Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise (REJOICE) is a collective of academics, activists, non-profit leaders, and community partners. Our fundamental purpose is to craft environmental justice policy based on the testimony of those who have been systematically excluded from the mainstream environmental movement. We strive to deepen the democratic process by creating a space for BIPOC, working-class, and digitally-underserved Vermonters to speak out for state-wide change that centers most impacted communities.
Although the demographics and rurality of Vermont can hide environmental injustices, issues of water quality, indoor air quality, energy affordability, transportation access, food insecurity, and associated health risks still disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added a requirement for incorporating environmental justice into all Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) programs as part of their Performance Partnership Agreement.
In response to this call for action, REJOICE formed in 2017 to create a community-informed environmental justice policy for Vermont. We act as a consultant to the VT DEC, the Department of Health (DOH), and other state agencies in their effort to build department-wide environmental justice policy and awareness.
Shifting in response to the global pandemic, during the fall of 2020, REJOICE held 17 virtual conversations with 76 participants from digitally underserved communities across Vermont. We drew on established relationships to hold focus groups with members of the Bhutanese Nepali, Somali Bantu, migrant farmworker, senior, rural, deaf/hard of hearing, disabled, and mobile home communities.
We worked with community leaders, cultural liaisons, and interpreters to co-design and co-facilitate these conversations. We paid partners and participants $50 for their time, recognizing the particular importance of compensating BIPOC and working-class leaders for their expertise. During these meetings, we asked open-ended questions about participants’ quality of life, asking people how they wanted the state to respond to future crises.
Building momentum off our initial success, REJOICE has been coordinating with the Vermont Renews Coalition to build an environmental justice network throughout the state. We see a pressing need for a coalition of frontline groups who will hold state agencies accountable to their promises around environmental justice. The purpose of this EJ network is to improve communication between historically marginalized Vermonters and the state, fairly compensating BIPOC residents for their lived experiences and expertise. At this moment, REJOICE is taking a support role in establishing the structure, vision, and fair compensation for this EJ network, while prioritizing fundraising for and supporting BIPOC and working-class Vermonters in leadership roles.
This initial phase builds upon the work done by our research core at the University of Vermont, whose spatial analysis identified the state’s most vulnerable communities. These are communities who not only bear disproportionate environmental and health burdens, but are also demographically vulnerable (frequently BIPOC and/or low-income people). The 20 communities identified included:
Winooski/Essex/Greater Burlington in Chittenden County
St Albans/Grand Isle/Highgate in Franklin and Grand Isle counties
Barre in Washington county
Windsor/Rockingham/Springfield/ in Windsor County
Brighton/Barton/Greensboro/Newport in Northeast Kingdom
Phase two focuses on participatory research in the 20 vulnerable communities identified during phase one. The goal of this phase is to understand how members of these communities experience environmental and health burdens.
In particular, we ask how environmental services like energy, food, water, housing, and outdoor/indoor hazards are disproportionately distributed. We also ask what challenges people face when trying to access state services and participate in democratic processes.
We have three main methods for doing participatory research: in-depth interviews, community surveys, and community conversations.
Community Panels: we will hold six community conversations in Rutland, Newport, Bennington, Winooski/Burlington, Rockport, and Enosburg. Attendees will be invited to discuss their experiences and share their ideas for EJ policies. We will compensate folk for transportation costs, offer free childcare, and provide a locally-catered dinner.
Community Surveys: Surveys are conducted door-to-door with about a hundred people in each of the six communities. These will help us get a quantitative understanding of environmental and health challenges, as well as barriers to accessing the state. We will also conduct surveys at the events put together by Migrant Justice, Refugee Resettlement Program, and AALV.
In-Depth Interviews and Observations: Interviews will be conducted with members from the target communities, community organizations, state agencies, businesses, and policymakers in the state. We will also do site visits of state industries, mobile home park communities, landfill sites and other places of concern that pose an environmental health risk.
We let all participants know that we will report study results back during the following spring and summer. We ask for feedback on ways to address challenges in their communities.
After we complete all the data collection and community discussions, we will start phase three. First we will compile and transcribe all the listening sessions, interviews, and surveys. Using this information, we will write a draft report containing important findings and recommendations, to be shared out with stakeholders.
After receiving feedback on our draft report, we will write a series of recommendations off of which the DEC can base their EJ policy. These recommendations will highlight community concern and suggest ways in which environmental agencies can address these concerns. They will also lay the foundation for a more transparent and open democratic process, centering the communities who have the most at stake.