A Conversation with Michael Wenstrom on Environmental Justice and Serving the Underserved

Water Education Colorado has been taking a close look at environmental justice and equity through the development of equity principles, adopted by the board in January 2020, and through programming, including the spring 2020 issue of Headwaters magazine which focuses on equity and environmental justice in water. To accompany the magazine, we sat down with some Colorado leaders to chat about the topic. For this post in a series of Q&As on environmental justice, we spoke with Michael Wenstrom, environmental protection specialist with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program out of EPA Region 8. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell me a little about what you do for EPA, how EPA defines environmental justice (EJ), and if there other elements of the EJ program?

Environmental Justice, based on the standard definition, is to serve the underserved communities in ways that allow them to have access to the large system around them. In low-income communities, in Spanish communities, in minority communities, there is very little consciousness about what that means. Because they are working on survival. The people who we work with in my program are typically not connected with the political structure. They are typically of the lowest rung of the economic ladder and are focused on trying to figure out if they can put food on the table, can they keep a roof over their head, can I keep my kids away from gangs and drugs. They are very much Maslow kinds of issues. They are fundamental survival issues. So, to get their attention is my job. If it is not a critical issue at hand it is not part of their consciousness, but you have to be careful because their time is precious. Government is working, in many cases, in the realm of “this is what you will do.” It may be regulating something or telling you that you can’t do something. It may be the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act; all of those things make life better. Whether or not the person you are talking to understands that they benefit from that. When you are talking to folks in a low-income community, they are likely to have concerns that don’t necessarily comport with your concerns. I can walk into a community and say “I know what the problem is” and be totally wrong, because I am talking to people with much more basic concerns. As an example, I’m working in southern Colorado in a Latino community, a community that sits next to Colorado’s only working steel mill. It is loud, it is intrusive, and at one point it was a source of more than 40 percent of the air-born mercury in Colorado. At the time, this was the case. I was charged with working with the community to begin talks with the steel mill, because the community and the steel mill did not talk. They had no conversations. So, I went to the steel mill and had a few conversations, and very quickly learned that I needed to ask the community directly what their needs were. We then put together a community meeting at the local rec center. I knew what the issue was going to be. I was so arrogant. I knew it was going to be mercury, because it is poisoning their kids and they don’t know it. We had the conversation with about 40 people in the room, and the whole conversation was in Spanish, and I speak poor Spanish. We then sat down to talk about the issues.

The number one issue was not mercury. It wasn’t recycling or water quality: it was stray dogs. People concern themselves with what is right in front of them. Whether that is a threat or whatever happens to get their attention. This was not a rural community, but it was a community with a lot of open space in it. A lot of overgrown or empty lots. So, people would come and dump their garbage, because there was no enforcement. We got down 2 or 3 more issues, and it got to trash. A place to begin to engage with the orbit of what I am responsible for. The fact is that when you are working in a community, you never initially touch the issues that we know are our level issues. You have to work through that hierarchy because environmental justice is fundamentally in the trust-building business. I’m an old guy, and I walk into the community and say “this is what you need to do” … no, no, no. Instead what we ask is, “what is important to you?” and they start to bring that information out about stray dogs. That means, that I then have to find a way to deal with stray dogs in order to be credible and be trusted in the community to deal with certain things. It happened that I had developed a relationship with someone in the city, so I went to a few of my friends and I asked, “is there something that we can do about stray dogs and stray cats in this community?” And he said “sure.” So, they put animal control out there, and they took care of the stray animals, which helped establish me as a trusted figure in the community. This is sort of the how-to of environmental justice. This then allowed me to begin talking about larger issues. Trash at that time was a pretty significant issue in the community. I then asked what we could do about the trash in the community. The people in the community hadn’t put much thought into it, because they were really focused on just surviving. They don’t look outside to find the answers, for a number of reasons. They don’t believe they have the credibility, or they are afraid because in Latino communities they may not have immigration status and they are worried about their jobs. Because if they stick their head up over the fence, and they become visible, they become vulnerable, and when then are vulnerable they can be hurt. So, we try to find ways to make this happen that honors all of these concerns. I then asked, “how do you feel about talking to the county,” so they weren’t very excited to pay for the fees to cover the cost for removal, and so I recommended that they talk to the neighborhood association to see whether they have any money to help cover the fees. And they ended up having some money and they were able to haul this stuff away. At this point, I start talking to them about mercury.

This is the blueprint to any community involvement. The first thing you have to do: leave your ego at the door. You leave your assumptions at the door, and you listen a lot more than you talk. And then you figure out ways you can add that will make a difference for the community. That is the bottom line; can we make a difference in the community we are trying to serve? If we can’t, then you should just walk away. One of my principles is that I don’t leave a community that I walk into without leaving something good behind. It isn’t hard because even if I can’t personally do something for them, I absolutely know someone who can. Other agencies, other individuals, other governments, can help you find those connections. It is these connections that they may not know about that we can help them coordinate. Once people start talking, they begin to find common interests and that is most of the work. It is time-consuming work because you can’t rush all of this. You have to be there; you have to have a presence. You have to cultivate credibility, and even when you walk away, that community is transformed. I’ve seen it time after time. When you walk into with that mindset, you take yourself into a place where they want something, you have something to offer, you want to offer something to them, and you are willing to make something happen. Take the community where it is. And you find those places in the community where you can create points of leverage. Being with EJ in the EPA means that I don’t have the regulatory schema that limits creativity. Which allows me to learn how to draw the lines, and how to build community. I’ve been with the EJ for over 20 years, and I still look forward to coming to work every day. It is amazing the way you can create opportunities to serve.

When you’re sent to a community with an EJ issue, when does that on-the-ground work begin, how are those communities selected, and how long do you stay?

There is no formula. It happens in a number of ways. One way may be our Brown Fields programming and they notice something in that community. That provides us an entry point to start a conversation on whether the issue is real, is it something we can help with, can we refer this to someone else. That is really the starting point. We find places where people have said there is a problem. It may be something from our colleagues, from something in the state of Colorado or elsewhere. You take it seriously and you do your due diligence to find out if this makes sense. Sometimes it is obvious because something just blows up. There is a crisis. There is an oil spill, train wreck, poor drinking water, there is always something that triggers it. It could be internal, external, I could pick up a paper and see an issue that we could help with. In many ways, we do stay forever. Organizations and government alike are very good at coming in and saying “let us help you” and they truly are. Whether it is a grant and you stay for a few years, or it’s for a specific issue, and you get a Superfund designation to help fix it and you do, but then you go away. You do good work and leave good stuff behind, but if the community you are trying to work with doesn’t believe that you care as much about the community that you are trying to work with, then you are not going to be as successful as you hope to be. When we walk into a community, we have no preconceptions of how long the work will be. I’ve worked with communities for two years, but then after that communication is non-stop, but it all really depends on the situation. There are always many things that need help in a community, and I cannot deal with all of them. I may only be able to help with a few. It moves from one thing to the other. My effectiveness depends on my relationships. I mean I walk out of there with an EPA ID, and it is really all I have other than myself. EJ is about building that trust, forming those relationships, and serving communities. I mean you can walk away, but I don’t ever walk away. It could be as short as a year; it can be forever depending on the community.

What suggestions do you have or what have you learned about working with people, helping populations get involved with EJ issues and having their voices heard?

The EJ Program does a grant program, so every year we do four or five grants that are one-year grants dealing with issues in a particular community. They do two things; they strengthen the capacity of the community to think through and work through certain issues that helps serve as a model for others in the community. When one organization in the community sees the work being done, they emulate, and we see that time and time again. Where one community organization gets a grant and another organization sees that work and does not necessarily apply for the same grant but sees that one group was able to do it so they realize that they can also do that same work. The larger question is, is a difficult one to address, because you can’t make people pay attention. It has to be organic. The work has to meet their concerns. So, you look for the opportunities to see those things, but it’s a matter of building models and letting those be emulated and supporting and encouraging it. That means when people call you and ask you to come to a meeting, and even though there may not be something that I can personally do financially, legally, practically, except be there to listen I still do it. When you put yourself in a position to listen, people see you there and there is an imputed authority in that presence that is way more than your own personal position or authority. Ultimately, be available when and where you can. Encourage people to see how they can help themselves, which in many poor communities is a very difficult challenge.

Does EPA offer printed or digital resources for people looking to engage their communities or looking to have their voices heard?

We do trainings, like how do you apply for a federal grant. We work with other agencies with that work. There are online resources, and environmental justice trainings that we have done in the past, so that they can understand the principles and the practices so they can apply these to their own work. Often, it is just connecting them with other programs outside of EJ. It’s a network of information that is out there that people may not be aware of that we try to focus on.

Do you have any bigger thoughts about the root of EJ or what we can do to prevent or better work with communities?

To do the work that we do as an agency we have to show our value. Whether its water quality control or an air issue. You have to engage them and make them aware of what the problem is, what the stakes are, and what the alternatives are. Fundamentally, it is about outreach and education. Those are the things that start to change people’s thinking. I’ve walked out of a lot of communities where people thanked me for what I did, and all I said was that “It wasn’t what I did it’s what you did. The fact is that I was able to talk to you and you were able to do these things.” The thing is, we don’t change communities, communities change communities. But they have to believe that they can. They have to believe that they can make a difference and they will. If they don’t know they can do it, then the opportunity is lost. One of our jobs is to help them understand what they can actually do. We give them tools, we give them encouragement, we give them anything that we can, but it’s not always money. Most often for me its never money, but really it’s other people and the connections that we can make.

What big changes have you seen as a result of your work?

The landscape is changing. Culture is changing; rather dramatically in the last 20 years. I did a presentation talking about EJ, and I asked “if you went online and went to Google and typed in environmental justice, how many hits would you get?” This was only three years ago. There were guesses all the way from 10,000 all the way up to 125,000, and I said “try 19 million.” In preparation, for this meeting I did the same and that number was closer to 250 million. Here is what that tells me. The concept has become a part of the culture. Social justice, environmental justice, are becoming a more widely known and accepted and understood as a set of principles. And that changes a whole bunch. Because when you walk into a community and say environmental justice, and they say “huh” it is very different. But now, it is part of the conversation. It legitimizes and normalizes the concept so that it is not unusual, and it allows you to buy into the principles rather than having to teach the principles and then trying to get people to buy into the idea. All of this has made it much easier for people to talk in those terms than it was before.