Lessons from the Network: LJ Portis

Environmental Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, WE ACT for Environmental Justice

WE ACT’s mission is “to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low-income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. 

WE ACT envisions a community that has: 

  • Informed and engaged residents who participate fully in decision-making on key issues that impact their health and community.
  • Strong and equal environmental protections. 
  • Increased environmental health through community-based participatory research and evidence-based campaigns.”

This interview was conducted on March 8, 2022. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.  

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and how you first got involved with environmental justice issues?

LJ Portis (he/him): WE ACT for Environmental Justice is an environmental justice organization, founded in 1988, so I was born when WE ACT was born. Basically, the idea was to address environmental injustices, specifically in West Harlem, and we’ve grown since to be a globally recognized leader in the movement to build healthy communities of color. Through our work on environment and climate justice and working to develop and advance legislation at the city, state, and federal levels. We have about 800 members, mostly in northern Manhattan, and we also have a Federal Office team in DC. 

I am the Environmental Policy and Advocacy Coordinator and I’ve been with WE ACT- actually it’ll be a year coming up very soon. I handle policy analysis and advocacy work or lobbying- I prefer the word advocacy because lobbying just has such a negative connotation, and when you’re doing really good work you don’t want to be associated with the gas industry. Ultimately, it’s lobbying work and advocacy work, being a part of coalitions and connecting our members to our policy work as well. I work with our climate justice organizer and campaigner to create some campaigns around some of the policy work that exists at any level of government, but mostly through city and state. I’m working with a lot of New York City Council members and city agencies as well.  

The one thing that I actually cross all three levels of government is the work that I do with electric school buses. That came from starting with electric school bus work at the local level through a coalition and then from there, being asked to join a national coalition, and then we figured we might as well just keep going and we are now a part of the state level efforts as well. So, I get to dip my toe little bit in Albany and DC work. We’re all one big New York team that works together and helps each other, we stay plugged into each other’s policies. 

RN: There are obviously many components related to environmental justice, including broadly issues of pollution of air, land or water, efforts to measure cumulative impacts, public participation, and grassroots organizing and policy advocacy. You’re on the policy advocacy side of things, but I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how WE ACT approaches those different areas. 

LJ Portis: I would actually kind of break that up a little bit into two main categories, of public participation and grassroots organizing and then the policy advocacy side. They’re connected and kind of sit side by side, but not mutually exclusive- and then from there, that’s when you have all of the issues. That’s when you talk about pollution of land, air, water, or sanitation and cumulative impacts and that kind of work all fits under either of those categories. So you could do grassroots organizing around cumulative impacts or air pollution or air quality, but you can also do policy work and advocacy around air pollution and cumulative impact. 

I kind of straddle both of those worlds, but I would say about 90% of my work is the policy advocacy side and 10% is that grassroots organizing portion and we have a really robust and amazing organizing team so we’re lucky enough to have a siloed policy team. 

Not a lot of organizations have the luxury to have people dedicated to public policy, so it’s nice to have organizations in this space who can do that and have separate policy teams to really drill down in that work. Because trying to do all of it at once is really daunting and really complicated and it’s hard. We utilize both of those to achieve some of the same goals when tackling the broader issues. 

RN: You already mentioned that you straddle local, state, and federal level work. Could you talk a little bit more about where WE ACT focuses most of their efforts, or the progression over 30+ years- where WE ACT started versus now? 

LJ Portis: So we still call our “catchment zone” northern Manhattan and that encompasses East and West Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, it’s an environmental justice area, historically and currently, and also a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood as well. We’re also looking to make sure that we keep displacement or cultural erasure at bay as much as possible in the work that we do. We started small- Peggy Shepard, our executive director was there from the beginning. It started as being fed up as a group of people in West Harlem; they were putting a waste treatment plant and there’s already like every bus depot in Manhattan already there. There’s issues with asthma rates, and air quality is horrible and air pollution and just- cumulative impacts- that’s a big word that I like hearing more and more just to really hone in on some of these things. But it was just that siting on top of siting on type of siting, people got fed up. They more or less sued the city and got money to start WE ACT and really focused on West Harlem. Then it spread to East Harlem and central Harlem and then Washington Heights and Inwood. It starts out in that micro neighborhood and you become the leader in the space. 

City Council has a lot of power and say, so you start getting involved in more city-level and city-wide work, and you start taking that consideration. Then state work and federal work overlaps, we kept spreading, even globally. Peggy shepherd has spoken at global climate summits. That’s the progression there and we operate at all levels, so whatever comes our way, we ask ourselves, “do we respond to it? Do we have the bandwidth to take certain things on? How do we support at these different levels?” But the grassroots advocacy work on the ground is very much going to be rooted in northern Manhattan, it’s going to be mobilizing our members to champion that kind of work at a very local level. 

RN: WE ACT focuses on climate justice, clean air, good jobs, healthy homes, and sustainable and equitable land use. River Network is a water-focused organization, so I’m curious about how issues of water quality and access to affordable drinking water fit into your work? 

LJ Portis: Luckily, being focused on New York State and New York City, when it comes to water quality and access to clean water drinking water, it’s not something that has to be in the forefront of our work, and I say “luckily,” because there’s a lot of great things that have already happened. However, there’s still a huge child lead poisoning problem in New York State, we’re at the top for that, and there’s multiple ways to take in lead. Most of it’s based in paint but there’s work we’ve done in reducing lead exposure through drinking water, by supporting the equitable replacement of lead service lines and advocating at the federal level, making sure that there’s funding for that. Also, advocating and passing the removal of lead from school drinking water, and changing some of those metrics. Some of the State policies, when it comes to lead in drinking water, said “this percentage is safe” and it’s like “no, there’s no such thing as a safe level of lead. Let’s end that conversation now.” Keep on reducing that and fighting for that. At the local level, closing those loopholes in our local laws when it comes to comes to lead work as well. Even though lead poisoning is completely preventable, it remains a daily threat to many Black communities. The studies show that Black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to suffer from lead poisoning as poor white children. That really becomes the environmental racism and injustice aspect of it. To me, when I first got into this work, it was crazy to me that lead with even a conversation. You’d think that living in a wealthy, urbanized country like the US, that water quality and clean access to water is not an issue or shouldn’t be a concern. I think, for me, the first time I ever realized that this is a problem still within the US was Flint, Michigan- obviously that water crisis illuminated the issue. And when you dig a bit deeper into the history of the water crisis, it’s just basically a textbook example of environmental racism. 

There’s obviously a lot of work to be done when it comes to clean drinking water throughout the country. Luckily, in our catchment zone we can focus a little bit more on making sure that lead is not in there, and the city itself is really good about waste treatment and clean water and it’s something that’s taken very seriously. It’s not a battle that we have to face compared to some other cities and localities that have to really struggle with their state and some of the federal legislators to rectify some of the wrongs. 

It just blows my mind, every time- the basic thing that life needs that we just make into needing the political will and economical will and it’s like- do the thing to remediate what needs to be fixed and to provide clean water, it’s a basic American thing to have- clean drinking water out of a faucet.  

RN: WE ACT worked to help pass the environmental justice law in 2019, SB 2385, establishing the permanent EJ advisory group, the coordinators within state agencies, and also the inter-agency coordinating council. Can you tell me about the background of the impetus to develop that policy and where you go from here on implementation and how it’s going now.  

LJ Portis: Yes, I wasn’t personally at WE ACT when that work was being done, but I do know about the law that passed. It was created out of a temporary advisory board that was established, and there was a perfect policy opportunity. Advocates were saying, this is a temporary group, but you seem to find value in it, why not make this permanent? That created the catalyst to move that forward and anytime you have those windows of policy opportunity, you should take them, right? Just saying, “Let’s make this permanent, we see the value in this kind of thing.” 

As far as where we go from here, I’m not 100% sure. I do know when boards like that are codified, what’s really important is that we ensure that the body is appropriately appointed, and that they remain a strong voice, even when leadership changes at the state level. Sometimes if there’s leader changes or “regime changes,” that sometimes certain advisory boards can just go into this closet that we got to every once in a while and poke our head in, [we want to] make sure that’s not the case.  

Some of those laws when they create the board, some of them are what we call “messaging bills.” You’re saying the thing that you want people to say, “Yay, you did something,” and you can get the praise and the press. But if there’s no reporting or deadlines or meeting structures or appointments, if none of that is in the law, you pretty much don’t have to do anything else, especially if there’s no funding behind it. If you don’t even put any type of dollar amount towards it, sometimes those things just fall by the wayside. That’s exactly what we’re here as organizations to prevent that from happening and waking up people when it comes to seeing that when it happens. 

RN: How do you build support for your different policy priorities, both with community members and also elected officials or agency employees? 

LJ Portis: We work with so many organizations on so many issues in a variety of ways. I think coalition participation and coalition building is kind of key to the work that we do.

Some of those are formal, or more formal than others, meaning that there’s funding or support for the work being done. For instance, WE ACT may have the funding to pull together and convene a group of people and create an actual formal coalition and have a dedicated staff person, having time and money; the more formal ones have a steering committee, rules and decided principles. Sometimes there’s more informal kind of coalitions, like starting a weekly phone call about a specific issue, let’s have a weekly call with a bunch of people who want to get on who are stakeholders, give updates, and see what’s going on. Sometimes there might be a specific campaign that’s rallied around that’s only for a certain amount of time. Some of those kind of loose organizations or group of people turn into a more formal coalition or group. We also bring in our members into the work in grassroots efforts. Given the intersectionality of environmental and climate work, to me it’s really important to make sure there are a variety of voices within a coalition. I think that’s really important to have representation of many perspectives within a sector. It’s great to have an environmental justice group, like WE ACT, be a part of something because that way we can lend our voice, specifically to that thing and making sure that there’s environmental justice in the work that’s being done. You want to have labor, you want to have racial justice, you want to have researchers, you want to have faith-based groups depending on the situation- you want to have a variety of perspectives. 

A great example is WE ACT has an Environmental Justice Leadership Forum. It’s based in our federal policy office and coordinates environmental justice leadership through a national coalition of over 50 EJ groups working together to advanced climate justice and impact policy- for the protection and promotion of communities of color and low-income communities throughout the country. These are faith-based groups, labor groups, other environmental justice groups, all coming together with this one cause to help support. 

RN: Would you say that WE ACT tends to be co-conveners or the main convener of those kinds of coalitions or are you also playing more of a participatory role, but not a lead? 

LJ Portis: It depends on the work that we’re doing, but a lot of the work that I am doing, WE ACT is prominent, we may be a steering committee member or we founded the group. But there are other groups that we connect with, other organizations that we definitely support, sometimes we’ll just have a quick connection to support. On other things, we’re not taking the lead because it’s not our expertise necessarily.  

RN: What are the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization has been as you work on environmental justice issues?  

LJ Portis: Working on environmental and climate policies, it’s a steep learning curve. On top of that, it’s just non-stop, you’re bombarded. In the year that I’ve been here and doing this work, I think it’s interesting to see at three different levels, what the kinds of barriers or challenges are. I think political will is a big one at the federal level. The polarization that’s going on in Washington makes everything difficult, right? We’re no longer in a world where people are negotiating, they’re still not coming to any consensus, so that hyper polarization…  Our advocates were really into climate policy around Build Back Better, which doesn’t probably exist anymore. We had a lot of high hopes for a lot of climate things going on with the infrastructure bill, which we got some things in there, but a lot of compromise and sacrifice were made. And obviously, the special interests and lobbying groups. We’ve got Manchin, who has coal interests, and then you’ve got us- it’s like a barbell, two groups trying to come together to create this law about getting off of fossil fuels- it’s really difficult to do that when you have someone whose entire brand is fossil fuels.  

At the state level, I think the biggest hurdle is prioritization. Just really getting elected officials to see EJ in all the policies that they that they do, and not separating it and creating [a dynamic] where X thing is more important than environmental justice or this X thing is more important than climate. There are competing interests, but it’s not something that needs to be separated from anything else, it doesn’t need to be an “if/or, one or other” thing.  

Do we give the kids free lunch or do we abate the lead? That shouldn’t be the option, it should be all the things can happen at the same time, they should be happening at the same time. 

Also, if there’s allegedly no money to do something and you lose the economic will, you’ll have the policies and you’ll have all the legislation want, but if there’s no money to do that thing or to enforce it or to promote it, then it can fall by [the wayside].  

I think getting everyday people really to understand what EJ is and what climate justice is, how it affects their lives day to day. 

And you sympathize- when we work with some of our members it’s really hard to get some of our members to advocate for environmental justice when they have quote unquote “competing interests,” like the immediate need for a single income family trying to make sure they have heat and electricity because they can’t afford their bill but trying to get them to understand that that is also an environmental justice issue- this is how, and you can mobilize and speak up. I call it a hurdle, something that you can definitely jump over, it’s just getting and building that momentum to knock down some of those barriers. 

RN: Right now in New York there’s a bill in committee, Senate Bill 1031, that is trying to include new language for environmental impact statements were no action can be approved or carry out if it contributes to disproportionate or inequitable pollution burden on environmental justice communities. What has WE ACT’s role been around this legislation? 

LJ Portis: Last week we had a virtual lobby day. Our head of policy, Sonal Jessel, helped coordinate that along with JustGreen Partnership, NYLPI, which is a legal group, Clean and Healthy New York, and other groups came together. We had a full advocacy day where we virtually blocked the whole day, breaking up in half hour segments, and you slide in Assembly members and Senators to advocate for the bill, and you have these meetings and you come into this virtual rooms to connect them with advocates. We talk about the bill- what is important, why is it important, how is it going to work. Also, at our membership level, we’re making sure our members are really involved in this cumulative impacts work as well, and also getting other community members to understand what it is and why it’s important. 

To be honest, cumulative impact has been discussed at both the Federal and State level and it’s interesting cuz it’s not like it has opposition as much as- sometimes some bills to some legislators are not sexy enough and that’s the best way I can describe it. Like, “it’s a great idea, but it doesn’t do anything for my political clout at all.” 

Both bills were introduced last session and passed the Senate, and so our goal now is to get the Assembly on board, so that’s where the efforts have been focused. We’ve been meeting with Assembly members and some of the Senate co-sponsors, to make sure that they help push their colleagues along.  

RN: If you were to give some advice to another state environmental justice organization or an organization that maybe hasn’t historically been working on environmental justice issues but wants to step into that space, do you have any advice on how to talk about environmental justice policies and issues with state lawmakers, do you have any tips? 

LJ Portis: I do have tips! I think one of the biggest tips is really know the legislator and their office, their constituency, their district, and their priorities. Environmental justice can be in a lot of different avenues of policy, so if you’re someone who’s looking to broadly promote environmental justice, I would look and see what kind of environmental or climate thing interests them. Some state legislators may have low hanging fruit laws- some of them may really love bicycling, and so they really want bike lanes, they’re passionate- lean into it, go with it, and then add the environmental justice aspect to get them on board with something that they’re passionate about. You can just slide in some of the other stuff that you want to talk about as well. You’re like, “Well since you’re such an advocate about this, or you want to work on this, what about this other connection.” There’s a good way to ease into the environmental justice conversation, especially if they’re not really invested to begin with.  

I think another thing too is know your allies, and that’s my second one. I think that’s probably something to do first. Know who already is championing what you want to do within your legislature and become their best friend and strategize with them and work with them as much as possible. 

As you do the work it’s not always the easiest- once you get through the battle and the advocacy aspect and pushing the bill language and all that back and forth- once you pass something, one of the things that’s really important is implementation and evaluation. As a policy nerd, it’s frustrating that that’s usually overlooked, people take the victory lap and everyone passes out because they’re so tired after all the work they’ve done. But the work didn’t stop. Really make sure you’re on top of the evaluation and the actual implementation of the work that you’ve worked so hard to champion for.  

I think the last thing is pull together other people, other groups in your state or other coalitions, find out who’s doing the same kind of work, learn from what they’re doing as well. Pull them into the fold, there’s strength in numbers.  

Some legislators will claim that they’re all about the data and the numbers and the research. Great- find someone who’s doing that research. You can get the lung association on your side to talk about electric school buses. Then legislators say, “Oh wait, this is serious because the American Lung Association is talking about it.”  

RN: What’s your biggest accomplishment to date or what aspect of your work are you most proud of? 

LJ Portis: This is easy, it’s always gonna be your first win, when you start doing the work. WE ACT basically had been working on electric school bus local legislation to mandate electric school buses and that was in 2018, a bill had popped up, it had been passed around a couple of times. Advocacy was high, and then it was low in 2019. Then 2020 happened … so a lot of things failed so when I came into WE ACT last year, a few weeks after they kind of re-kickstarted the campaign for electric school buses. They restarted the talks about the legislation, rewriting the bill. I was really instrumental in being a part of that and making sure that there was environmental justice language within the actual bill, like actually codified, using the words “environmental justice.” 

I did a lot of the back end of talking to Council members, making sure that they’re all on board and we were able to pass legislation at almost the 11th hour, it was very nerve wracking because there’s some things going on between City Council members and it was a very last-minute thing. We ended up passing what’s now called Local Law 120 which mandates that school buses become electric by 2035. It was my first win so that’s going to be the thing I’m most proud of right now.  

We have a very ambitious 2022 policy agenda and so hopefully we get all those wins that we want to get.  

RN: Is there anything else that you want to bring up that we didn’t discuss?  

LJ Portis: I do love the questions about cumulative impacts, as you have more and more conversations with the state work that you’re doing and advocacy work, I would definitely say dig into that. I think it’s really important to understand cumulative impacts in this space, and what that means, and how it’s preventable and there’s lots of ways to do it. Hopefully if New York state passes their cumulative impacts bill that’s something you can add to your tracker and say “Look, other states have done this, people need to do it.”  

I think really kind of understanding the historical aspect of why environmental justice is what it is and really understanding environmental racism and being really comfortable using the word racism, whether you are a person of color or not, just being really comfortable using that phrase in this context to really understand the history of things that we should be ashamed of our past as a nation. But that does not mean that we cannot learn from them, rectify them, and then make laws and legislation that prevent these kinds of things from happening again.   

RN: Can I ask what your hot take is on the federal government’s new tool (Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool) that doesn’t include race? 

LJ Portis: We don’t have time [laughs]. Overall, disappointed, right? That’s the general tone that we’re going to have. This idea of being afraid of this idea, of “Ooh, what if there’s litigation?” Let there be litigation. We have to have this conversation, let’s grapple with whatever thing we need to grapple with.  

I will say though at the state level, we have our own greenhouse gas emission reduction goal by law and part of that is ensuring that disadvantaged communities get at least 35% of the benefits of the climate work that’s being done, which is what Justice40 was modeled off of. Part of the CLCPA [Climate Leadership And Community Protection Act] is defining disadvantaged communities and guess what’s in our indicators at the state level? Race. Not only that, it’s doubled down, it’s literally weighted twice as much because it is the biggest indicator. Also, redlining is in there as well, which was a lot of technical work. Our Policy Director Sonal did a lot of the work with the working group at the state level to really come up with that definition. They recently had a discussion about that definition and race was an indicator and no one’s batting an eye. And people were like, “Well, what if…” I’ve been using the phrase “Come at me bro”- we’re keeping this in here, because it’s what we want, if they want to take it out, then we’re prepared to have that conversation because it’s going to be plenty of challenges for the CLCPA in general, expecting lots of legal challenges from a lot of different industries. So, we’ll have that conversation in New York and will tell you how that goes. 

It’s important to have the conversation and know that race is the most important aspect and it’s okay to say that that’s the case, to rectify the wrong. There may be a time where, if we do this correctly, that that will be so antiquated and years from now, people will say, “I can’t believe that race was an issue with environmental placing and stuff like that”- that’s the world I envision, it’s the one that says, “I can’t believe back then that was a problem.”