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Panelists discuss climate justice law, highlight local efforts

PARTICIPANTS IN A panel on Vermont’s environmental justice policy talk about the law and how local organizations are trying to meet its requirements at an event in Middlebury last week. Panelists included, from left, Alex Hilliard, Lindsey Berk, Jen Myers and State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden. Independent photo/Marin Howell

MIDDLEBURY — Around three dozen Vermonters filled the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury on Oct. 20 to learn about how to engage in an often-overlooked part of fighting the climate crisis: listening to and learning from the groups most affected by it.

The panel event, organized by the Burlington nonprofit Rights & Democracy (RAD), was intended to educate residents on the state’s new environmental justice policy and how it’s designed to address the environmental burdens that disproportionately affect certain communities.

The event was also meant to share what local organizations are doing, and what individuals can do, to bring environmental justice into the forefront of their work. RAD Vermont State Director Alison Nihart explained these community-led efforts extend the scope of the law past the legal requirements outlined in bill S.148, which was signed into law earlier this year.

“(The policy) is not just a legal shift, it’s also a cultural shift,” Nihart said. “The way that things have been working in many sectors, including the nonprofit sector, hasn’t been working for a lot of people and a lot of places. This is an opportunity to reimagine how we do our work, who does the work and who gets compensated for the work.”

The law states that communities such as those of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and low-income individuals face higher levels of air and water pollution, but are often excluded from the decision- making about and distributing of environmental benefits like renewable energy sources, nutritious food and public transportation.

In establishing Vermont’s first environmental justice policy, S.148 requires the state to give all people meaningful participation in developing, implementing and enforcing laws, regulations and policies related to distributing these benefits.

Panelists at the event included State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, who introduced the bill in April of last year.

“(The law) is very foundational, and everything is now going to be set in motion. It’s going to be as good as the people that participate in it, because that’s what environmental justice is all about,” she said.

Elements of the state’s environmental policy include the creation of a new mapping tool that identifies communities where environmental burdens have disproportionately affected Vermonters, and requirements for state agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their work. The law also establishes an advisory council and interagency committee to guide further implementation of the policy.

Ram Hinsdale said the success of the law relies not only on creating opportunities for participation, but empowering people to take part in this work.

“We are still in a place where we’re going to have to work on how much people are looking to participate to make this law meaningful, that’s going to take all of you,” Ram Hinsdale told the crowd.

Panelists at last week’s event shared what local organizations are doing to advance environmental justice work. These panelists included Jen Myers, a financial energy coach at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity; Executive Director of the Addison County Relocalization Network Lindsey Berk; and Poultney resident Alex Hilliard, who serves on the Vermont Environmental Justice Steering Committee and the Vermont Renews Coalition’s BIPOC Advisory Council.

Berk shared the work ACORN is doing to redistribute environmental benefits in the community through its Farmacy program. The Farmacy Program partners with local farmers, healthcare providers and the Vermont Department of Health, to enable doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables as medicine for patients with diet-related or other chronic illnesses.

The organization doles out 85 shares of local produce through Farmacy. But Berk said making nutritious food accessible requires more than just giving it to people, and that’s something the organization is trying to focus on.

“Once you get food to people, do they know how to use it? Are there recipes, are there educational initiatives, do they want to use the food that you’re giving them,” Berk said. “There’s just so many layers to solving the hunger with food and that’s one of many issues that are outlined in the law.”

FINANCIAL ENERGY COACH

Myers talked about her work at CVOEO as a financial energy coach. Through the organization’s Financial Futures program, she works with income eligible Vermonters to find rebates, tax credits and other savings opportunities for them in reducing their energy use and reliance on fossil fuels.

“The idea is that someone can come to us, and we can point them in the direction and sort of open the door for low-income communities to be able to access some of these climate change solutions,” she said.

CVOEO also offers free webinars on topics like heat pumps and green transportation options, as well as one-on-one financial counseling. Myers said she’d like to see the program expand to better meet individuals’ needs based on participants’ feedback.

“They’re the best ones to tell us why they can’t afford to get a heat pump, that the incentives aren’t enough,” she explained. “To really hear in their words what would be the most effective ways to help them.”

Community members can get involved in the distribution of these resources, spreading the word and volunteering at organizations involved in environmental justice work. Though, the panelists stressed a lot of the work that can be done involves listening and empowering the groups most affected by the climate crisis to guide the way forward.

“So much of our power is just saying ‘actually I really want to hear from the people most impacted,’” Ram Hinsdale said.

Myers agreed.

“Just listening to someone is really important,” Myers said. “Listening to someone and having them tell their story, you might find out there’s something you can do, but you just empower someone by hearing them.”

Panelists also urged the audience to recommend people sign up for the Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a group that will advise state agencies on how to incorporate environmental justice into their work and evaluate the work being done. Public applications for this council can be submitted at ltgov.vermont.gov/COC-Applications or by email at [email protected] and are due Nov. 14.

“We should be inviting people into the process,” Hilliard said. “If you find someone that may be interested but you don’t have the resources to walk them through the process, send people my way.”

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