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New undersecretary engages with western Mass. communities on environmental justice issues

Para leer este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.

Back in the winter, Massachusetts officials heralded the appointment of the state's first Undersecretary of Environmental Justice & Equity. María Belén Power was described by Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll as an impactful addition to the administration, empowered to create the change needed to address the climate crisis and environmental pollution.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Your roots are in Nicaragua and in Chelsea, Mass. and your background includes an appointment by President Biden to serve on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. So, let's start with you. What else should we know?

María Belén Power, Undersecretary of Environmental Justice & Equity: Sure, thanks so much for having me. Let's see. I was born and raised in Nicaragua, in Central America, and I came to the U.S. for college and have since been working in community organizing and building power in communities that have historically been excluded.

Could you define what the factors you're weighing are, what the principles of environmental justice are?

You know, one of the main principles is around meaningful engagement, and that really gets to process versus outcome. And so, it's important that as we travel around the state, as we look at projects, as we issue permits, that we are engaging people and that it is a meaningful process so that there is an outcome that is actually shaped by the lived experiences of the folks across the Commonwealth. The second principle is burdens versus benefits. As we electrify the grid, as we move towards a clean regenerative economy, how are we looking at the burdens and benefits of a clean energy transition?

So how are you helping policy makers apply that environmental justice lens?

Environmental justice can be sort of a check the box kind of process or it can really be meaningful. And the process that we're engaging right now in Massachusetts is with the intention and the spirit of making it the most meaningful as we can. And so that means really embedding environmental justice into all our agencies. Really, it's coordinating with those agencies and working together so that we can recalibrate the way we have operated and functioned for a long time.

Often residents in Western Mass, where we have the Pioneer Valley and the hilltowns... the Berkshires...it's common to hear people say that we aren't being heard in Boston. And some then turn to the rural lived experience as being a far different experience than that of people in the Boston suburbs. They often cite transportation challenges, communication challenges, economic inequality. Can you assure residents of western Mass. that policymakers are considering the challenges that we see out here?

Yeah, absolutely. Massachusetts is primarily white, right? And so environmental justice looks different in Massachusetts than it does in other communities in other states. And so, our definition in Massachusetts of environmental justice has three criteria. It is race, language and income. And so, communities across the commonwealth that fit those criteria are considered environmental justice. So that includes low-income communities that are not as diverse, for example. Right? I mean, when people think of environmental justice, maybe they just think of, oh, the greater Boston area or, you know, communities that are primarily people of color. And race is a criterion for the definition, but so is income, right? And so, when we look at environmental justice across the commonwealth, we are also looking at communities that have been left behind because of their lack of political power or their lack of being at the table.

You've been on a listening tour and recently made a stop in Springfield. What have you heard from residents so far?

Springfield is, or at least was at one point, the asthma capital. And so, air quality is really one of the main issues. Air quality is really front and center. It is really at the top of the issues that folks are facing. And, you know, asthma is also caused by other issues like mold. And so, mold is also a big concern that we heard in Springfield. And so, like I said, the benefits and the burdens. Air quality, mold, those issues play out across our nation and our commonwealth. But it is important to listen to how it plays out in folks living in their own communities.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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