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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)