Skip to main content
Policy Relevant

7th Annual EJ Symposium Urges the Time to Act on Climate Justice is Now

With the Biden administration spotlighting EJ issues in an unprecedented way, Dr. Sacoby Wilson propels folks to take advantage

Back to News
US EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan sitting at a desk with an American flag and EPA flag behind him.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, the first Black man and the second person of color to lead the agency, delivered a special video message to symposium attendees. Regan highlighted the work he and the Biden administration are doing to advance environmental justice, including President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to devote at least 40% of the federal investments in addressing climate change to underserved communities. 

Climate change is impacting us all, but it’s not impacting us all the same way, Dr. Sacoby Wilson, director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health, said during the opening session of the 2021 Environmental Justice and Health Disparities Symposium, Aug. 19-21. 

Each year, Wilson, an associate professor with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, brings together environmental justice advocacy groups, researchers, scholars, legal professionals, policymakers and others to have open dialogue conversations about the various ways of how climate change is affecting communities. But the 2021 event paid special attention to the unprecedented work that leaders in the Biden administration are doing to advance environmental justice, including EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Dr. Cecilia Martinez, senior director of environmental justice for the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, who both spoke at the event. 

This year’s symposium sessions touched on additional topics and built upon a term used by Wilson and others in public health -- syndemic-- emphasizing that multiple public health crises are happening simultaneously amid the climate crisis, including systemic racism, environmental injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Also new this year were sessions focusing on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and indigenous community EJ issues, the homelessness epidemic and ecofeminism. 

The complexities and nuances of these issues are why cross-collaboration between groups is crucial, Wilson said. 

To advance environmental justice, everyone has a role to play in improving the health and well-being of people and where they live, he added. 

The EJ Symposium is unlike any other. With Wilson as the CEEJH director since 2011, his career background, strong ties to local communities and his scientific leadership roles (now as a member of the EPA Science Advisory Board), make the annual event a powerhouse and epicenter for all things environmental justice. 

Being based near the nation’s capital, Wison and his UMD team have been able to take advantage of unique connections with federal and state policymakers, making the symposium a nexus for experts who are using innovative policy, legal and public health tools to address pressing issues impacting communities. 

This year’s symposium had at least 1,500 registrants, both domestic and international, Wilson said. 

The moment that we’re in is unique, he added. Compared to past presidents, President Joe Biden has pushed the EJ agenda more than ever before, according to Wilson.

“This new administration has a big focus on racial equity, racial justice, environmental justice,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of energy around EJ issues at the federal level, down to the regional level, down to the state level and even the local level. We tried to capture that energy and the types of speakers and the types of sessions that we had.” 

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which developed the 17 principles of Environmental Justice in October 1991. The principles have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. 

The symposium featured a special session, honoring the historical and transformative event titled, “30 Years On Youth Leaders’ Reflection on Being Raised in the EJ. Movement.”

Check out some of the 2021 EJ symposium highlights. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan delivered a special video message to symposium attendees. He is the first Black man and the second person of color to lead the agency. 

Before his role as EPA Administrator, Regan served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, where he led the development and implementation of North Carolina's seminal plan to address climate change and transition the state to a clean energy economy. Under his leadership, he secured the largest coal ash clean-up in U.S. history.

In his video address, Regan highlighted the work he and the Biden administration are doing to advance environmental justice, including President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which aims to devote at least 40% of the benefits from federal investments to underserved communities. 

The initiative is groundbreaking because throughout history, environmental policy decisions on a federal level have failed to adequately account for environmental injustice, including the disproportionate, disparate and cumulative impacts pollution and climate change have on low-income communities and communities of color.

“[The initiative] is a critical opportunity to invest in the cleanup of legacy pollution, to create clean energy jobs and to help deliver environmental protection for all people,” Regan said during the address. 




  • Rebecca Rehr (MPH '12), Director, Climate for Health at ecoAmerica (Moderator) 
  • Camille Burke, Chair, Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities 
  • Ben Grumbles, Secretary of the Environment, Maryland Department of the Environment
  • Monica Brooks, Co-Founder, Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs 
  • Devon Dodson, Senior Energy Advisor, Maryland Department of the Environment 

Maryland’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities was first established on Jan. 1, 2001, and signed into law on May 22, 2003. The CEJSC has over 15  members who strive to guide state policies that will ensure Maryland’s communities are healthy, safe, economically vibrant, sustainable and environmentally just. 

Last summer, the Commission and its annual report received criticism for “failing to influence any meaningful policies or to engage with communities beset by environmental injustices,” a Maryland Matters article said. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) convened the Advisory Workgroup on Equity, which recommended revamping the Commission.

Senate Bill 674, sponsored by Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), was proposed and passed, changing the membership makeup of the Commission to reflect the “racial, gender, ethnic and geographic diversity of the state,” requiring the Commission to submit policy recommendations and findings to the General Assembly, as well as to the governor and including more representatives from communities impacted by environmental justice issues, local government and academia.

In addition to the Advisory Workgroup, Wilson was influential in helping to push for a new approach. 

The Commission should “have teeth, have the ability to provide feedback on legislation, have the ability to inform permitting discussions when it comes to cumulative impacts, have the ability to say ‘hey are you in compliance with Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964],’” Wilson said. 

The modified group works to advise state government agencies on EJ issues, critique the effectiveness of laws and policies addressing issues involving EJ and sustainable communities and recommend priority options and areas of Maryland requiring immediate attention. 

Current members include Lesliam Quiros-Alcalá, Ph.D, a former assistant professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health (who is now at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) and Barbara J. Paca, Ph.D, a research professor in the University of Maryland Department of Anthropology. 

The Commission’s 2021 priorities are: 1) prioritizing the identification of EJ communities; 2) supporting enhanced public engagement and participation; 3) empowering state agencies to invest in long-term EJ strategies; 4) enhancing the membership and authority of the Commission.

Tangible steps taken by the Commission include ongoing engagement with state legislators Del. Regina Boyce and Sen. Obie Patterson, listening outreach sessions where Commission members visit communities like Maryland’s Eastern Shore and talk with residents about issues within their communities, as well as conversations with other state agencies like the Maryland Department of Transportation administrators. 

“I got to speak to them about airports, highways, vehicles and more. Now, they’re in the process of developing an EJ plan,” Commission Chair Camille Burke said. 


  • Jan-Michael Archer (PhD ‘22), CEEJH Doctoral Student (Moderator) 
  • Robert Nelson, Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond 
  • Scott Krayenhoff, Assistant Professor, University of Guelph School of Environmental Sciences 
  • Jeremy Hoffman, Affiliate Faculty, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and Center for Environmental Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University 
  • Lisa McNeilly, Director, Baltimore Office of Sustainability

Studies have shown that in nearly every major city in the U.S., communities of color are exposed to more extreme urban heat than white people, emphasizing that climate change and race are linked. 

Expanses of concrete and reduced canopy cover lead to concentrated heat in urban centers, producing what is known as the “urban heat island effect.” 

The University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism produced an award-winning 2019 investigative piece titled “CODE RED: Baltimore’s Climate Divide,” which featured Dr. Sacoby Wilson and found that the average annual temperatures in Baltimore have gone up more than 3 degrees over the last century, nearly twice as much as the rest of the country.

Panelists discussed the “unequal burden of urban heat” for communities with environmental justice issues, including the lack of salutogenic and climate-resilient infrastructure and what steps can be taken to alleviate this burden. 

Panelist Jeremy Hoffman listed several organizations that are working to reduce urban heat in Richmond, Virginia, where he is based.

  • Groundwork RVA, a nonprofit organization that works with youth to occupy a hands-on role in creating positive changes to enhance green spaces in Richmond communities.
  • Southside ReLeaf is working specifically in a marginalized community to expand tree canopy and develop advocacy around climate justice in Richmond.
  • Virginia Community Voice is working on a Southside Richmond green plan, centering the voice and vision of the residents of Southside Richmond in what the future of green space development looks like.

Panelist Robert Nelson leads the Mapping Inequality Project, a dataset and map used by teachers and interested citizens to look at their cities and find property and residential statistics. 

“One of the amazing things about this project is the data has alerted us to correlations between contemporary inequalities and past inequalities built into these housing policies,” Nelson said. “

“The data shows the calcification of vulnerability and poverty in some areas, as well as the privilege and wealth in other areas, and how that system does not change over the course of centuries,” he added.

Groundwork RVA is working with residents and stakeholders to understand the relationship between the cities’ history of race-based housing segregation and the current and predicted impacts of climate change. 

The organization has an analysis of historic redlining maps called “Climate Safe Neighborhoods,” which found a relationship between government-led housing segregation of the past century and vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding in Richmond today. 

Groundwork RVA is working with residents of the Highland Park and Oak Grove-Bellemeade neighborhoods to prioritize climate mitigation measures and push for their incorporation into the city’s new master environmental plan. 

Dr. Cecilia Martinez, senior director of environmental justice for the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, kicked off the day’s events with the 10th annual CEEJH lecture.

Martinez spoke about the Biden administration’s commitment to “transformational” change as it relates to environmental justice. That transformation includes Martinez’s own appointment: she founded and previously served as executive director of the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy (CEED). Her transition from community organizing to government work is part of the Biden administration’s commitment to engaging with environmental justice with people who have been doing the work for decades at the helm, she said.

“We have a history of not being heard in previous federal government administrations,” she said.

She highlighted initiatives such as the creation—by executive order— of both the White House Environmental Justice Council and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council. 

What makes the latter development different from previous efforts, according to Martinez, is that for the first time, the council provides a “fully coordinated, whole government approach to environmental justice.”

Lastly, Martinez spoke about the Biden administration’s effort to revise Executive Order 12898, issued by former President Bill Clinton in 1994. The original order issued guidance for federal agencies on addressing environmental justice in marginalized communities, but needs to be updated to meet 21st-century challenges, Martinez said.

Wilson praised the Biden administration's “phenomenal” environmental justice actions and Martinez herself blazing the trail for community organizers transitioning to government roles. 

“WHEJAC is historic,” he said. “Two executive orders [relating to addressing climate change and environmental justice] is historic. This is the moment, this is the time.”


Legislators from both houses in Maryland’s General Assembly discussed and answered questions about their efforts to advocate for environmental justice and the work that still needs to be done. 

Legislators spoke on the need for long-term climate change solutions, including more and better-paying clean energy jobs.

“We have to have equity, good jobs, and a planet to live on,” said Del. Charcoudian. “If we accept that dichotomy [between environmental justice and jobs] and pick a side, we’re doomed.”

A recurring theme throughout the discussion was the need for better, more accessible and more transparent communication about environmental justice.

“This is the fourth most diverse state in the country, but that diversity itself is not going to actualize more equitable policymaking content,” Del. Smith said. “If we want to talk to some communities about climate but don’t talk about workforce development, we are wasting their time.”

The panel also emphasized the need for more diversity and inclusion within these conversations.

“I see the leaders [of environmental regulatory agencies], and they don’t look like me,” said Sen. Ellis. “It’s not diverse at all… we’re begging regulatory bodies to take environmental justice seriously because they have no skin in the game. Their communities are protected.”

The discussion concluded with a call to action for Maryland residents to reach out to their representatives about environmental concerns important to them.


Young leaders in the environmental justice movement talked about their personal and generational journeys to environmental activism.

Gatheru acknowledged an advantage in the digital sphere and a “mainstreamification” of climate activism among younger generations that hasn’t been present before but stressed the importance of recognizing the work done before.

“It’s very much a knowing, an understanding, that all the things that we are able to do now is based on language and foundational building blocks of the generations that came before,” she said.

The panel also discussed how, in the 30 years since the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, the need for intersectionality in the movement has become all the more important. For the young leaders, that intersectionality feels intuitive. 

“They also collectively move without fear,” said Wilson. “The youth showed us what happened to George Floyd… They showed up at the campus of Chapel Hill and confronted the fact there was a confederate monument that had been there for almost 100 years. These folks showed up, coordinated and took that thing down. That was the youth. They realized these injustices that we face don’t exist in a vacuum.”


  • Joseph Galarraga, Staff Researcher, CEEJH (Moderator)
  • Clifford Mitchell, Director, Environmental Health Bureau, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH)

Maryland’s Environmental Public Health tracking tool is getting a refresh. The new version of the mapping and data visualization tool will allow for more context around public health disparities and provide viewers with potential solutions for addressing these problems.

In 2002, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked several states, including Maryland, to develop pilot projects to better understand and display the link between health and environmental data. With UMD’s School of Public Health, Maryland developed its first version of that portal in 2008.

The initial version allowed for a visual display of lots of data, including environmental hazards, social and demographic factors, and calculations of rates of illnesses in adjoining areas.

“But,” Mitchell said, “it did leave a lot of explanation and context to the viewer and the user. It was not directive at all.”

The tool’s redesigned version not only demonstrates the “what” and the “why” of the data it reflects, but it also seeks to answer the all-important question “now what?”

The updated public tracking tool will link to relevant government programs and interventions. For instance, as Mitchell demonstrated using a beta version of the tool with synthetic data, a search of “childhood lead poisoning” will reveal a geographic overview of the problem; data tables showing county demographics, including race, gender, median income, and percentage of the population that finished high school; and resources for childhood lead poisoning prevention programs. The tool will also permit users to view and contextualize trends over time to see what actions have been taken and whether they are working.

Mitchell hopes a fuller, more transparent picture of the data will allow for public officials and community members to make informed decisions regarding public health.

  • Categories
  • Policy Relevant
  • Research
  • Press Releases
  • Departments
  • Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health