Teaming up for environmental justice

NAACP, Sierra Club and others to collaborate on energy issues

click to enlarge Coal-powered electricity production is one of many concerns of environmental justice. - PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Coal-powered electricity production is one of many concerns of environmental justice.
Coal-powered electricity production is one of many concerns of environmental justice.

The NAACP released a report last week calling for racial justice in Illinois’ environmental policy, prompting a new alliance between groups concerned with civil rights, labor rights and pollution.

A meeting held in Springfield to release the report illustrated the complexity of overcoming past tension between competing interests.

The NAACP, which is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, was founded in 1909 in response to the 1908 Springfield race riot. On May 5, the NAACP released its Illinois “Just Energy” report in Springfield, calling for environmental justice in the form of more renewable energy, better minority job representation and more. The group annually releases such reports for every state.

The concept of environmental justice means preventing or correcting the disproportionate effects of pollution and other environmental problems on people of color and low-income communities. It often takes the form of fighting heavy polluters located in poor neighborhoods. Diane Lopez Hughes, chairwoman of the Springfield NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice committee, noted Springfield-specific environmental issues like asbestos at the dilapidated Pillsbury Mills site on the city’s north side.

Along with the release of the Illinois report, the Springfield and Illinois State NAACP hosted a meeting between several environmental, labor and civil rights groups scattered throughout the state – along with representatives from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Springfield City Water, Light and Power. The groups met to collaborate on pushing for environmental policy changes at the state and local levels.

Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, says the concept of climate change often invokes images of melting ice caps and polar bears – issues that seem separate from the civil rights agenda. However, she says many of the drivers of climate change, such as coal-based energy production or waste incineration, also disproportionately affect communities of color.

The shift in the energy industry toward renewable resources and “distributed generation” like home solar panels offers an opportunity to not only prevent disproportionate pollution effects in the future, but also to increase the representation of minorities in energy-related jobs. Currently, Patterson said, African Americans account for only one percent of such jobs and less than one percent of all revenue from the energy industry.

“It’s another sector that’s extracting from our communities as well as dumping pollution into our communities,” she said.

The NAACP Just Energy report for Illinois praises the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires 25 percent of electricity to come from renewable resources like wind and solar by 2025. The report also lauds Illinois’ “net metering” requirement, which mandates electric utilities to pay residents back for electricity fed back into the grid by home solar and wind installations. However, the rules are overly restrictive and complicated, the report says, so Illinois should remove certain caps like the 2,000-kilowatt limit on how much home-generated energy an electric utility must compensate homeowners for.

Illinois lacks a “local hire” provision for energy projects, the report says, and the state could do more to contract on energy projects with “disadvantaged business enterprises” such as those owned by minorities, women or people with disabilities.

The topic of jobs is sometimes a source of tension between the civil rights, labor and environmental movements. James Johnson of Springfield, who serves on the environmental justice committee for the Springfield NAACP, said the Sierra Club has a bad name in the city when it comes to jobs. That reputation comes from the perception in Springfield that the Sierra Club stymies job growth by pushing for stronger environmental regulation.

“I really want to work with the Sierra Club so that people won’t lose jobs and we can still move forward and everybody can get what they want,” Johnson said.

Ken Page, environmental justice officer for the Illinois EPA, said labor unions often exclude African-Americans from jobs.

“If you’re going to deal with the unions, you need to know the history of the unions,” Page said. “... Unions are going to see this money, and they’re going to bring in white boys into those neighborhoods of color.”

Because of that historical exclusion, Teresa Haley, president of the Springfield NAACP and Illinois NAACP, said a statewide local hiring requirement for energy projects would need to include accountability and enforcement mechanisms. She expressed dissatisfaction with the level of minority employment in Springfield’s current rail relocation project and urged a firm approach when establishing standards for minority recruitment.

“We have to put teeth in our language,” Haley said. “…Any time you’re bringing bills and resolutions, you want to get them financially, in the pocket, if they don’t meet the demands. We don’t want to say that we ‘recommend’ or we ‘would like for.’ You have to use the strongest language you can get away with.”  

Contact Patrick Yeagle at

This article was changed to remove an out-of-context quote regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and unions. The quote originally said, "Dr. King was killed because of the unions," leaving the impression that unions killed him. In context, the quote was meant to illustrate that Dr. King's support for black workers who wanted to unionize during the Memphis Sanitation Strike was part of what ultimately led to his assassination. We regret the mistake.

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