus argue that EJ policy implementation outcomes stem not only from countermovement actors’ cooptation efforts and other factors scholars have rightly demonstrated, but also because some key EJ leaders reframe ‘EJ’ in these problematic ways and shape agency EJ efforts to accord with that
vision. I also demonstrate that some advocates who maintain a vision of EJ that aligns with the movement’s longstanding priorities contest this new common sense and shaped one of the grant programs to align with their views. These findings demonstrate that, to more fully explain EJ policy implementation outcomes, we need to look at the factions within the movement itself – specifically, to contestations among EJ activists about what EJ means and how they implement their ideas. 
Scholarship on EJ policy implementation
An extensive scholarship on environmental inequalities has investigated and substantiated EJ advocates’ claims
through analyzing the spatial relationships between environmental hazards and marginalized populations (Crowder
and Downey 2010; Downey 2006; Grant et al. 2010; Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts 2009), while in-depth qualitative
studies detail EJ activists’ material and symbolic practices, their motivations, and the conditions that shape
their outcomes (Bullard 1990; Cole and Foster 2000; Taylor 2009). Notwithstanding its internal diversity of
practice, the EJ movement has long prioritized certain substantive foci and mechanisms of change.
Substantively, EJ activists have criticized mainstream environmental organizations and the state alike for their
preoccupation with wilderness and failure to address the environmental hazards disproportionately facing residents
of low-income communities of color (Bullard 1990; Bullard et al. 2007; Cable and Shriver 1995; Capek
1993). Also, although EJ scholars and activists have observed that such communities lack equal access to environmental
amenities like parks and other green spaces, EJ advocacy has historically focused on reducing
environmental hazards that threaten human health (e.g., from incinerators, waste dumps, mineral extraction, and
dangerous workplaces). Scholars have also shown that EJ activists criticize
mainstream environmental organizations and the state for relying on undemocratic market-based and individualized
mechanisms of change that obscure the structural causes of environmental inequalities, let industry off the hook, and
fail to redistribute power over decision-making. Instead, EJ activists have asserted that freedom from environmental
harm is a right to be protected by the state, not a privilege available only to those with means. Angered by polluting
industries exploiting their communities, critical of neoliberal deregulation, and unable to buy their way into safer
environments, EJ activists have primarily pursued change through stronger environmental regulations and policies,
greater enforcement thereof, and more democratic state decision-making processes (Benford 2005; Bullard et al.
2007; Cable and Shriver 1995; Capek 1993; Cole and Foster 2000; Faber 2008; Faber and McCarthy 2003;
Harrison 2008, 2011, 2014; London et al. 2013; Pellow and Brulle 2005; Sandweiss 1998; Schlosberg 2007;
Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010; Taylor 2000; Walker 2009).
In response to EJ advocacy, numerous regulatory agencies in the US have developed EJ screening tools, trained
staff in EJ principles, instituted EJ grant programs, and explored opportunities to develop EJ protocol for permitting,
enforcement, and rulemaking. EJ advocates have played active roles in these processes through agencyconvened
EJ advisory committees and ‘listening sessions’, and some agencies hired grassroots activists to administer
EJ programs.
However, observers have found that agency EJ efforts deviate markedly from core movement priorities, including
doing little to reduce hazards in poor communities and communities of color or redistribute power over decisionmaking
(Bullard et al. 2007; Eady 2003; Goode and Keiner 2003; Gordon and Harley 2005; Holifield 2004,
2012, 2014; Lewis and Bennett 2013; Lewis and Owley 2015; Liévanos 2012; Liévanos, London, and Sze 2011;
London, Sze, and Liévanos 2008; Payne-Sturges et al. 2012; Scandrett 2007; Shilling, London, and Liévanos
2009; Targ 2005; Vajjhala 2010; Walker 2010). Scholars point to political opportunity structures (Meyer 2004)
thwarting EJ policy implementation efforts: agency leaders hostile to EJ principles, insufficient funding, industry
attack, conflict between EJ policy and agency mission, and the ways agency representatives interpret EJ
(Harrison 2015; Holifield 2004, 2012, 2014; Lewis and Bennett 2013; Liévanos 2012; Liévanos, London, and Sze
2011; London, Sze, and Liévanos 2008; Payne-Sturges et al. 2012; Scandrett 2007; Shilling, London, and
Liévanos 2009).
Social movement scholars have long attended to the problem of cooptation during social movement institutionalization
(Campbell 2001; Coy and Hedeen 2005; Gamson 1975; Selznick 1966), and many EJ scholars highlight the ways countermovement actors coopt the concept
of EJ during EJ policy implementation. They show that state and industry actors reframe ‘EJ’ away from EJ
activists’ principles during policy design and implementation to neuter those efforts. Holifield (2012) and others
have argued that EPA’s EJ efforts were undermined when the George W. Bush administration redefined EJ in 2005
to apply to ‘all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income’, a framing that veered from the EJ
movement’s demand for explicit attention to the environmental hazards disproportionately clustered in low-income
communities and communities of color (U.S. EPA 2015, emphasis added). Liévanos (2012) illustrates how industry
actors hostile to EJ activism coopted the state’s EJ efforts by stripping core EJ principles like precaution and cumulative
impact out of California EPA’s definition of EJ. He laments that ‘participating EJ advocates became disillusioned
with how the meaning of “EJ” changed as it was institutionalized into regulatory policy’ (487), noting that
Eady (2003) and Sandweiss (1998) similarly found that framing was central to industry actors’ success with coopting
and neutering the EJ policy process elsewhere. By showing that EJ policy implementation outcomes stem
from countermovement actors’ efforts to redefine EJ in ways that diverge from movement principles, such work
builds upon extensive social movement scholarship demonstrating the crucial ways in which frames shape
activists’ abilities to achieve their goals (Benford and Snow 2000). Organization theorists emphasize that frames
matter in shaping agencies’ organizational fields – the networks of social movement organizations and other
actors that establish the ‘rules of the game’ and otherwise condition agencies’ activities (Scott 2014).
Yet, whereas EJ scholarship on EJ policy implementation tends to present EJ activists’ conceptions of EJ and
their expectations of the state as unified and focuses onstruggles between activists and countermovement actors,
social movement scholarship shows that framing is an ongoing process among advocates and subject to intramovement
contestation and change. Snow, Benford, and others have long shown that movements are rife with
internal conflicts or ambiguity about framing, which can shape movement outcomes (Armstrong 2002; Benford
1993; Clemens 1996; White 1999). Such disputes are aspects of factionalism that scholars have observed in
many social movements, where factions stem from various factors internal and external to the movements and can
either strengthen movement efficacy or undermine solidarity (Balser 1997; Gamson 1975; Zald and Ash 1966; Zald
and McCarthy 1980). Others have focused on how shifts in social movement frames can shape movement outcomes
(Jenness 1995). Campbell (2001) provides insights into why organizations shift their frames in ways that seem to
deviate from their long-standing principles. He argues that what looks like cooptation is often actually the strategic
result of social movement organizations’ need to relax their convictions in order to gain the support of elites
and achieve material change. This work shows that, to understand EJ policy implementation outcomes, we need
to attend not only to countermovement actors’ efforts to coopt EJ but also to the framing contestations among EJ
movement members.
Here, I apply those insights from social movement theory by attending to the debates among EJ activists
over what EJ means, examining how they apply their beliefs in advising EJ policy implementation, and considering
the resulting consequences. I do so through an investigation of agency EJ grant programs in the United
States and activists who influenced their design. In doing so, I provide new insights into why EJ policy implementation
deviates from long-standing EJ movement principles. I explain EJ policy implementation as shaped not only by
countermovement actors’ efforts to neuter EJ and other factors scholars have rightly identified, but also because
many EJ activists themselves are trying to redefine ‘EJ’ and help craft agency EJ efforts according to that new
vision – though not without controversy.
In the next section, I describe my cases and research methods. Subsequently, I describe agency EJ grant programs’
rules, priorities, and funding patterns, showing that most of the programs deviate in problematic ways from
the EJ movement’s long-standing model of change and substantive foci. I then turn to explaining those EJ policy
implementation outcomes. I demonstrate that they align with many EJ activists’ changing ideas about what EJ
means and should look like, and I identify structural factors fueling this discursive shift. I also show that other
EJ leaders contest those views, which helps explain why one of the grant programs differs from the rest. To conclude,
I summarize my findings, reflect on their implications for EJ scholarship and social movement theory, and
make suggestions for future research.
Cases and methods
In this project, I analyze government agency EJ grant
programs as an instance of EJ policy implementation. I
compare and contrast five programs from the United
States: California Environmental Protection Agency
(CalEPA) EJ Grants Program (93 grants awarded from
2005 to 2015); San Francisco EJ Grants Program (55
grants awarded from 2001 to 2010); New York EJ
Community Impact Grant Program (121 grants awarded
from 2006 to 2013); US Environmental Protection Agency
(US EPA) EJ Small Grants Program (1345 grants awarded
from 1994 to 2013); and US EPA EJ Collaborative
Problem-Solving (CPS) Cooperative Agreement Program
(51 grants awarded from 2003 to 2014).
These five programs constitute all of the grant programs
in the United States that meet the following criteria:
they are run by government agencies; are explicitly called
‘EJ’ grant programs; are explicitly dedicated to funding
community-based, non-profit organizations and tribes (i.e.,
not university researchers or non-tribal government agencies);
fund projects to improve environmental conditions
in disadvantaged communities; and are not restricted to a narrow range of issues (e.g., transportation or tree
Most grants awarded are between $15,000 and
$30,000, though US EPA CPS awards are $100,000–
$120,000. Program administrators arrange a panel of
reviewers from within the agency representing different
areas of technical expertise, who score proposals per program
requirements (e.g., description of how the project
will benefit a disadvantaged community, realistic work
plan, and detailed budget).
I describe how well the programs’ implementation
aligns with EJ advocacy in two key dimensions: mechanisms
of change and substantive foci. To do so, I analyzed
program materials to identify the rules, restrictions, and
other language that specify which mechanisms of change
each program encourages: regulatory and policy protections
(e.g., fighting for stronger environmental regulations,
greater enforcement thereof, state provision of key municipal
services, and greater public participation in regulatory
decision-making practices) or other mechanisms of
change (e.g., modification of individual lifestyle behaviors,
market-based measures, charitable service provision,
or voluntary agreements with industry). I also analyzed
those materials to identify which substantive activities the
program encourages: hazard reduction (e.g., toxic waste
cleanup, or potable water provision) or other substantive
foci (e.g., park development, tree planting, or energy-efficient
appliance installation).
Also, to determine how well the universe of funded
projects aligns with the EJ movement’s model of change
and substantive foci, I also analyzed the abstracts (available
online) of all funded projects and, when available, the
full application narratives (procured through public
records requests). These abstracts and narratives identify
the proposed activities that the agency judged when determining
which projects to fund. They do not indicate the
outcome of the project nor grantees’ broader suite of
activities, so I do not evaluate the projects or grantees in
those regards. A research assistant and I independently
coded each funded project according to whether the project
pursued change through regulatory and policy protections
(and perhaps other mechanisms) or only through
other mechanisms of change, and whether the project
substantively focused on hazard reduction (and perhaps
other substantive activities) or only other substantive activities.
I then calculated frequencies for each program. Here,
I report my findings about the projects’ mechanisms of
change for the 985 projects that specified a mechanism of
social change (59% of the 1665 projects funded) and about
the projects’ substantive foci for the 1413 projects that
specified a substantive focus (85% of the projects funded).
To determine whether the funded grants differ significantly
from the broader pool of submitted applications in
terms of these criteria, I also analyzed the full narratives of
all available unfunded grant applications (procured
through public records requests). These included unfunded
applications submitted to the San Francisco program since
2001 (n = 31), the unfunded applications of two cycles of
the CalEPA program (n = 46), and the unfunded applications
of two cycles of the New York program (n = 70).
To explain these descriptive findings, I draw on confidential,
qualitative interviews I conducted with grantees,
other EJ activists, and agency staff, as well as ethnographic
observation at agency and activist events. Qualitative interviews
and observation are useful methods for identifying
the factors that shape EJ policy implementation outcomes,
as they help to illuminate variations in how key actors
interpret movement concepts that otherwise appear to be
widely shared, the structures they perceive to constrain their
work, and how they claim to enact their beliefs (Emerson,
Fretz, and Shaw 1995; Lofland et al. 2006). The semistructured
nature of the interviews allowed me to pursue
certain themes of interest while also allowing the participants
to narrate and interpret their experiences, and to
develop the rapport necessary to discuss politically controversial
issues. Confidential interviews gave activists the
space to express their beliefs that they cannot share in
strategically crafted public statements.
Central to this paper are the interviews I conducted
since 2012 with 35 individuals who self-identified and
were identified by others as leading EJ advocates. These
included 21 representatives from 18 grantee organizations
and 14 representatives of other EJ organizations. Most
were executive directors; the others held other leadership
positions. I interviewed some advocates multiple times,
had follow-up correspondence with many others, participated
in site visits or tours with several, and had informal
conversations with numerous others. I sought variation in
organization age and size, geographic region, and, for the
grantees, change mechanism and substantive focus of their
agency EJ grant-funded project(s). Because I wanted to
understand activists’ roles in EJ policy implementation, I
purposively recruited EJ advocates who actively advised
the design or implementation of agency EJ efforts. I asked
participants to identify agency EJ programs’ major accomplishments,
limitations, and opportunities for improvement,
to describe their involvement in agency EJ efforts,
and to reflect on changes in the EJ movement. I recruited
participants by contacting them directly by email or phone.
I conducted the interviews at locations chosen by each
participant, except for several interviews conducted by
telephone. Each interview lasted up to two hours and
was audio recorded if the participant gave permission.
The advocates I interviewed were a relatively even mix
of men and women, diverse in racial/ethnic identity, and
located in California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland,
Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto
Rico, and Washington, DC.
To contextualize grantees’ narratives, I draw on fieldnotes
from observing a two-day training workshop for
CPS program grantees in 2014, one ‘Question and
Answer’ conference call about the US EPA application
process in 2014, and various other agency meetings.
To analyze the interview and observational data, I read
and coded transcripts and fieldnotes for the signifying
work (Benford and Snow 2000) through which advocates define ‘EJ’ and how they claim to shape agency EJ efforts
accordingly. Some of my codes emerged from the literature,
including EJ advocates’ opinions about agencies’ EJ
programs, their theories about why agencies’ EJ programs
deviate from EJ advocates’ historical priorities, and the
constraints that shape their own work. Several themes
emerged unexpectedly in the interviews: typologies of EJ
activism, which mechanisms of change and substantive
foci activists believe the movement should prioritize, and
how they advised grant program administration according
to those beliefs. Thus, drawing on the principles of
grounded theory (Bryant and Charmaz 2007), I then recoded
transcripts and fieldnotes for these emergent
All uncited quotations are from my interviews or
observations. I obscure names, geographic locations,
racial/ethnic identity, and, occasionally, gender identity to
protect participants’ confidentiality. Doing so does not
undermine my arguments, as my findings do not vary by
any of those factors.
Agency EJ grant program discursive emphases and
funding patterns
Whereas EJ advocacy has historically focused on state
protections against environmental hazards, most agencies’
EJ grant programs evince neither that model of change nor
that substantive focus. These patterns are reflected in
agency program documents and funded projects.
Mechanisms of change
Most of the programs’ requests for applications (RFAs)
and other key documents implicitly discourage projects
that pursue environmental change through regulatory or
policy mechanisms. Notably, where the San Francisco and
New York programs’ RFAs list types of projects eligible
for funding, most emphasize individual lifestyle modification
(e.g., ‘teach local residents and school children about
the nutritional and public health benefits of growing and
eating fresh produce’) and market-based change (e.g.,
‘promote purchase of environmentally preferred products
and the use of less toxic consumer goods’); none references
policy reform, regulatory enforcement, or increasing
public participation in regulatory decision-making processes
(NYSDEC 2011, 6; San Francisco 2010, 9). US
EPA’s program documents encourage industry-friendly
collaborations. The CPS program promotes collaborations
‘with various stakeholders such as communities, industry,
academic institutions, and others’ (U.S. EPA 2008, 1).
EPA hails this approach: ‘When multiple stakeholders
work together, they create a collective vision that reflects
mutually beneficial goals for all parties’ (U.S. EPA 2008,
3). Similarly, the US EPA EJ Small Grants program RFA
specifies that proposals ‘should include strategies for. . .
building consensus and . . . should demonstrate collaboration
with other stakeholders’, including industry and government
agencies (U.S. EPA 2013, 3–4). Such emphasis
on collaboration implicitly discourages proposals from
organizations pursuing change through mechanisms that
industry actors would not support, such as stronger environmental
regulations or increased enforcement. The
CalEPA grant program differs from the others. Its RFA
explicitly encourages projects aimed at regulatory and
policy reform and increasing public participation in environmental
decision-making processes, which are featured
in its stated program goals and example projects in its RFA
(CalEPA 2013, 1, 4).
Most of the funded projects also deviate from the EJ
movement’s long-standing model of change. Only 33%
(327 of 985) held the state accountable for improving
environmental conditions, such as by organizing residents
to participate in regulatory decision-making or land-use
planning events, or pressing agencies for basic municipal
services, stronger environmental regulations, and enforcement
of existing laws. Two programs had especially low
rates of such projects: San Francisco at 11% (6 of 53
projects) and New York at 12% (11 of 90 projects).
Again, the CalEPA program differs from the others; 76%
of its projects (56 of 74) pursue change through regulatory
and policy mechanisms. Each program’s unfunded grant
applications display patterns consistent with these, suggesting
that the grantee organizations are not unique in
terms of the mechanisms through which they pursue
The remaining projects sought change only through
non-regulatory means, typically through urging residents
to modify their own individual behaviors (e.g., reducing
consumption of fish from contaminated rivers, eating
organic produce, growing one’s own produce, increasing
physical activity, or recycling household waste). Others
proposed to encourage local industry to voluntarily reduce
emissions (e.g., educating truck drivers about diesel
idling). Others sought change by providing goods or services
(e.g., solar panels, or energy audits) at a reduced
To be clear, such projects are not antithetical to EJ.
They can improve environmental conditions in overburdened
communities, they are appropriate ways to address
some environmental issues, and some activists use them as
ways to recruit members for policy or regulatory reform
campaigns. Yet the EJ grant programs’ discursive emphasis
on and predominance of projects that rely on individual
residents and industry actors to voluntarily improve environmental
conditions deviates from the EJ movement’s
long-standing focus on holding the state accountable for
protecting environmental rights. This deviation is problematic
for many reasons. First, it implies that environmental
justice does not require stronger regulatory and policy
protections – and that individual residents and industry
actors can and should handle those responsibilities. This
emphasis thus absolves the state of its responsibilities and
accommodates, rather than remediates, the broader neoliberal
rollback of regulatory protections in the last 35 years
that EJ activists and others have so stridently contested
(Cable and Shriver 1995; Faber 2008; Harrison 2008, 2011, 2014; Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010). It also dovetails with industry’s and other elites’ long-standing tactic of blaming residents for their own health problems and otherwise framing social problems as rooted in group behavior and values.
Second, ‘collaborative’ agreements between residents
and industry often undermine community organizing
efforts. Although the EPA EJ grant programs’ RFAs
list various possible stakeholders, and one EPA representative
I interviewed claimed that projects need not
include all relevant stakeholders, multiple grantees I
interviewed said that they felt pressured to collaborate
with and reach consensus with industry in ways that
undermined their goals. One grantee who received a
grant to help his community address its concerns about
the multiple polluting facilities in their vicinity said that
EPA required their project ‘to be totally collaborative’.
He lamented that because the industry actors in the
collaboration rejected most of the solutions residents
and activists proposed, the group was only able to
implement projects ‘that didn’t upset industry’. They
thus focused on indoor air quality, smoking, and diesel
bus routes – which he considered ‘the lowest common
denominator’ – and were unable to address ‘the big
issues’ that mattered most to the community. Moreover,
he felt that the grant actually undermined his organizing
efforts, as many of the community residents felt frustrated
with his organization for pursuing a limited array of activities (see also Ottinger 2013; Pellow 2000).
Third, few of the grant projects cohere with the EJ
movement’s long-standing focus on bolstering the ability
of marginalized residents to influence environmental decision-making processes. This applies to the individualized
projects described above and projects that provide technical
services to improve environmental conditions in overburdened
communities – such as providing home energy
audits, installing indoor air filters or subsidized solar
panels, or building green roofs. Fourth, these discursive
emphases and funding patterns signal which kinds of
projects are most likely to get funded and thereby encourage
organizations to propose and conduct such work.
Substantive focus
Substantively, agencies’ EJ grant programs also deviate in
some ways from the EJ movement’s long-standing emphasis
on hazard reduction. While all of the programs’ RFAs
permit a wide range of projects in terms of their substantive
foci, some of the programs’ documents place considerable
emphasis on activities not geared to hazard
reduction. Both the New York and San Francisco programs’
RFAs encourage community gardens, nutrition
education, parks and trails, and energy efficiency, and
devote much less attention to projects that reduce hazards
like air and water pollution (NYSDEC 2011, 6, 2015; San
Francisco 2010, 9). Additionally, the New York program
dedicates a certain percentage of its EJ grant funding to
‘Green Gems’ grants that fund projects relating to ‘parks,
open space, community gardens, or green infrastructure’
(NYSDEC 2015).
At first glance, the projects funded by these programs
appear to align with the EJ movement’s substantive focus
on hazard reduction, with 84% of the funded projects
(1190 of 1413) committed to reducing one or more
hazards to health or community (e.g., monitoring air or
water for contaminants, collecting other data on toxic ‘hot
spots’, educating subsistence fisherfolk about PCB-contaminated
fish, remediating lead-contaminated housing,
constructing sanitation systems, improving drinking
water purification and/or storage systems, and protecting
Native Americans’ rights to subsistence or traditional cultural
resources). Only the San Francisco program deviates
markedly in this regard: just 22% of its projects (12 of 54)
focus on hazard reduction.
Yet these overall patterns obscure the fact that, for
nearly all of the programs, the portion of funded projects
dedicated to hazard reduction has declined over time. The
New York program’s projects dedicated to hazard reduction
dropped from 92% in the first two funding cycles (12
of 13) to 47% in the last two cycles (25 of 53). US EPA’s
CPS projects dedicated to hazard reduction dropped from
95% (38 of 40) in its first two cycles to 64% in its latest
cycle (7 of 11). US EPA’s Small Grants projects dedicated
to hazard reduction dropped from 93% in the first four
cycles (351 of 387) to 77% in the last four cycles (155 of
201). The San Francisco program’s projects dedicated to
hazard reduction dropped from 30% in the first few funding
cycles (8 of 27) to 15% in the most recent four funding
cycles (4 of 27). Only the CalEPA program differs from
the others in this regard, with its portion of projects dedicated
to hazard reduction increasing from 91% in the first
three cycles (39 of 43) to 100% in the latter two cycles (36
of 36). The patterns of each program’s unfunded grant
applications are consistent with these, suggesting that
such substantive foci are not limited to the organizations
who received the funding.
Most agency EJ grant programs are moving away from
hazard reduction and increasingly funding projects that
develop and maintain community gardens and farmers
markets; plant trees; develop and maintain parks, trails,
or other green space; install alternative energy infrastructure
or energy-efficient appliances; conduct energy efficiency
audits; establish recycling programs; conduct
ecological restoration; or educate youth about nutrition,
cooking, exercise, or wildlife.
Such projects are not, in principle, inconsistent with
EJ. They can provide valuable benefits to residents of lowincome
communities, and many of these projects – including
trails and gardens – can provide tangible, material
gains in a short amount of time with relatively little strife.
Accordingly, many EJ organizations use these types of
projects to help motivate their members. EJ activists and
observers have long framed EJ as including hazard reduction
and provision of environmental amenities. The problem
is that, in the grant programs, these other projects are
replacing, rather than augmenting, those focused on hazard reduction. These grant programs thus appear to be dropping the task of reducing hazards threatening marginalized and overburdened communities, which the EJ movement has long held as a priority.
Additionally, the growing predominance of such projects
in the grant programs unwittingly minimizes or masks
the hazardous conditions threatening residents in marginalized
communities. As one resident commented in a
recent New York Times article about New York’s proliferating
curbside gardens, ‘it makes it look better than it
actually is’ (7 November 2014).
Furthermore, the garden and other food projects –
which outnumber all other types of projects not focused
on hazard reduction – educate low-income residents of
color about how to conform with organizers’ ideas of
proper behavior: variously promoting vegetarianism, eating
whole grains, growing one’s own food, cooking one’s
own food, avoiding fast food, losing weight, and getting
more exercise. In addition to ignoring the most pressing
environmental contributors to disease, these projects unreflexively
promote perfectionist ideas of how residents
should behave and look, reinforce racialized hierarchies
of well-behaving bodies, and reify the normative ideal of
thinness (Guthman 2011).
EJ activists’ interpretations of EJ and influence on
agency EJ programs
To explain why these grant programs’ implementation
deviates from the EJ movement’s historically prioritized
mechanisms of change and substantive foci, I now turn to
my interviews with EJ activists themselves.
‘Traditional’ EJ: combatting hazards through regulatory
and policy reform
Consistent with long-standing EJ activist emphases,
approximately half of the EJ activists I interviewed
asserted that EJ entails a substantive focus on hazard
reduction and pursuit of change through regulatory and
policy mechanisms. For example, one executive director
of an EJ organization elaborated that the EJ movement
was based in a critique of the mainstream environmental
movement’s focus on individual behavioral change, which
she rejects because ‘toxics, pollution, and people’s exposure
to them are fundamentally rooted in how capital is
structured. . .. Environmental injustice is not caused by
individual behavior. It is caused by people’s lack of decision-making
and stems from racial inequality and corporate
power.’ Accordingly, her organization pursues EJ
through ‘multiracial organizing to impact local decisionmaking
arenas, state policy reform, increasing civic
engagement on a local level, and trying to shift the voter
base to be more progressive and supportive of EJ policies
on a broader scale.’ Similarly, the executive director of one
California EJ organization argued that EJ requires ‘substantive
outcomes’ in the form of ‘direct emission reductions’
through ‘chang[ing] the laws because they don’t
protect people of color:’ ‘If the laws as written aren’t
working for environmental justice communities, then the
laws need to be changed.’ He lamented CalEPA’s reliance
on ‘cap-and-trade’ carbon markets to reduce carbon emissions
as counter to what ‘the EJ advocates’ articulated at
the agency’s EJ advisory committee meetings (London
et al. 2013).
When I asked about their own grant-funded projects
that deviate from these goals, many explained that they
view such projects instrumentally – as a way to motivate
and organize residents toward larger campaigns focused
on hazard reduction and policy change. For example, the
executive director of one long-standing EJ organization
noted that her organization occasionally does projects in
which they teach residents how to mitigate lead hazards
and increase energy efficiency in their homes. She
explained that such practices help some residents come
to view pollution reduction – even by industry – as a
reasonable expectation:
We started with a household toxics program, which people
would view as pretty tame. But . . . they’re making
changes and then it’s not a big leap to, if you can do it –
if you just change out everything under your sink – then
what about the company down the street? Think they
could do that? Why shouldn’t they make that same kind
of change?
Moreover, although these trainings focus on individual
behavior modification, she views them as a way to recruit
residents for larger campaigns focused on large-scale
Some people just want the service. They want the light
bulbs. They want the lead to be out of their home. But for
others, it’s a way in. They just aren’t going to respond to
the knock at the door, saying, ‘We’re all getting together to
work on the power plant down the street, are you willing
to help us?’. . . [But] if one of our organizers is in their
home doing the energy education, helping them do a little
energy audit, helping them get changes to their home on
the lead – which is also a quality of life improvement too
because generally the windows get changed out – it
improves their quality of life. That’s about relationship
building. And you don’t get that kind of time – you get
five minutes at the door, maybe, probably not – and
they’re sending you on your way. So if you use it right,
then I think you get more yes’s than no’s.
That is, while her organization’s primary objective is statemandated
structural change to reduce hazards in overburdened
communities, she uses other types of projects
toward achieving that end.
Some criticized agency EJ efforts according to these
goals. Another EJ organization leader argued, ‘rules and
regulations’ are ‘what EJ work is all about. . .. The types of
activities that an environmental justice organization would
be doing’ include, principally, ‘training [communities] on
government and regulatory processes.’ When I asked how
she would judge agencies’ EJ grant programs, she
responded: ‘Are the projects eventually resulting in actual policy change? Because you have to have the policy change to get the real outcomes.’ Another leading EJ organization’s representative critiqued agency EJ grant programs on the same grounds:
You often don’t get the funding you need to change the
systems the government is running. There’s nothing wrong
with funding for community gardens. But let’s be clear
that those are by no means the only challenges these
communities are dealing with.
I responded that nearly half of the agency EJ grants in his
state were awarded to community gardens in recent years.
He paused and said, ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
Multiple individuals who asserted such views worked
for leading EJ organizations in California before being
appointed to design and run CalEPA’s EJ grant program.
One explained that the CalEPA RFA’s emphasis on fostering
public participation in regulatory decision-making processes
stems from the fact that he and other EJ activists
believed that EJ requires greater community influence
over regulatory decision-making processes. ‘When I
came in, the question was, how do we get folks to participate?’
Another emphasized that he revised the RFA to
explicitly encourage projects focused on hazard reduction:
‘I just want to know, what are you doing to reduce pesticide
exposure, . . . to have safe drinking water, . . . to
reduce the air [pollution]?’ These convictions help explain
why the CalEPA EJ grant program more closely reflects
the EJ movement’s historical mechanisms of change and
substantive priorities than do the other EJ grant programs.
As I detail elsewhere, these current and former CalEPA
representatives were the only agency EJ grant program
staff (of nearly 30 that I interviewed) who conceptualize
EJ in these terms and felt able to implement the program
accordingly (Harrison 2015). That they were able to put
their beliefs into practice stems from multiple factors: their
politically appointed status (whereas other agencies’ EJ
staff are mostly career employees either worried about
rocking the boat or unfamiliar with EJ principles), the
state legislature’s growing Latino caucus, California’s
demographic transition to a majority minority state, and
the state’s politically influential EJ community (see also
Perkins 2015).
Reframing: crafting a new common sense
The other half of the EJ activists I interviewed expressed a
different, ‘new common sense’ about what EJ means – one
that legitimizes the problematic ways in which the other
agencies have implemented their EJ grant programs. This
new common sense disparages the hazard reduction and
state-focused work that has long been the core of EJ
advocacy and glorifies other types of activist practice.
Many characterized the practice of fighting toxic industries
and pressing for stronger environmental regulations in
pejorative terms, as ‘reactive’ and ‘oppositional’, led by
the ‘old guard’, ineffective, and lacking solutions. They
also waxed enthusiastically about their efforts to build
gardens, green spaces, and alternative energy infrastructure
through charitable service provision and individual
behavioral change, characterizing such work as ‘proactive’
and ‘propositional’, led by the ‘new guard’, effective, and
1 Many lauded the movement for
‘evolving’ toward such practice. By holding leadership
roles in their own organizations and/or regional EJ alliances,
they directly shape movement framing. Moreover,
by informing – and in some cases directly running –
agency EJ programs, these activists shape agencies’ EJ
policy implementation efforts.
Some activists directly applied this reframing of EJ
when designing agency grant programs. Notably, Robert2
worked as an EJ activist before being appointed to lead the
design of one agency’s EJ grant program. At that time, he
felt that EJ advocacy had ‘a very oppositional frame. It
was always about stopping something, always about
defending, about fighting. And I really wanted it to be
propositional.’ He asserted that the dominant (‘oppositional’)
approach to EJ activism focused on fighting for
stronger regulations on toxic facilities was outdated,
closed-minded, ‘limited’, ‘laughable’ in the ‘obvious’ nature
of its limitations, and lacking solutions. He designed
the grant program to shift EJ activism:
We can’t just keep saying no. . . . It’s laughable. If you just
oppose everything, then what happens? (Pauses) My
silence was purposeful. What really happens? Nothing.
There’s a lot of people that are still very much an old
guard. They tend toward opposing things and not being as
open to new voices or new ideas.. . . I was thinking about
this stuff when we did the grant program in this way. I just
knew that something wasn’t right and that we did need to
identify some level of solutions.. . . I was just like, well,
we need to just do something different. We just knew that
something else needed to happen. I think that experiment
over time – as I look at it – was the right one.
Robert acknowledges that EJ activists balked at the way he
designed the program: ‘People didn’t like it. . .. It didn’t go
over too well. . .. It was amazing the vitriol we received.’
Despite this reaction from the activist community, he
insisted on designing the grant program to accord with
his views of what EJ should look like. Indeed, nearly all of
his program’s funded projects pursue change through
charitable service provision, individual behavior modification,
and green space construction. As an example of a
project that exemplifies ‘the values that are embedded
within the principles of environmental justice’, he lauded
a local organization that does ‘crowd sourcing [for] solar
panels’, which ‘allows for individual ownership [and]. . .
allows for individuals to invest whatever level of resource
they want to into something they believe in.’ He continues
to advocate this new common sense about EJ. Since
departing the agency, Robert has joined a leading and
long-standing EJ organization – which a well-published
EJ scholar cited as one of five organizations that reflect
‘the essential core of the environmental justice movement’ – applying his beliefs in that capacity and within the regional EJ coalition of which his organization is a prominent member.
Another EJ activist who joined an agency and
designed an EJ grant program stated that similar ideas
shaped his thinking about how to design the program.
Tom, who still works for the agency and identifies as
part of the EJ movement (akin to Santoro and McGuire’s
[1997] ‘institutional activists’), stated, ‘I wanted to
develop a model for’ solving problems in a ‘collaborative’
way. He applied those ideas in designing the grant
A lot of the communities themselves are trapped in [thinking
that] if you’re talking about environmental justice,
you’re only talking about the regulations, or you’re only
talking about making the government solve the problem
for us. . .. But to a large extent, to really be transformative,
you can’t rely on anybody else to do it – you have got to
do it yourself. Those that have succeeded are doing that.
Although implying that both regulatory and collaborative
approaches are part of EJ, he ultimately denigrates activists
who expect the government to protect them and
situates regulatory protections as outside the scope of
‘really transformative’ and ‘successful’ EJ. Through public
speaking events, publications, and his ongoing work in the
agency’s EJ grant program and other EJ activities, he
continues to advocate and implement this conception
of EJ.
These narratives were not limited to EJ activists positioned
within the agencies. Stacy, who leads a statewide
‘EJ Alliance’ and leads discussions about ‘reframing’ EJ
activism among her member organizations, similarly
argued that the EJ movement should make a ‘proactive’
turn toward focusing on building environmental amenities.
Her statements are striking not for the projects she advocates,
as they are among the outcomes EJ activists have
long fought for. Rather, what is remarkable is her implicit
disparagement of EJ activism focused on reducing hazards
through regulatory and policy protections. Her brief references
to the need for increased regulatory enforcement
were dwarfed by her extensive characterizations of the
EJ movement’s traditional focus on fighting hazardous
industry as outdated and lacking solutions. She argued
for EJ activism to be ‘more sophisticated’ and ‘start
being more solution-oriented’ and ‘actually create solutions’–‘versus
just fighting with regulatory agencies
about how much they do or don’t enforce certain rules’.
She advocates a ‘proactive’ shift in EJ activism toward
constructing renewable energy systems, green spaces,
mixed-use urban development, and green jobs. She presents
this ‘new’ approach to EJ as enlightened and innovative
compared to older, ‘reactive’ EJ:
A lot of groups have really gone to another level . . .
Obviously those specific site battles are in many ways
the foundation and the cornerstone of a lot of EJ work.
But . . . we’re also trying to move away from that
particular model of organizing and working. . . We’re just
really trying to have a different framing on our work. . .. A
proactive framing around all the things that we’re trying to
bring into these communities to transform them.
She advocates this reframing of EJ because ‘I got tired of
people being passive. . .. Somebody has to step up and
have some initiative and innovation around environmental
justice.’ Her beliefs are fueled by industry attacks on EJ
activists’ policy and regulatory reform efforts (see Faber
2008). Stacy lamented,
One of the things that has stigmatized the movement . . .
[is] this idea that environmental justice is about ‘no’ and is
an economic killer. The [statewide] Chamber of
Commerce is very powerful and has a lot of money, and
they spent a lot of money and they just spin out lies that
anything you try and do is a job killer.
These motivations notwithstanding, Stacy’s narratives
influence other activists and the broader discourse about
what constitutes appropriate ‘EJ’ practice. Her status as an
important actor in the movement’s framing efforts was
revealed throughout my fieldwork, as other EJ activists
characterized her coalition as playing a key role in advocating
the ‘new’ style of EJ.
Matt, the executive director of an EJ organization and
self-identified EJ leader in his region, employed similar
rhetoric when describing what he views as appropriate and
effective forms of EJ activism. He argued that community
organizing to redistribute political power and press for
policy change is outdated: ‘It’s not the 1960s Chicago
any more. . .. We need to modernize the Alinsky model’.
Instead, he hailed the pursuit of change through entrepreneurialism
and constructing green spaces as ‘the new
model of EJ’. He described a local organization that trains
immigrants in small business development and builds
parks in immigrant communities as ‘the thing when it
comes to EJ’ and ‘the new model’ of EJ because it ‘has
a self-perpetuating business model’. Matt actively informs
broader discourse around what EJ means, both among
activists and regulatory agencies. He helped spearhead
the government EJ efforts in his state, including an advisory
committee that makes recommendations on EJ to the
governor and agencies. US EPA has actively endorsed his
approach, presenting Matt’s organization with an
Environmental Justice National Achievement Award for
its role in establishing and participating in the advisory
Other EJ advocates more explicitly expressed their
disdain for activism fighting environmental hazards
through regulatory and policy protections. When describing
her new focus on river restoration, Katherine noted
how her own definition of EJ has changed over time away
from ‘EJ in the traditional format’, a term she used to refer
to advocacy for state-mandated pollution reduction. She
used to engage in such practices but now views them as
‘passive’ and having ‘no outcome’. Katherine’s ideas are
motivated in part by frustration with the slow pace of regulatory reform: ‘There is no satisfaction in butting your head against the wall until it’s bloody just to say, “I went through the process.”. . .What’s the point?. . .[EPA] waits on you to sue, and then they fight you.’ She emphatically criticized activists demanding the state reduce pollution as foolish and ineffective – as ‘too busy fighting this phantom
they can’t identify, rather than going out and saying,
“Hey, let me see what I can do to make this better.”’ She
asserts that she has ‘evolved’ to using charitable contributions
to organize outdoor activities and get volunteers to
remove garbage and invasive plants, practices she hails as
effective and ‘active’:
The tire cleanups: it gets folks in touch with the river. . . .
You feel like you are doing something. The canoe outings:
that was building rapport with folks as it relates to the
river. . . . You’re going to improve the environment with
active kinds of initiatives, and that’s what we do. . .. Then,
it was fighting people. Now, it’s fighting for something.
That is, she dismisses the ‘traditional EJ’ pursuit of pollution
reduction through state protections as ‘passive’ and
lacking solutions and instead hails other activities as
uniquely able to accomplish change.
Other advocates reinforced this new common sense
even while displaying ambivalence. For example, Linda
is the executive director of a long-standing EJ organization
that is a key player in a statewide EJ coalition and widely
regarded as a leading EJ organization nationally. She
insisted that pollution reduction through regulatory and
policy mechanisms is the core of her organization’s practice
and that the organization’s new community garden
helps keep members engaged amidst the slow pace of
regulatory and policy reform. Yet she also characterized
policy reform as ‘reactive’ in comparison with their new
community garden project, which she hailed as
We can’t wait for the decision-makers in the [region] to
make things happen. We have to do some of it ourselves. .
.. The majority [of our work] still remains reactive. But
the proactive piece has been growing in importance over
the past few years.
Moreover, ‘this shift is beginning to happen’ among other
EJ organizations as well: ‘We all came upon this idea of
needing to make things happen’, realizing that ‘we can’t
wait’. It is a ‘new tactic in the movement that is becoming
more visible’. Such discourse frames the ‘reactive’ policy
work as ineffective and the ‘new’ ‘proactive’ work as
uniquely able to effect change. Her praise of the movement
for ‘shifting’ – evolving and developing away from
the ‘reactive’ work and toward the ‘proactive’ work –
promotes the new common sense about EJ and legitimizes
the problematic patterns in agency EJ grant programs.
Reframing ‘EJ’ as not requiring hazard reduction or
regulatory reform enables organizations that have historically
eschewed the EJ movement to cast themselves as
part of it, in turn reinforcing the new common sense about
what constitutes ‘EJ’. Chris identifies as an EJ advocate, is
the executive director of a nonprofit that was widely noted
to me as the leading EJ organization in its city, and helps
lead a citywide EJ forum. His organization’s board of
directors insists that the organization focus on expanding
access to parks, gardens, trails, energy-efficient household
appliances, and other environmental ‘benefits’ (and not
confront hazards) through encouraging individual behavioral
modification and providing resources and services
(and not regulatory or policy reform). The board has
historically refused to identify as ‘EJ’, which it has perceived
as ‘out picketing a waste dump’. Chris hailed his
organization’s approach, characterizing ‘working on the
benefits side’ as ‘really solving an EJ problem’.
Recently, he convinced his board that the organization’s
work ‘is EJ’ by framing their work as ‘the benefits side of
EJ’. The board ‘likes that’ framing – and now openly
identifies the organization as part of the EJ movement.
Through these discursive and material practices, many
EJ leaders are actively reframing EJ. They have shaped the
implementation of agency EJ programs directly – as
agency insiders and as external advisors to agencies.
They have also shaped agency EJ programs indirectly –
by advocating a new common sense among activists,
agency staff, and the broader public about what EJ means.
To be clear, many EJ leaders stridently reject this
narrative. For example, after I described my findings to
one prominent EJ leader in our interview, he followed up
via email:
I don’t think working collaboratively with polluters and
government agencies . . . is environmental justice at all.
And I reject the terminology calling this approach ‘new’
EJ. That is a sad, sad commentary for those who think
fighting polluters and standing in solidarity is passé and
‘old guard’.
Framing advocacy for state-mandated pollution reduction
as lacking solutions dismisses its outcomes: securing protections
against toxins and other hazards. The valorization
of entrepreneurial practice and behavioral-based change
casts residents responsible for their own contaminated
environments and fails to hold industry and the state
Although problematic and contested, EJ activists’ narratives
about what constitutes good EJ practice shape the
ways that agencies implement EJ programs. In addition to
the individuals noted above who moved from EJ advocacy
organizations into the state to design agency EJ programs
according to these ideas, other agency staff sympathetic to
the movement insisted that activists shape agency EJ program
implementation. One agency grant program representative
noted, ‘We don’t promote one thing or another.
We look at what the community wants.’ Another explained
how he revised his agencies’ EJ grant program RFA:
I reached out. I have 100 people. . .. I just polled them. It’s
all EJ people. ‘These are the goals we’re considering.
Rank them up.’. . . I didn’t tell my boss that I used the results, but I went with their recommendations.. . . I use them to give me input on what they want to see.
Activists’ efforts to reframe EJ thus have numerous implications,
including shaping agency EJ program implementation.
Popularizing the new common sense
The new common sense is popularized by some charismatic,
media-savvy champions of environmental activism
in low-income communities of color. Notable are Van
Jones, former advisor to President Obama on climate
change, and Majora Carter, MacArthur Award-winning
‘eco-entrepreneurship’ advocate (TEDxMidwest 2010),
who together established the organization Green for All.
In his best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy
(2008), Jones elaborates Green for All’s vision for ‘solving
the two biggest issues facing the country today – the
economy and the environment’ (Jones 2008, back cover).
Specifically, he hails green entrepreneurialism and individual
behavioral modification, and he disparages activism
that critically confronts industry and regulatory agencies
as ‘reactive’, ‘oppositional’, ‘negative’, ‘demanding’, and
lacking solutions. His name came up in many of my
interviews with California EJ activists, some even referring
to him simply as ‘Van’. While some expressed misgivings
about his advocacy, others actively valorized it.
Notwithstanding those differences of opinion, many EJ
leaders use the same narratives that permeate his writing,
giving a cursory nod to regulatory and policy reform (or
disparaging it) and emphatically advocating a ‘new’
‘proactive’, ‘positive’, ‘solutions-oriented’, and ‘propositional’
style of EJ activism that leaves the state and hazard
reduction behind.
In New York City, Majora Carter founded Sustainable
South Bronx ‘to promote environmental justice’ (SSB
2015), won a MacArthur Foundation award for her advocacy,
and was hailed by the New York Times as ‘one of the
city’s best-known advocates for environmental justice’ (14
December 2008). Placing particular emphasis on exercise,
food choices, urban agriculture, green entrepreneurialism,
and green jobs, she has similarly helped to shape EJ
activism and agency programs in that region and legitimize
such practices as emblematic of ‘EJ’.
Additionally, some scholars repeat and thereby legitimize
this narrative. For example, in a study of EJ activism
in Los Angeles, Eric Carter (2014) characterizes the ‘earlier
generation’ of ‘reactive’ EJ advocacy fighting ‘hazards
as they develop’ as ‘EJ 1.0’, which he distinguishes from
‘EJ 2.0’, comprised of groups ‘taking a more proactive
approach to restoring nature and producing new environmental
“goods” in the city’ and foregrounding diet and
exercise education (3). Carter acknowledges, ‘it is fair to
ask whether EJ 2.0 contributes to social and environmental
justice goals’ (18). However, his characterizations of ‘the
transition from EJ 1.0 to EJ 2.0’ and assertion that ‘childhood
obesity and its associated health effects, such as
diabetes, represent a more persistent and widespread threat
to the Latino community than toxins in the environment’
(4; cf. Guthman 2011) disparage advocates’ fights against
hazards as outdated and unnecessary and frame the movement
as productively evolving away from such work.3
Such narratives help popularize the ‘new common sense’
about what EJ means, thus indirectly helping to legitimize
agency EJ efforts cohering with that ‘new’ vision.
Problematic patterns in agency EJ grant programs stem in
part from the efforts of some EJ leaders influential in the
activist and agency arenas to craft a new common sense
about what EJ means – one that dismisses policy and
regulatory mechanisms to reduce hazards as ineffective
and outdated, other mechanisms of change and substantive
foci as enlightened and uniquely efficacious, and the
movement as progressively evolving in these ways. They
advocate this interpretation of EJ to change public opinion
about what constitutes good EJ practice and to directly
shape the design of agency EJ programs.
Many of these advocates note that they are motivated
by the increasingly slow pace of regulatory
reform, philanthropic foundations’ increasingly narrow
funding priorities, and otherwise highly constrained
political opportunities (Meyer 2004). Considerable scholarship
has documented these constraints, including
long-standing industry influence over environmental
regulation and more recent neoliberal reforms that produce
the glacial pace of regulatory reform (Bosso 1987;
Faber 2008; Harrison 2008, 2011, 2014; Heynen et al.
2007; Lockie 2013; London et al. 2013; Park and
Pellow 2011), as well as philanthropic foundations’
resistance to funding policy reform, litigation, or other
core EJ activities (Brulle and Jenkins 2005; Faber and
Deborah 2001; Hansen 2012).
Notwithstanding these structural pressures and the
valuable roles that behavioral modification and green
space construction can play in environmental problemsolving,
the ‘new common sense’ has problematic consequences.
It legitimizes the problematic patterns in agency
EJ efforts, disparages the structural reforms needed to
reduce hazards in overburdened communities, and misleadingly
implies that all environmental problems can be
resolved through asking residents to change their own
consumption practices. Indeed, other EJ activists firmly
reject this new common sense, and some crafted the
CalEPA grant program to accord with their view that EJ
requires reducing hazards through regulatory and policy
reforms and democratizing decision-making.
This study provides new explanations for why EJ
policy implementation so often deviates from long-standing
EJ movement goals and priorities. Other scholars’
explanations for these outcomes emphasize cooptation by
countermovement actors hostile to EJ advocacy, showing
that agencies acquiesce to countermovement actors’
reframing efforts. I have shown that agency EJ efforts
are also shaped by framing conflicts among EJ movement members themselves over what EJ means and how the state should implement EJ programs. These intramovement factions manifest both in EJ advocates’ tacit understandings and conscious, intentional reframings (Oliver and Johnston 2000). Building on others’ findings that EJ
advocacy has been pushed in increasingly conservative
directions, I have shown how some EJ activists discursively
reinforce that narrowing.
These findings serve as a reminder that social movement
theorists must approach movement factions and
shifts with a critical eye. On the one hand, my findings
are consistent with Campbell’s (2001) argument that outcomes
that appear to be cooptation by countermovement
actors can also reflect the intentional work of some movement
members aiming to ‘adapt to political circumstances
while retaining attachments to core values and constituencies’
(Campbell 2001, 362). On the other hand, this case
demonstrates that social movement organizations’ tactical
shifts will not necessarily be consistent with the movement’s
core values. The tactical shifts of some EJ organizations
illustrated here deviate markedly from core, longstanding
EJ movement priorities in problematic ways.
These findings align with other studies showing that
some EJ organizations have moved away from the traditional
EJ frame of treating the protection from environmental
hazards as a state-protected right (Carter 2014;
Malin 2015; Ottinger 2013). That said, because the EJ
activists I interviewed are not a representative sample of
the entire movement, I am unable to identify how widespread
this new common sense is. Nor can I characterize
these activists’ full suite of practices. Future research
should therefore investigate more systematically how
widespread these discourses and their associated practices
are within the EJ movement, and how EJ advocates try to
reconcile these factions and their approaches. Additionally,
ethnographic research with EJ organizations could illuminate
the framing and other processes by which the cleavages
among EJ advocates have developed.
These apparent factions within the EJ movement
deserve more critical attention. If building parks and gardens
and modifying residents’ lifestyles are replacing
rather that augmenting state-mandated hazard reduction,
this discursive shift might signal not an expansion of the
movement but instead its derailment away from what
distinguished it in important ways from mainstream environmentalism
in the first place.
This paper benefitted from conversations with William Boyd,
Max Boykoff, Joe Bryan, Sanyu Mojola, Stef Mollborn, Laura
Senier, Christi Sue, Amy Wilkins, and Emily Yeh. Elizabeth
Bittel and Patricia Yoon assisted with some data collection and
some preliminary analysis. Special thanks to Lisa Kranick at
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,
Anne Eng at the San Francisco Department of Environment,
and Malinda Dumisani at CalEPA for helpfully collecting, scanning,
and sharing requested documents.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
1. These EJ activists use ‘proactive’ differently than social
movement scholars and EJ advocates have done historically.
Notably, Tilly (1978) distinguished ‘proactive’ mobilizations
as asserting claims to resources they have not previously
enjoyed from ‘reactive’ mobilizations that respond to loss of
resources or power. In the preface to the landmark United
Church of Christ report, Benjamin Chavis asserts that the
report’s data can enable EJ advocates to be ‘proactive’ – in
that it ‘should be utilized by federal, state and municipal
governments to prevent hazardous wastes from becoming an
even greater national problem’ (UCC 1987, x).
2. A pseudonym, as are all other names used here.
3. See Perkins (2015) for another account of changes in
California’s EJ movement.
Notes on contributor
Jill Lindsey Harrison is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the
University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research focuses on
environmental sociology, sociology of agriculture and food systems,
environmental justice, political theories of justice, and
immigration politics, with a regional emphasis on the United
States. She has used her research on political conflict over
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