How an NJ Nonprofit Is Tackling Pollution’s Disproportionate Impact on Minorities

The New Jersey Conservation Foundation aims to engage the next generation of natural-resource stewards.

Young kids in a canoe in Newark

A group ventures out for a canoeing adventure in Newark. Photo: Courtesy of City of Newark Press Office

A gas-fired power plant, an incinerator and a pair of smokestack-topped factories all sit in close proximity in a primarily African American community. A child from that neighborhood is diagnosed with severe asthma attributed by their doctor, in part, to poor ambient air quality. Another student from that area notes she doesn’t pass a single park on her walk to school. Yet, discussions about racial inequalities rarely address these kinds of environmental issues.

Pollution has historically had a disproportionate impact on minorities, who have also been underrepresented in environment-related jobs and activities. Now, a statewide nonprofit, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF), has created a primer to help remedy these disparities. The organization’s executive director, Jay Watson, recently launched the Conservationist of Color Playbook, a downloadable, online resource designed to inform policy and engage the next generation of natural-resource stewards.

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Seeds for the playbook were planted in the mid-1980s, when Watson started his career as one of few African Americans at the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “This was born of years of frustration, trying to engage more people of color,” says Watson, who, after three decades at the DEP, spent nine years at a Princeton-based nonprofit land conservancy. “This movement needs to reflect the beautiful diversity of our state,” he says.

A 2020 study by the Center for American Progress found that people of color, as well as those from lower-income communities, are less likely to have unfettered access to nature. In cities across the state, officials have been working to make green spaces more user friendly. “Some of the most beautiful parks in New Jersey are in Newark, but a lot of neighborhoods aren’t near them,” says Jonathan Gordon, interim chief sustainability officer for the city, where more than 60 percent of residents do not own or have use of a car. One solution to the transportation obstacle has been NewarkGo, the city’s subsidized, shared e-scooter and bike program, which surpassed 1 million rides last summer since its 2021 launch.

Equally important is beautifying areas beyond major public spaces like Branch Brook Park. To that end, the city has added shade trees and amenities like benches and restrooms to places like Rabbit Hole Farm, a community garden in the South Ward. The city also runs a summer program out of Riverfront Park, Camp Watershed, where kids ages 7-14 spend three weeks learning to canoe on the Passaic River at a cost of just $5 for a community pass that gives access to all public recreation areas. “You get youths excited about the outdoors in a way that’s not just an annoying field trip, and you’ll provide an experience they’ll remember their entire lives,” Gordon says.

For Camden, whose nine-square-mile footprint is several times smaller than Newark’s, proximity to its 56 parks was not the problem—but no one was using, them says Justin Dennis, Camden program director at the Trust for Public Land (TPL). When budget cuts forced the parks department to be absorbed into public works, TPL worked with the nonprofit Camden Community Partnership to invest in parks infrastructure, maintenance and programming. With help from Watson’s NJCF, as well as city and Camden County agencies, Dennis solicited input from 700 residents regarding which parks should be prioritized for revitalization and what each facelift required.

The group’s most recent focus was on Whitman Park, a small area adjacent to a polluted, abandoned property Dennis calls “a one-story-high mountain of home-demolition debris.” Based on the community-survey responses, Whitman now has fields and a basketball court. The junk next door is gone, but it represents a fraction of the illegally dumped material whose cleanup Dennis estimates to cost Camden $4 million a year.

“That’s the crime. Government money is being spent to clean up an area used by contractors from Cherry Hill or Philadelphia, that could otherwise be put toward more pressing community issues,” Dennis says. “If you’re a young person who lives here and sees that [debris], it’s an enormous challenge, from a quality-of-life perspective, to feel so dumped on.”

The New Jersey DEP has been working for years to stem the tide of illegal dumping, a nationwide problem. The department has also focused attention on strengthening rules against legal pollution. Until recently, any company wishing to build a factory or other facility that released emissions into the air or water was permitted to if the emissions were under the state’s allowable threshold, explains Kandyce Perry, director of the DEP’s newly expanded Office of Environmental Justice.

In 2020, New Jersey became the first state to pass an environmental-justice law. This assesses the cumulative emissions from all polluting facilities within a block group—a statistical unit recognized by the U.S. Census and averaging 50 blocks—when permitting or denying a building application. The law also requires the applicant to hold a public hearing in the community, followed by a period for comments to be submitted.

“We need power plants and scrap yards to make society work, but historically, because of redlining, these things were located within communities of color,” says Perry. “The level of environmental protection you receive from the government should not be dictated by ZIP code, how much money you have in your pocket, the color of your skin, or how well you speak English. It’s society’s duty,” she adds, “to protect everyone—not just the people who can afford to move away from threats.”

Environmental justice figures prominently in the Conservationist of Color Playbook. Equally important is workforce development for people of color. The nature gap is all too evident in the professional world, notes Watson’s friend Daniel Van Abs, a professor at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, who helps his students secure watershed-management internships at Raritan Bay- and New Brunswick-area organizations. “When I started in the environmental movement, you could look around the state and count the people of color in professional positions on maybe two hands; it was so lonely,” says Van Abs, a contributor to the playbook. “Lately, my classes are half from underrepresented groups, but they’re still building their careers. It will take awhile for a significant percentage to reach the management level.”

For Watson, the earlier young people are exposed to the possibilities nature holds, the more likely some will pursue jobs in the environment. This was clear one Saturday last fall in East Trenton, where the NJCF and New Jersey Tree Foundation oversaw a group planting linden and black-gum trees along a busy thoroughfare and in a park that had replaced an abandoned gas station. The teens had already visited a nursery where the saplings were cultivated and had a crash course in arborism. Now, they were training to become Tree Ambassadors, a program run by Trenton-based Outdoor Equity Alliance.

Janelly Estrada, 14, grabbed a shovel, and dug into the soil. “We drive past here all the time,” said Estrada. “It will be so nice to see these trees and know I was a part of this.”

Pamela Weber-Leaf has covered the environment beat at two newspapers. She was formerly an environmental lawyer.

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