Why Law for the Environmental Grassroots? (Part 1 of 6)

Law for the Environmental Grassroots (LEG) is both a concept and a new collaboration. It believes that a strong environmental movement can only be achieved by also building the strength of grassroots organizations, and that the expansion of access to legal resources by the grassroots is a critical component of that effort. This blog post is the first in the ‘Who, What, When, Where, Why, How?’ series, which aims to introduce the mission, motivation, operations, and visions of the organization. Please feel free to comment, leave feedback, and/or contact us, and learn more about LEG at www.lawforenvgrassroots.com!

Because there are concrete tools that we can develop – right now, today – to build stronger bridges between lawyers, legal resources, and communities fighting against environmental injustice, not only to grow a more responsive legal system and healthier environments, but to change the question from ‘how can we equitably allocate pollution?’ to ‘how can all our communities be healthy and vibrant?’

Environmental injustices mean certain people, for no other reason then their race or income, get sicker and die sooner while being denied a voice or resources to build healthier and more resilient communities.

  • Health: Asthma levels are twice as high among children living in the lowest-income areas; kids in North Brooklyn and South Bronx have the highest rates in the nation (15%), and African Americans living in New York’s poorest neighborhoods have a lower life expectancy than any other racial or income group.
  • Housing: Housing conditions also contribute to long-term health problems: low income and minority groups are more likely to live in unhealthy housing with indoor air pollution, lead paint, asbestos, mold and mildew. This is true both in urban areas, like New York City, and rural areas in upstate New York. Climate Change is adding an additional layer of inequality: some of the populations most vulnerable to its effects are lower-income communities living in older public housing in coastal areas and depend on jobs threatened by extreme weather disruptions.
  • Transportation & Access: Every day, 5,000 diesel trucks bring 50% of Manhattans into Brooklyn’s 22 waste-transfer stations. Conversely, many underserved neighborhoods have limited transportation options, such as sidewalks, crosswalks, streetlights, parks, or recreational facilities. That means you have better odds of getting run over by a semi than being able to play in a park.
  • Industry v. Environment: Lower-income communities or communities of color, whether upstate, downstate, or across states, are disproportionately selected as sites for potentially hazardous activity, with laxer standards and enforcement.
  • Lack of Resources: These immediate harms and long-term effects continue in great part because of the lack of financial resources of these communities, as well as a perception on the part of many officials and leadership that there is neither a political benefit to fixing these problems, nor negative ones to ignoring them. One example: 50% of all philanthropic giving to environmental organizations goes to the largest 2% of organizations—meaning that the remaining 98% (i.e., about 15,000 organizations) have to fight over the remainder.

Without the inclusion and leadership of the communities affected, the environmental movement will never be as powerful as it must be to resolve injustice:

  • Story of Failure: At the start of the first Obama Administration, powerful interests, lobbies, and national environmental groups poured billions of dollars into the 2010 campaign for climate legislation. But they failed. Why? As over fifty grassroots organizations pointed out in an open letter to 1Sky, the national groups confused mobilizing with organizing; academics like Theda Skocpol have noted that ‘inside-the-beltway’ approaches fail without a corresponding core of community support.
  • Story of Success: In contrast, a coalition of partnerships between community organizations, national groups, and legal support successfully led to Midwest Generation’s decision to retire two of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation. Without community-groups like Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), you’d also still be breathing air that was just that much dirtier.

Having – or not having – access to justice can make or break that effort, and right now, it’s breaking it:

  • Breaking It: In a recent survey of grassroots organizations working to combat environmental injustices, almost 100% of respondents said they had a legal need in the past year that they were unable to meet. The needs were both transactional (incorporation and corporate structure, employment and labor law, real estate, networking) and mission-related (litigation, policy work, participation in government agency processes).
  • Making It: In 1988, community groups in West Harlem wanted to address the pollution caused by a newly-sited sewage treatment plant. Their tireless advocacy led to a seminal award settlement of $1.1 million in recognition of the community’s harms, funding which helped form West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (“WE-ACT”), an influential stakeholder in areas of environmental health and justice. It was their work, their passion, their drive – and it was attorneys that helped incorporate WE-ACT, that brought the suit in court, that helped negotiate the settlement.

To increase access to justice – and provide livable opportunities for its younger members – the legal system can, and MUST, adapt:

  • Why it Must: Just 56% of 2012 law graduates were employed in jobs requiring bar passage 9 months after graduation, and there is an estimated surplus of approximately 7,000 attorneys per year in New York alone. That adds up to the equivalent of one attorney working 24 hours straight for 40 years aka a big waste of resources that ultimately undermines the validity and future of the legal profession.
  • Why it Can: The system is already changing. The rise of unbundled legal services (where the attorney-client relationship is limited by time or by issue) is one example (and one supported by the New York court system). The growth in online matching tools and self-help services are other ways to increase access to justice while lowering the costs of doing so.

With that change, exciting things WILL happen!

  • Imagine a world where an organization that needed legal help could get it, and graduating attorneys who wanted to work in fields of social justice could do so? How much more could we do and help accomplish? (Answer: a lot).
  • Learn more about ‘Law for the Environmental Grassroots’ on our website lawforenvgrassroots.com.
  • Next up: “LEG: What Does it Do?”

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