The Biden administration announced Thursday that Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome — a climate and racial justice advocate from Detroit — will become the White House’s top environmental justice official, filling a position vacated nearly three months ago amid concerns about delays in Biden’s climate justice agenda.
With White-Newsome’s appointment, the Council on Environmental Quality — the White House’s main engine driving environmental policy — will be led by two Black women for the first time. The head of the influential environmental body is Brenda Mallory, a longtime environmental lawyer and former member of the Obama administration. White-Newsome will be the senior director for environmental justice.
“Jalonne is a strong and effective champion for communities that have been subjected to decades of environmental injustice,” Mallory said following the announcement. “Jalonne’s ability to listen deeply, bring people together, and find creative solutions will be invaluable as we work to deliver on President Biden’s promise of environmental justice for all.”
Following the White House’s appointment of White-Newsome, another Black woman, Karine Jean-Pierre, was elevated within the administration. On May 13, Jean-Pierre will become the first Black and first openly gay person to hold the role of White House press secretary.
White-Newsome is the second person to hold the position of senior director for environmental justice, after Cecilia Martinez stepped down in January. President Biden created the role to advance the administration’s cornerstone climate plans: addressing environmental racism and the disproportionate burden that pollution and climate change place on low-income communities and people of color.
White-Newsome, a longtime environmental policy consultant and activist will have her work cut out for her. Martinez stepped down amid reports of being overworked and under-supported while trying to achieve President Biden’s campaign promises. Most notably, White-Newsome’s responsibilities will include supporting the implementation of President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which has been slow to get off the ground.
The Justice40 Initiative directs all sectors of the federal government to ensure that 40 percent of its sustainability investments benefit so-called frontline communities, which carry the most significant pollution burdens. Potential investment opportunities include building out renewable energy, electric transit options, affordable housing, and fortifying the country’s water infrastructure — all programs outlined in Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. However, the program has blown by several deadlines and been largely side-tracked because the federal government is still trying to pinpoint which communities are “disadvantaged” and most in need of investment.
White-Newsome’s background in grassroots activism might help speed up the process by leveraging connections she has made with community organizations. She most recently led the environmental consultant group Empowering a Green Environment and Economy. Before that, she was a policy organizer with the New York City-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
In a conversation with Capital B before she was appointed to the White House, White-Newsome spoke about the power of elevating environmental justice activists to decision-making positions throughout government.
“One of the things that is sorely missing is opportunities for Black and brown folks in communities with environmental justice concerns to actually be a part of the decision-making process,” she said. “We need to be engaged at every level — federal, state, and local — because we have the solutions to ensure environmental justice and combat climate change.”
In her new position, White-Newsome will have the opportunity to elevate those perspectives and make connections between the lived experiences of Black Americans and the environmental, economic, and health injustices they face.
“This work of building equity is more exciting now, for a lot of different unfortunate reasons,” she said in February, “but I think keeping people and their experiences and suggestions at the center of the work is how we win.”