A conversation with Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Senior Program Officer, Environment Program, The Kresge Foundation and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance
Radhika: Happy Earth Day, Jalonne! To start, could you please introduce yourself to our readers without your title or affiliation.
Jalonne: Thanks, Radhika. I’m a mom, teacher, writer, and an advocate for justice. I’m passionate about protecting people, enhancing our environment, and creating beautiful visions with other “changemakers” despite our challenging realities.
Radhika: Speaking of challenging realities, here we are on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s actually pretty amazing to think where we were 50 years ago. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) was signed into law. The Clean Air Act was authorized. The US Environmental Protection Agency was newly established. But we hadn’t yet authorized the Safe Drinking Water Act or Clean Water Act. What environmental achievement are you most celebrating today?
Jalonne: Today I celebrate the past, present, and living legacies of strong environmental warriors. I celebrate the solid foundation they created that has accelerated environmental justice across this country. Their sacrifices have made communities throughout the US, particularly low-income and communities of color, cleaner and safer places to live, work, play, and pray in. I celebrate those warriors that fought for the Environmental Justice Executive Order (Executive Order 12898), that crafted the Principles of Environmental Justice and Climate Justice.
I celebrate the matriarchs that have personally impacted my life – Mama Lila Cabbil, Dr. Mildred McClain, Dr. Beverly Wright, Ms. Donele Wilkins, Ms. Peggy Shephard, and Ms. Hazel Johnson. These women showed me examples of strength, grace, and power and were instrumental in teaching me what the environmental justice movement was and is about. And today, I celebrate three other warriors: my mother Terrie, who taught me to protect and stand up for those people overlooked by society; and my two daughters, Arielle and Jeannelyn who remind me that my work and struggle are not for me but for my children and grandchildren.
Radhika: Tackling the climate crisis may be the most significant challenge we face. When you think about the unprecedented action needed to ensure a thriving planet 50 years from now, what kind of leaders do we need?
Jalonne: We need leaders who are courageous, creative, and consistent collaborators. We must recognize the important role everyone has in addressing this crisis water: utilities, public health professionals, college students, communities, and others. Leaders must be humble enough to acknowledge and apologize for past harms grounded in racism – at both an institutional level and personal level. Effective leaders possess a strong desire for justice. They have a dual appreciation for both the hard-core science and lived experience in shaping future policies and practice. Leaders are unafraid of disrupting institutional practices and policies. They focus on creating our next generation of leaders. Most importantly, as leaders, we must plan for the future, not just for the present.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you and why is it important for the climate crisis?
Jalonne: One Water means thinking about drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater as a unified challenge that lends itself to unified opportunity. To build resiliency into one of the most critical systems that impact all of us: the delivery, access, and management of water. Communities of the future will be even more resilient to climate change if we breakdown these silos. Our solutions must create better funding, data, and technology to handle the new normal that we will experience. Climate resiliency is about resilient physical infrastructure, resilient financial infrastructure, and a resilient way of planning that strengthens the most vulnerable parts of our water systems in order to protect the places and people most at risk.
Radhika: We know that most climate impacts are felt through water, and whether it’s drought or flooding, lower-income and communities of color feel these impacts first, the hardest, and most often. Can you talk more about how equity fits into climate solutions?
Jalonne: At The Kresge Foundation, equity means that all people – regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, zip code, health and ability status, or any other consideration – have equal, inviolable dignity, value and opportunity to participate justly, fairly, and fully in all dimensions of civic and economic life …to prosper…and reach their full potential. Any solution we posit to address the impacts of climate on our water systems – flooding, drought, sea level rise – must examine three core questions. Who’s helping craft the solution? Who will benefit from this solution? Will the solution generate unintentional consequences and/or benefits that we need to consider? Equity must be a part of the process and the desired outcome.
Radhika: Do you see any parallels with the COVID-19 response and the climate crisis?
Jalonne: The COVID-19 crisis reminds us that everyone can be at risk at some point in their life. Regardless of the zip code you live in, the size of your paycheck, or even how connected you are in society. COVID-19 has also been another unsurprising example of how decades of racism in our country have led to the tragic sickness and loss of life that African American communities and others have experienced due to many of the same reasons that we have seen climate change. Whether it’s flooding, extreme heat, or sea level rise, communities of color are hit harder than others. Responding to both COVID-19 and climate change should be about understanding and addressing the less visible and pervasive roots of both of these crises, so we can finally provide an environment where all Americans can be healthy, take care of their families and live in a safe environment.
Radhika: In all of this, what gives you hope?
Jalonne: My 11-year old daughter, JJ, has wisdom beyond her years. She said something to me last year that I recorded in my phone so it is accessible when I need a hopeful word: To be the best, you must be able to face the worst. I am so grateful for her infectious hope!