Connecting Iowa, Environmental Justice, and Black History

posted by Dr. Brian Campbell on Friday, February 10, 2023

How are we recognizing Black History Month at the Iowa Environmental Council? We want to share with you some of what we’re doing, and we want to invite you to partner with us as we explore the history and shape the future of environmental justice in Iowa. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast in Des Moines January 16, 2023We got an early start in January. On Martin Luther King Day, we were excited to partner with the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, whose annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast featured a keynote from noted environmental justice scholar and activist — and Iowa State University graduate — Dr. Robert Bullard.

Dr. Bullard addressed an audience of several hundred Iowans, tracing the history of environmental justice from the story of Dr. King and the civil rights movement to the African-American leaders who organized against the unjust impacts of environmental pollution in black neighborhoods. He emphasized that women, young people, and faith leaders have been key throughout this history, like the activists in Warren County, North Carolina who were repeatedly arrested in 1982 for blocking truckloads of toxic waste from being dumped in their community. I encourage you to learn more about that struggle, which birthed the environmental justice movement. 

Bullard’s keynote was far more than a history lesson; it was a call to action and a celebration of the historic opportunities we have to address environmental justice today. He shared his experience from the recent global climate talks in Egypt, where the key issue being debated was “loss and damage” payments, or what some would call climate reparations. What obligation do wealthy, industrialized nations, who are responsible for the bulk of climate pollution, have to poor countries in the global south, who are most vulnerable to climate risks? After decades of organizing, environmental justice activists now have a seat at the table, demonstrating the urgency and power of this global movement.

He also celebrated the growing attention to environmental justice in the U.S., where the federal government’s Justice 40 Initiative has committed that at least 40% of the benefits of clean energy and climate investments will go to historically disadvantaged communities. With hundreds of billions of dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, this is an historic moment for groups like ours to work with partners and ensure all Iowans benefit from these investments. 

Environmental Justice Summit in Des MoinesThat’s why we were so excited to host a “Summit on Environmental Justice in Iowa” immediately following the breakfast. More than 50 people attended, including over a dozen leaders from IEC member organizations and partner groups across the state, who worked with us to plan and lead small group conversations. We shared our stories, our sense of outrage, and our sense of hope for what’s possible.  

Together, summit participants identified environmental justice issues in our context, including things like... 

  • disparities in urban tree cover and exposure to urban heat; 
  • unequal vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather;
  • workplace health and safety, especially for essential workers; 
  • increased risks of asthma and respiratory disease; 
  • unequal access to fresh, local food and land to grow food.  

We identified ways our history has shaped the present-day landscape, including issues like... 

  • the legacy of redlining and disinvestment in black neighborhoods;
  • the removal of indigenous Iowans from their lands; 
  • industrial brownfield sites, like manufacturing facilities and coal plants, which disproportionately impact poor communities and people of color. 

The Summit inspired us to continue learning more about this history as we work to address these challenges today. Through our partnership with Drake Community Press, we working toward a book about environmental justice in Iowa. This month, we have a new group of Drake students who will be scheduling interviews with Iowans who want to share their stories and perspectives on environmental justice. In a couple of weeks, our staff will be traveling with this group of undergraduates on a field trip to Waterloo, where we’ll meet with environmental justice leaders and visit sites in that community where the legacy of industrial pollution is an ongoing challenge.

We would love to gather stories from people and places across the state, so let me know if you want to schedule an interview, if you have an environmental justice site you think we should investigate, or if you would like to host a similar environmental justice summit with your organization or in your community, contact me at

Iowa Energy & Infrastructure Funding HubThe Summit also inspired us to continue growing our coalition of people and organizations committed to addressing environmental justice now and in the future. Our Iowa Energy & Infrastructure Funding Hub has resources for individuals, businesses, non-profits, and local governments seeking to navigate the billions of dollars in grants and rebates, especially proposals targeting historically disadvantaged communities. We would love to help you and your community develop a proposal, and we’re thrilled to hear conversations already underway among government agencies, universities, and community organizations in Iowa pursuing federal environmental justice grants.

We’re grateful for the Iowa BlueGreen Alliance, a new coalition convening conversations among labor and environmental groups to ensure workers of all backgrounds benefit from emerging job opportunities in clean energy. We’re also excited for growing conversations about health equity and environmental justice, addressing issues like indoor air quality, safe drinking water, lead pipe replacement, access to safe recreational spaces, and access to healthy foods. 

This month, as we give special attention to the history and future of environmental justice in Iowa, we at IEC are also spending lots of time at the Capitol. We are troubled by the flurry of legislation that aims to limit Iowans’ freedom to teach and learn about issues of race, equity, identity, and justice, past and present. We cannot preserve and protect our natural environment without also recognizing the dignity of all people in Iowa. We cannot address issues like climate change, clean energy, clean water, and land conservation without also addressing the threats to our most marginalized communities. 

I spent most of my life in the Deep South, in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina; long before I had heard the language of environmental justice, I had questions about where I lived. Why were there more smokestacks in my Black friends’ neighborhood and none in the white area where I lived? Why did we have sidewalks and parks, and they didn’t? Why did the air smell so foul in the rural community nearby that was home to so many factories and also so many poor people? Wrestling with these questions helped me make sense of the place I grew up. It helped me make sense of my own identity and the work I felt called to do. My own life has been infinitely more meaningful because I have had opportunities to learn from and with people of color whose life experience has been different from mine, and because I have been inspired by people like Dr. Bullard and long-established environmental justice organizations. 

For the past decade, I have tried to understand my new home here in Iowa and the environmental challenges and opportunities we face. As you celebrate Black History Month, I hope you will find ways to explore the people and places around you, and I hope you will find partners you can raise questions with about the past, present, and future of environmental justice in our state. IEC will continue to share what we’re learning, and we are excited to connect with you as we grow in this work.  

Upcoming Events and Articles to Consider

  1. environmental justice
  2. inflation reduction act (ira)
  3. jedi
  4. racial justice

About The Author

Brian Campbell served as Executive Director of the Iowa Environmental Council from 2020-2022. Prior to his role with IEC, Brian worked for more than six years as the as Director of Sustainability - Education and Partnerships at Central College in Pella to integrate sustainability t ... read more