Jalonne White-Newsome knows her new job will not be easy, but she is up for the challenge.
The former researcher and advocate became the Biden administration’s senior director for environmental justice in June, only the second person to hold the position. She joined Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, putting two Black women at the head of the White House’s main environmental policy body.
The CEQ advises the president on policies related to climate change and environmental justice and supervises environmental reviews for federal infrastructure projects. White-Newsome now serves as the liaison between the White House and environmental justice communities across the country. But there are many forces working against her: a divisive Supreme Court and Congress, Biden’s faltering public support, and frustrated Black voters who identify economic and health issues as bigger priorities for the president they helped put in office.
With so much of the country’s — and the world’s — climate fate riding on federal actions, and with so little progress in Black communities, Black folks are tuned out from the importance of environmental policy, White-Newsome acknowledged.
“When I speak to my family, I have to convince them that I’m not just this tree hugger, but that [climate and environmental justice] relates to everything we do,” she said. “It relates to how much we pay for electricity, how clean our air is, how often you have to go and buy an inhaler.”
Coming into the White House, Biden proudly proclaimed that his administration would use a “whole-of-government approach” to tackle the world’s most urgent crisis, namely climate change. His administration has made billions of dollars available to states and local governments for environmental justice projects under the Justice40 program, including 72 funding pools from the Environmental Protection Agency.
A year and a half into his term, that kind of holistic government approach has been hard to find; more often than not, different federal government sectors have been working against one another. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, once again stifling the Biden administration’s efforts to address climate change. The ruling came only three days into White-Newsome’s term.
“It just is going to force us to be even more creative and dig deeper into the other ways to get to — again — reducing the pollution that continues to disproportionately impact our Black and brown people,” she said. “There are so many things that we still can work on, even when it seems to be an insurmountable barrier that some folks in the Supreme Court and other places seem to put in front of us.”
That “insurmountable barrier” has real consequences for the administration as it is slow to guide through meaningful legislation. According to the most recent presidential approval ratings, only one-third of Americans approve of the current job of the administration. Despite these challenges, White-Newsome says she vows to remember her reason for entering the fight in the first place.
“I’ve advocated for many of the issues that I’m now having the real opportunity to have impact at the national level,” she said. “I’m realizing a dream that I’ve talked about for the past couple of decades and advocated with communities for.”
Capital B caught up with her to learn more about her — and the White House’s — approach to centering Black communities in the struggle for environmental justice and climate equity. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: The idea of environmental justice cannot be separated from the idea of a strong sense of community. How did your upbringing lead you to environmental justice work?
Jalonne White-Newsome: I was very fortunate to grow up in a family of educators, advocates, and what I call “people servants.” My orientation was always to use my gifts and talents and my resources and what power I had to help somebody else. I literally watched my mom, dad, and grandparents be a part of multiple movements to give voice to people and communities that didn’t have a voice, were invisible, and were ignored by society.
But, I was the only engineer/scientist-nerd in my family. So while that passion for environmental protection and science started for me in elementary school, that orientation of serving people was just a part of me. That combination, throughout my career, has been the impetus and foundation that I’ve tried to bring to the protection of the environment and the protection of people, regardless of where I sit, what power I hold, and what I have access to.
In our conversation before you joined the White House, you expressed that uplifting community-centered work was at the crux of your work. Will you bring that energy to your new position?
Yes, and I think that’s what I’m excited about having this opportunity with the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. As advocates, we know environmental justice should be a part of all the ways we do things. But the federal government has to be a part of that because of its role in creating policy, creating processes, and institutionalizing the things that will get us to that vision of communities that have clean air, healthy water, and a safe environment.
Can you speak to the council’s role within the greater administration in achieving climate and environmental justice?
I’m going to give you the caveat that I’m on day four, so I’m still learning, but what I see as our greatest power is being able to convene and push and influence agencies to embrace a culture of environmental justice in a way that they haven’t before.
When we talk about some of the main programs and initiatives, it’s things like the climate and economic justice screening tool that help ensure that we’re targeting communities that have been marginalized and overburdened to reduce the high risk that we’re seeing due to climate change and hazardous waste exposure. We’re helping the administration meet its Justice40 initiative goals so underserved communities see these benefits. We’re hoping that these values and tools we’re trying to invent now will get us at least a little closer to achieving environmental justice.
What are the biggest issues you’ll be working on over the next year?
There are many environmental justice issues facing this country, and we know that our low-income folks and communities of color suffer in so many different ways. And so, for the environmental justice team, the primary goal is to ensure that we do everything we can to meet the administration’s justice goals. But I think from a personal nature when I think about the time that I’ve spent outside of the federal government personally dealing with issues of environmental injustice; it’s about how we begin to make environmental justice — as the president says — take a “whole-of-government approach.”
I want environmental justice to become how federal agencies do things so that it is not an afterthought, and becomes embedded in the culture. I think it goes without saying, but I’m just going to say it to be explicit: I want communities to live better and be healthier.
That is a great goal, but we are in a period of serious doom and gloom right now, not just within the climate circle but in many social aspects. When we think of the recent Supreme Court rulings, what would you tell Black Americans who are unsure if the federal government can ensure climate and environmental justice because of the volatile inner workings of the government?
The court’s [West Virginia v. EPA] decision was stunning and devastating. I think of the many ways that advocates across this country have fought for the Clean Power Plan to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, so seeing some of that work reversed kind of hurts. But the cool part about it is that it is not the only way to achieve our climate goals. There are other ways that I know our climate policy office is working on to get us to that clean energy transition.
Yes, it’s discouraging, but it does not keep us from achieving our goals. There are so many things that we still can work on, whether it is removing the lead from schools and homes that’s impacting our babies and their development or ensuring everyone has access to clean water.