From Memphis to the White House, this lawyer faces redlining and environmental injustice
LaTricea Adams first heard about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., In November 2015. Concerned that rights organizations were not making enough noise about the gravity of the situation and felt close to the people of Flint as a native of Memphis, another majority – Black City – Adams decided to take matters into their own hands. Together with the National Urban League Young Professionals, she began organizing water donation drives for communities in Flint. Adams then immersed himself in learning about the extent of the drinking water crisis in the country. She dug into the history and relationship between neighborhood demographics, the risk of lead exposure, and structural racism perpetuated by US policies like redlining, which has branded black communities as dangerous areas unworthy of investment. Three months later, she founded Black Millennials for Flint (BM4F).
As CEO, Adams has since turned BM4F into a powerful civil rights and environmental justice organization, championing black and Latino communities across the country. The group, a local partner of the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), which the NRDC helped establish, advocates for federal policies that address not only lead exposure but also lead pollution. air, food and housing. Policymakers, meanwhile, have taken note: Adams was recently appointed to a new post, joining the ranks of the Biden administration’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC).
How does it feel to have been chosen as an adviser to the federal government?
It was a big surprise when I received an invitation to apply for a meeting with the new presidential administration in January. Although it was not specified at the time what exactly the date would be, I was delighted by the invitation alone. Fast forward to my work alongside a group of leaders whose books I have read; the people I have learned are the ones who have helped to lay the foundations for the environmental justice sector in this country. It’s still very surreal, and it’s been a phenomenal opportunity.
One thing I have talked about a lot is getting more representation of black, Latino and Indigenous youth on the board. While it is incredibly beneficial to have more seasoned advocates involved, some of these older leaders have borne the brunt of this work since before I was born. This is something that we insisted the White House work on. It’s difficult, but if we really want to talk about equity, inclusion and representation, it is necessary.
What did you and the other WHEJAC members focus on during this first year?
The purpose of the council is to make recommendations for policy priorities and their implementation. After WHEJAC was formed in January under Biden’s decree, we worked many sleepless nights to get a long list of recommendations in just a few weeks. Redlining is a major issue for city council, especially remediation and reducing legacy pollution. The same goes for the eminent domain, which is tied to almost all pipeline development projects across the county. As part of the Justice40 initiative within WHEJAC, I have also worked on advice on how to prioritize frontline communities when planning federal green investment projects.
What is the link between redlining and the loss of economic opportunities?
Redlining began in the 1930s as a discriminatory housing policy where black communities were branded for being denied access to loans. When capital is diverted from specific neighborhoods, the quality of life is immediately impacted, and this impact lasts a long time. Today we can see that financial literacy, real estate knowledge, and access to education are lacking in many traditionally Black and Latin American communities, which can lead to a cycle of poverty.
Redlining was banned in 1968, so why are communities still feeling the impact?
When people think of redlining, it’s usually from a historical perspective. What they don’t realize is that it’s basically still happening. Something you see a lot in the South is gerrymandering, where district boundaries are unfairly drawn to discriminate against certain populations or political alignments. From a voting standpoint, this is critical as we could potentially lose important legislative seats, which could then affect almost every aspect of residents’ lives. This is not a coincidence or circumstance – it is all done to intentionally disassemble the power of minorities. It’s no different than redlining at the end of the day.
What are some of the environmental consequences of these redlining practices for communities of color in places like your hometown of Memphis?
I can cite two neighborhoods in northern Memphis as examples: Frayser and Raleigh. Historically, these two communities were much more racially diverse, but in recent decades more and more people of color have started to settle in these neighborhoods. We saw two things happen: first, divestment and poor property maintenance. Second, we started to see a difference in the impact of extreme weather conditions between low-income communities of color and wealthier communities. Over the past 15 years or so, Memphis has started to experience a ton of torrential rain, which particularly hit the northern Memphis area. These two communities, where residents face extreme poverty, do not have the resources to address the environmental risks associated with flooding. So we have people who live in homes where there is a lot of mold and children who are at an increased risk of inhaling lead-contaminated dust that can be created when a place is repaired as a result of an accident. major flood. Memphis has also experienced warmer weather every year. With homes in the area in dire need of weathering and the increased demand for air conditioning, the energy load in this area is ridiculously high. This pattern is something we see reflected in many communities of color facing economic distress caused by policies decades ago. This is where we really see the intersections of redlining and the climate crisis.
What’s interesting is that areas of Memphis where there was a development boom but which also suffered from legacy pollution are now seeing their environmental issues resolved due to a shift in demographics. While this might sound like a good thing, it actually widens the disparity gap as climate resilience is essentially created for a certain type of Memphian. This treatment has not been given to residents who have struggled with harmful pollution for years. Moreover, with the increase in gentrification, the people who are fighting for these issues cannot even stay in their communities to see the benefits.
How does BM4F raise awareness of these environmental inequalities?
A key method is building a coalition. What we have been able to do with BM4F is to create a local and national presence, which allows us to draw attention to our key issues, thanks to our relations with the press. We can also provide strategic policy-based recommendations using the connections we have at the local, state and federal levels.
Education is also essential, which flows from community organizing and advocacy. Much of the work we do with SPARCC involves developing engagement strategies with Black and Latino residents regarding environmental issues. For example, BM4F provided community members with public speaking training so that they would be comfortable enough to testify at public meetings. One of the things that got me most excited about WHEJAC was the team’s analysis of the public comments, which showed that environment-related keywords like pipeline and Byhalia, were some of the terms most commonly used in Memphis town hall meetings. It was exciting to see these local issues brought to the fore. This is how we can show lawmakers how important these issues are on the ground.
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