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In the days following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, and amid the nationwide protests that followed, environmental groups posted “black out” squares on social media platforms, condemning police brutality and racism, and voicing support for Black Lives Matter. Many groups sent out emails to members and the public, acknowledging the work still needed to make the environmental movement more inclusive, and to address the systemic racism that puts Black people and other people of color at higher risk from pollution and other environmental hazards.

For a perspective on how environmental groups are responding to this moment in history, and how they are addressing racism and inequality in the country and in their own work, we reached out to Joylette Portlock.

She has been the executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh since 2019, and has worked as executive director of Communitopia, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh that focuses on climate change communication. Portlock serves on the Allegheny County Board of Health and is an advisory board member of the Black Environmental Collective. Sustainable Pittssburgh was one of 31 environmental groups which recently put out a statement on race, justice, and rebuilding after Covid-19 and discrimination against Black and Brown people.

Listen to The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple Conversation with Joylette Portlock

Kara Holsopple: Over the last weeks, local and national environmental groups have sent out statements on social media and by e-mail condemning the killing of George Floyd by police and systemic racism. What do you make of the timing of these statements, and their messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter?

Joylette Portlock: Well, I think that they’re appropriate. This is an extremely important time to be expressing those sentiments. Systemic racism is not limited to one system. We need to understand that this is a truly intersectional issue, and it’s not responsible to talk about urgent environmental issues outside of the context of racism and social equity, any more than it is to talk about any of our systems outside of that context. 

KH: Do you think that the environmental movement has reckoned with itself about racism within its own ranks, including representation in environmental advocacy groups, down to organizers and people who are at the grassroots level?

JP: I don’t know that there is a sector in our society that has fully reckoned with those questions. I think it’s — as we are seeing — very much a work in progress everywhere. You know, you never want to paint with a really broad brush. I think environmental organizations are especially attuned to where these issues are, and where the disparities exist.

“If we can get past a point of seeing this as “their” struggle,  and start seeing it as “our” struggle. That’s where we start to look for that inclusion.”

I see everywhere across the nation, everyone, you know, really looking at this as an opportunity to intentionally approach this, and take this opportunity to define our goals in a way that’s ambitious enough to address the real and urgent challenges that we have around racial equity, around environmental quality.

You really have to understand this against the existing backdrop of racial disparities, which consists of everything from preexisting conditions to poor housing. When you start to layer on top of that disproportionate exposure, for instance, to air pollution in Black communities, you start to see it really emerging as an environmental justice concern. 

KH: Can you say what some of those goals should be? 

JP: I think that you’ve already mentioned some of them, in terms of representation and in putting disparities and the needs of vulnerable populations at the forefront of how we are addressing these issues, with real community input and dialogue and engagement in those processes.

Community voices are very important. I think what we’re learning is that there is a bit of a disconnect between the lived experience of different parts of our population, and this is an opportunity to bring those conversations together, and really have those intentional, deliberate conversations. 

KH: How do you make sure that those voices from the Black community, from underrepresented communities, are heard? 

JP: Well, I think it starts by asking. I think that’s really what it comes down to. It’s an intentional inclusion. It’s a proactive approach to these problems. It’s treating racial disparities and inequities as though they matter to everybody.

You know, what feels different about this moment is that it seems to be really mattering to everybody, and I think that’s what’s really needed. If we can get past a point of seeing this as “their” struggle, and start seeing it as “our” struggle. That’s where we start to look for that inclusion — look to start including those voices.

KH: The reason I wanted to talk to you is because you’ve been so outspoken on environmental justice issues, and you’ve been in the Pittsburgh area for a long time. You’re one of the few people of color who are leading environmental groups in the Pittsburgh region. I’m curious about your experience as you’ve worked in environmental issues here.

Do you see progress in terms of representation and inclusion within organizations?

JP: I would say that I do. I think that more and more environmental justice is being treated as the important and serious issue that it is. There are a lot more conversations about environmental justice, about climate justice, about disparities in health. While health disparities are not necessarily seen as directly connected to environmental hazards, they, of course, are.

Here, as everywhere else, it’s the most vulnerable communities, the communities with the least resources, that are the least resilient and able to overcome the impacts of climate change. When there’s flooding, it’s lower quality housing stock that has more mold, which creates more asthma. We know we see racial disparities in asthma.

“There’s so much good work happening in this region…but it’s really important that our efforts become not just additive, but multiplicative, if we’re actually to meet those challenges.”

We see overall health impacts are more severe in the Black population versus the white population. That’s well documented. I think there’s a lot more connecting of those dots going on, and there does seem to be an increasing number of voices in those conversations.

I think we still have a ways to go, but I think that we are, as a region, making it more possible for those conversations to happen, and that unity of purpose around these really critical issues to be addressed.

KH: I think when many people think of sustainability, they think of recycling, and maybe don’t go really much beyond that. For Pittsburgh, how do you define sustainability?

JP: Sustainability really is the intersection of all of the things that contribute to our well-being. So it is about how we build our society, build our region to last for the long term — and you can’t do that without caring about the welfare of the people, all of the people. You can’t do that without keeping that very clear mind towards environmental stewardship. And you can’t do that without looking at what our economic futures are also going to be.

Those are the traditional three pillars of sustainability. That is the definition that we work under at Sustainable Pittsburgh. It’s a comprehensive view of what it takes to build our region to last. 

KH: Since becoming the executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, what are your priorities for that?

JP: That’s a great question. I would say that since I have come into my role at Sustainable Pittsburgh, one of my key priorities, and one of the really core values of the organization and its core strengths, has been around collaboration.

As I mentioned before, we have a number of urgent challenges in terms of equity and environmental health that we are really only going to be able to meet if we work together. There’s so much good work happening in this region, and I’ve said this to any number of people at this point, but it’s really important that our efforts become not just additive, but multiplicative, if we’re actually to meet those challenges.

I do prioritize that kind of collaboration — facilitating, convening, being a source of information, and making sure that the conversations that need to happen and the action that needs to follow from those conversations happens as effectively as possible for us to get where we need to go.

Joylette Portlock is the executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh.