Eddie Bautista

Eddie Bautis­ta, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the New York City Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Alliance, has spent a life­time com­mit­ted to empow­er­ing New York’s low-income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or.

His back­ground includes tenant’s rights advo­ca­cy, 16 years with New York Lawyers for the Pub­lic Inter­est (NYLPI), and a term as May­or Bloomberg’s Direc­tor of City Leg­isla­tive Affairs.

Eddie spoke to City Atlas about the birth of the “EJ” — envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice — move­ment in New York City, and New York City’s future as a case study of resilien­cy for all its cit­i­zens.

In the move­ment, there’s a say­ing that “If you’re not at the table, you’re prob­a­bly on the menu.”

How did you become involved in envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice?

My first expo­sure to envi­ron­men­tal injustice—nobody called it that back then—was a sew­er recon­struc­tion project that dis­placed hun­dreds of Puer­to Rican fam­i­lies.

I was born and raised in Red Hook, Brook­lyn. In the late 70’s, Red Hook went through a sew­er recon­struc­tion project right around the time the city was almost declar­ing bank­rupt­cy dur­ing the fis­cal cri­sis of the mid-70’s. In the sum­mer of 1977 the city opened up sev­er­al blocks of sew­ers for recon­struc­tion. Then, the city sus­pend­ed cap­i­tal projects every­where because it’s hav­ing the­se fis­cal prob­lems. So we end up for over a year liv­ing with the­se open sew­ers. I was thir­teen and I remem­ber me and my friends cre­at­ing rafts and act­ing like urban Huck Finns and actu­al­ly play­ing in and around the sew­ers. It was ridicu­lous.

In the mid­st of this sus­pend­ed sew­er recon­struc­tion project, sev­er­al build­ings col­lapsed, includ­ing a build­ing that was across the street from me, with a Puer­to Rican fam­i­ly that I grew up with. It destroyed the neigh­bor­hood.

We get dis­placed, I go to school, and by this time I’m in school not only hav­ing grown up and been a huge stu­dent of the Civil Rights Move­ment but hav­ing seen how it played out in the phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture for my fam­i­ly and my com­mu­ni­ty. I said, “This is what I’m going to study when I go to school.”

And your pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence?

My pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence began when I went to work at New York Lawyers for Pub­lic Inter­est in Jan­u­ary 1990. The envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice move­ment in New York was just start­ing. Peo­ple weren’t even call­ing it “envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice” yet.

The City Char­ter had just been revised and two of the major pro­vi­sions of the Char­ter that changed were the Council’s land use and bud­getary pow­ers. I went to work for New York Lawyers because they start­ed some­thing called the Char­ter Rights project, designed to edu­cate low-income com­mu­ni­ties, and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, on how the Char­ter changed most­ly land use pow­ers. 

In set­ting up the Char­ter Rights project, I start­ed going into dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods. My attor­ney part­ner at NYLPI and I ran com­mu­ni­ty edu­ca­tion work­shops on how the­se pow­ers had changed, based on what­ev­er the issues were in the com­mu­ni­ties. In the South Bronx, Williams­burg, wherever, we were ask­ing peo­ple, “What’s your biggest land use com­plaint right now?”

It was amaz­ing. Each one of the­se neigh­bor­hoods had some­thing hav­ing to do with waste infra­struc­ture. For exam­ple, in the South Bronx, it was a med­ical waste incin­er­a­tor. In Williams­burg, it was waste trans­fer sta­tions. In Red Hook, it was waste trans­fer sta­tions and a sewage treat­ment plant. And here in Sun­set Park, it was a sewage treat­ment plant as well.

I would work direct­ly in dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hood strug­gles, and then with groups as they coa­lesced and start­ed form­ing city­wide unit­ed fronts. It became clear that what was giv­ing rise to this was beyond local site bat­tles. There were com­mon zon­ing prob­lems that they were faced with. There were com­mon solid waste deci­sions the city was mak­ing. Com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and low-income com­mu­ni­ties were nev­er per­ceived as hav­ing any sort of pow­er, and the path of least resis­tance was to put nox­ious uses in com­mu­ni­ties that are least equipped to fight them — until this move­ment kind of blos­somed. 

I think the great­est strength of the SIRR report is that it doesn’t suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion of a one-size-fits-all approach. It real­ly looks at New York as this com­pli­cat­ed series of neigh­bor­hoods.

Have the efforts of the Sandy Region­al Assem­bly mir­rored that spir­it of sol­i­dar­i­ty?

When Sandy hit, we orga­nized the first gath­er­ing of neigh­bor­hoods after Sandy; Decem­ber 1st, about a mon­th after Sandy. Over 60, may­be 70 folks from the five bor­oughs, our mem­bers as well as those hit on the Low­er East Side, Far Rock­away, Newark, and Long Island, came togeth­er. What was clear was just how sim­i­lar the chal­lenges were that peo­ple were hav­ing.

It was pow­er­ful. It was the first time a lot of the­se peo­ple had left their neigh­bor­hoods since Sandy landed—the first time they were talk­ing to oth­er peo­ple that were hit. Every­body real­ized that we bet­ter get our act togeth­er. In the move­ment, there’s a say­ing that “If you’re not at the table, you’re prob­a­bly on the menu.” Our job is to fig­ure out how we get at the table. So on Jan­u­ary 26th, we orga­nized what became the Sandy Region­al Assem­bly. Almost 200 folks from the five bor­oughs, New Jer­sey, and Long Island came togeth­er and we brain­stormed for hours in break­out ses­sions.

The Agen­da chal­lenged our com­mu­ni­ties to think strate­gi­cal­ly about what they want to see in terms of rebuild­ing their com­mu­ni­ties and to think about cli­mate change. I think peo­ple were sur­prised at how thought­ful and strate­gic low-income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or could be when it comes to this stuff, lo and behold.

What in your words is the SIRR report’s great­est strength and its great­est weak­ness?

To look at it glob­al­ly, I think that the great­est strength of the SIRR report is that it doesn’t suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion of a one-size-fits-all approach. It real­ly looks at New York as this com­pli­cat­ed series of neigh­bor­hoods and inter­con­nec­tiv­i­ty of infra­struc­ture and expo­sures and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. The easy thing might have been for them to say, “We’re gonna build the 20-, 30-, what­ev­er bil­lion dol­lar storm gates and be done with it.” As opposed to say­ing, “No, this is a mix”—a mix of hard infra­struc­ture and green infra­struc­ture. It’s this resis­tance to the one-size-fits-all, splashy piece of infra­struc­ture, but a more thought­ful, nuanced look at the city—a range of dif­fer­ent cli­mate change inter­ven­tions and adap­ta­tion strate­gies, that, by and large, I think over time peo­ple will see pieces of that and say some of them were vision­ary rec­om­men­da­tions.

And its weak­ness? 

I’m going to try to say this in a way that doesn’t come off like move­ment con­ceit. I think its great­est weak­ness is not pay­ing suf­fi­cient atten­tion to some of the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties. By that I mean there were speci­fic rec­om­men­da­tions we made based on hard research using gov­ern­ment data that looked at the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of indus­tri­al water­fronts and their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to storm surge. They attempt­ed to mar­gin­al­ly address those but they missed oppor­tu­ni­ties in their own report.

Let me give you an exam­ple. In the SIRR report, the Mayor’s peo­ple rec­om­mend a great thing—sweeping cap­i­tal invest­ments to make NYCHA more resilient and adapt­able. Per­fect, couldn’t say it bet­ter our­selves. In fact, we did say it our­selves in the Agen­da. 

What is resilience? We want to bounce for­ward. We don’t want to bounce back.

But they missed. There’s a sec­tion of HUD’s reg­u­la­tions called Sec­tion 3 that encour­ages you to hire peo­ple from the devel­op­ment, and we’re like “why didn’t the Mayor’s office take that next step? This could be a mod­ern WPA-style works pro­gram.” In some cas­es pub­lic hous­ing unem­ploy­ment in some devel­op­ments is at 30, 40 per­cent. How were we not fig­ur­ing out how to take what’s going to be a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion cap­i­tal infra­struc­ture invest­ment in pub­lic hous­ing and fig­ur­ing out how to train peo­ple and get those peo­ple first crack at the jobs? That’s them miss­ing their own oppor­tu­ni­ty. I think it’s the lack of max­i­miz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and not hav­ing those expo­sures pri­or­i­tized.

It seems that Bloomberg’s plan, and per­haps even those with­in the EJ move­ment who want to pre­serve com­mu­ni­ties, are at odds with what the cli­mate sci­en­tists are say­ing, which is to retreat from our water­front com­mu­ni­ties. No one wants to retreat. They want to stay. What do you think about the notion of a “Stronger, More Resilient New York,” the phrase that titles the SIRR report. In 30 years, what will all this look like?

Well in 30 years, some folks might not have any choice. What­ev­er hap­pens is going to get imposed on us by nature. But I will say this. I think that, first of all, what is resilience?

We’ve had run­ning debates about that. Because if you take resilien­cy, at least as it’s cur­rent­ly artic­u­lat­ed, it’s the abil­i­ty of a com­mu­ni­ty to bounce back which pre­sup­pos­es that the sta­tus quo is the pre­ferred state of being any­way. Our com­mu­ni­ties are like, ”Wait a minute—we want to bounce back to an inequitable sys­tem where we’re like chok­ing on stuff? We want to bounce for­ward. We don’t want to bounce back.” And one of the things that folks have said in some of the­se con­fer­ences that has been real­ly pow­er­ful is that not every­thing that’s resilient is pos­i­tive. Can­cer is resilient. Pover­ty is resilient.

What’s real­ly inter­est­ing about the Assem­bly was of the 200 peo­ple that were there, one per­son talked about storm gates. And this is when storm gates were in the news. Peo­ple weren’t talk­ing about that. Peo­ple were not talk­ing about retreat­ing.

Then how should peo­ple think about resilience?

The notion of adap­ta­tion is rec­og­niz­ing that the­se changes are now hap­pen­ing and how we coex­ist with the­se changes. Coex­ist­ing in many cas­es is going to mean fun­da­men­tal changes to how peo­ple live. In oth­er cas­es it’s going to be fig­ur­ing out if there’s a cer­tain set of val­ues that you use in terms of how you live, how you adapt.

How do you think Sandy or envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice more broad­ly is shap­ing the may­oral race?

In terms of cli­mate change, what’s inter­est­ing [about the may­oral race] is the rel­a­tive, I don’t want to say silence, but I haven’t got­ten their reac­tion in a way that I’ve been able to under­stand about the SIRR report. You’ve a 400-page report that arguably lays out the city’s rebuild­ing for decades, and that is only going to take place after you’re may­or. I haven’t got­ten their vision as may­or how they would. Cli­mate change is the biggest rebuild­ing chal­lenge that New York City’s going to have for the next cou­ple of decades, so it’s kind of hard to get away from that as being cen­tral to the city’s life.

Cli­mate change is the biggest rebuild­ing chal­lenge that New York City’s going to have for the next cou­ple of decades, so it’s kind of hard to get away from that as being cen­tral to the city’s life.

How big of a com­po­nent is EJ and social jus­tice in gen­er­al to your teach­ing at Pratt? Will the next gen­er­a­tion of urban plan­ners be EJ-con­scious?

Pratt’s Grad­u­ate Pro­grams for Sus­tain­able Plan­ning & Devel­op­ment has a very philo­soph­i­cal bent. It was found­ed in reac­tion to top-down plan­ning, in the hey­day of the 60s when it was all about com­mu­ni­ty empow­er­ment and com­mu­ni­ty-led strate­gies or inter­ven­tions. I can’t imag­ine teach­ing plan­ning in any oth­er school. May­be the New School, may­be Hunter, but there are very few schools that hon­or com­mu­ni­ty-based, not just plan­ning, but exper­tise and resources and account­abil­i­ty. 

To that end, that’s why envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice is cen­tral to a lot of the class­es in Pratt. It’s kind of of hard to do plan­ning and not have to grap­ple with envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. The fact that for them the three “Es” are “envi­ron­ment, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, and equi­ty” is to me indica­tive of how impor­tant envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice is to Pratt and has become to the field gen­er­al­ly speak­ing. You’ve got Bloomberg talk­ing about envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. You’ve got can­di­dates now argu­ing what’s the most envi­ron­men­tal­ly-just solid waste plan. You have the pres­i­dent host­ing the White House’s first envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice forum.

So EJ extends beyond munic­i­pal plan­ning.

Thank­ful­ly, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice has now become, if not main­stream, it’s become a val­ued per­spec­tive in gov­ern­ment. And it makes good sense. If you’re pro­mot­ing an envi­ron­men­tal­ly just pol­i­cy, at bot­tom you’re look­ing to avoid dis­pro­por­tion­ate pub­lic health impacts. In some way, gov­ern­ment is actu­al­ly ben­e­fit­ting. It’s like that old com­mer­cial, “You could pay me now or pay me lat­er.” Either government’s going to be pay­ing for the pub­lic health impli­ca­tions of bad deci­sion-mak­ing or they could be upfront about try­ing to be thought­ful about deal­ing with those dis­par­i­ties and hav­ing pub­lic ben­e­fit accrue from that.

What’s next for NYC-EJA?

I can’t talk too much about it because we’re gonna unveil this in anoth­er mon­th or two. But the biggest waste stream is actu­al­ly the com­mer­cial waste sec­tor. New York City pro­duces 12,000 tons a day of res­i­den­tial waste. We pro­duce more than dou­ble that in com­mer­cial waste. We pro­duce over 26,000 tons per day of what they call con­struc­tion and demo­li­tion debris; putresci­ble, which is basi­cal­ly waste that decom­pos­es, that rots; and fill mate­ri­al, which is dirt that gets exca­vat­ed from con­struc­tion sites.

There is next to no com­mer­cial recy­cling in New York City. So basi­cal­ly all of that is get­ting land­filled. And land­fills out­side of New York are pre­dom­i­nant­ly in EJ com­mu­ni­ties. By the way, even though we are win­ning an envi­ron­men­tal­ly just waste export sys­tem with no com­mu­ni­ty of col­or being dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly bur­dened in New York City, all of that is still going to incin­er­a­tors and land­fills that are in a lot of south­ern states with African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, even some work­ing class white com­mu­ni­ties; EJ com­mu­ni­ties across the seaboard.

We’re in the final legs of fig­ur­ing out a cam­paign where we’re gonna try to get to that. That means not just dump­ing lit­er­al­ly mil­lions of tons of waste on low-income com­mu­ni­ties every year, but the­se are jobs. So that’s the next piece. Com­mer­cial recy­cling is going to be the next big push for us.

And as for your oth­er cam­paigns?

There’s always ener­gy and brown­fields. There’s also leav­ing space for the unex­pect­ed. For exam­ple, two years ago, we weren’t even think­ing about this and the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion begins a waste-to-ener­gy pilot project which poten­tial­ly could open up New York City for pol­lut­ing tech­nolo­gies like plas­ma arc incin­er­a­tion, like pyrol­y­sis, gasi­fi­ca­tion. And from what we’ve been hear­ing from oth­er parts of the world, that is an unproven and risky and pol­lut­ing tech­nol­o­gy. We didn’t see this one com­ing at all. It’s almost like we had to take time and resources and ener­gy to fight that.

There’s always what we’ve been work­ing on for years; there’s what we’ve now got to deal with because rebuild­ing from Sandy has just begun; there’s future events, and then there’s the unseen risks that may come from gov­ern­ment or the pri­vate sec­tor that we then have to quick­ly become experts in and react to. Who knows what the unknown brings.

You’ll nev­er be out of work.

I’ve got to find anoth­er line of work.

To be a mem­ber of NYC-EJA, your board of direc­tors has to be 50% or more from the com­mu­ni­ty that you serve.

Where do they grow you?

It’s kind of like if you’ve been around long enough. It’s just the way a city orga­nizes itself to deal with affairs. So long as you know how a city changes the way it orga­nizes itself, and you’re always on the look­out for how that may or may not dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect you, then it becomes a lit­tle eas­ier to kind of spot [unjust poli­cies] as they come along.

What does envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice in New York City look like today?

Envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice is real­ly about the right of peo­ple for equal access both to envi­ron­men­tal ameni­ties [like parks] and also to chal­lenge envi­ron­men­tal dis­par­i­ties [land­fills, waste sta­tions]. Those unfor­tu­nate­ly in New York City still tend to be clus­tered in low-income com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or.

NYC-EJA is designed to ensure that our mem­ber­ship is com­prised of com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions that are account­able to those com­mu­ni­ties. If you want to be a mem­ber of NYC-EJA, your board of direc­tors has to be 50% or more from the com­mu­ni­ty that you serve. There is a pre­mi­um placed on indige­nous deci­sion-mak­ing and lead­er­ship which, if you go back to the Civil Rights Move­ment, is part and parcel of what empow­er­ment is. 

Empow­er­ment is not envi­ron­men­tal mis­sion­ary work through main­stream envi­ron­men­tal groups, as well-inten­tioned and as real­ly won­der­ful peo­ple as they are.  The trick is try­ing to fig­ure out as a tech­ni­cal assis­tance provider how you provide tech­ni­cal assis­tance tools and infor­ma­tion but allow for the deci­sion-mak­ing of how to apply those tools to still be left in the hands of the com­mu­ni­ty.

Too many of the main­stream envi­ron­men­tal groups don’t do that. I’m not say­ing it’s easy, but [keep­ing deci­sion-mak­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty], that’s a phi­los­o­phy that we hold sacred in the move­ment.

Because ulti­mate­ly, who’s get­ting empow­ered? I don’t know if this is a Chi­ne­se proverb or an African proverb but this whole notion of—and it’s a cliche, I know—but it’s at the heart of this move­ment: If you want a per­son to eat for a day, you fish for them. If you want them to eat for a life­time, you teach them to fish.

If you want a per­son to eat for a day, you fish for them. If you want them to eat for a life­time, you teach them to fish.

What sets EJ apart from oth­er 21st-cen­tu­ry social jus­tice move­ments?

What’s been won­der­ful about EJ is that dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods under­stand that none of them can agree to a sit­ing, a policy—something—where their com­mu­ni­ty ben­e­fits only at anoth­er one’s expense. The sol­i­dar­i­ty amongst the­se com­mu­ni­ties is the one thing that I think dis­tin­guish­es EJ as much as the inter­gen­er­a­tional­i­ty of it.

The notion that if a waste trans­fer sta­tion is pro­posed in the South Bronx that could take the heat off or some of the garbage away from North Brook­lyn, North Brook­lyn would nev­er agree to that.

I think that there’s been a hall­mark of the move­ment where com­mu­ni­ties under­stand that if you accept a good deal that works only for you, you’re per­pet­u­at­ing a sys­tem of inequity that doesn’t get to what you want, which is a just dis­tri­b­u­tion of both bur­dens and ben­e­fits. Folks have been real­ly, real­ly amaz­ing about that.

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About NYC-EJA

Since the organization’s for­ma­tion in 1991, NYC-EJA has worked to unite, mobi­lize, and empow­er dis­parate low-income com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or with sim­i­lar envi­ron­men­tal bur­dens to col­lec­tive­ly resolve envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice pol­i­cy issues. The non­prof­it has made leaps and bounds in ensur­ing envi­ron­men­tal infra­struc­ture leg­is­la­tion is steeped in val­ues of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice.

At the city lev­el, NYC-EJA has been inte­gral to the devel­op­ment of sev­er­al envi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives such as PlaNYC 2030, a long-term growth and sus­tain­abil­i­ty plan for New York City. NYC-EJA, in part­ner­ship with NY Lawyers for the Pub­lic Inter­est and the Orga­ni­za­tion of Water­front Neigh­bor­hoods, also leads the cam­paign urg­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of the land­mark 2006 Solid Waste Man­age­ment Plan (SWMP), a scheme that reshapes NYC’s waste export infra­struc­ture to more equi­tably dis­trib­ute the bur­den of waste man­age­ment among the five bor­oughs.

Since Eddie Bautista’s tenure, the voice of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice has rever­ber­at­ed through the state lev­el. In 2011, NYC-EJA advised Gov­er­nor Cuomo’s Office and the NYS leg­is­la­ture dur­ing the reau­tho­riza­tion of NYS’s pow­er plant sit­ing law on the tenets of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice: pro­tect­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ly over-bur­dened com­mu­ni­ties, in this case, from any net increas­es in local air pol­lu­tion.

NYC-EJA has also been cen­tral to post-Sandy com­mu­ni­ty-based plan­ning and rebuild­ing efforts in con­ven­ing the Sandy Region­al Assem­bly, a coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, com­mu­ni­ty, faith, and labor orga­ni­za­tions. Their Assem­bly work is a com­po­nent of NYC-EJA’s city­wide com­mu­ni­ty resilien­cy project called the Water­front Jus­tice Project, which exam­i­nes more broad­ly cli­mate change and storm surge vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties faced by indus­tri­al water­front EJ com­mu­ni­ties.

In antic­i­pa­tion of Bloomberg’s release of the Spe­cial Ini­tia­tive for Rebuild­ing and Resilience plan, the Assem­bly put forth its Recov­ery Agen­da, a series of thought­ful rebuild­ing plans and rec­om­men­da­tions that pre­dates the city’s plan, as well as an Analy­sis of the since-released SIRR report. Reviewed by both local and fed­er­al offi­cials, many of the Assembly’s pro­pos­als have been incor­po­rat­ed into gov­ern­ment plans.

For more on NYC-EJA’s cam­paigns and accom­plish­ments, vis­it the NYC-EJA web­site.

(Pho­to: Jes­si­ca Bru­ah)