What does environmental justice look like in the Heartland region?

posted by Guest Blogger on Thursday, May 16, 2024

This blog is from Jeff Severin, Senior Program Manager at the Heartland Environmental Justice Center in Wichita, Kansas.

As the regional environmental justice technical assistance center for Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and adjoining Indigenous Nations, we support communities and organizations as you work toward your environmental justice and energy justice goals. While our primary focus is helping you identify and acquire funding, we can provide a range of services in that pursuit – from helping you organize around issues of concern in your community, to connecting you with technical expertise and other resources, to providing guidance on managing grants once you are funded.

What is meant by environmental justice?

But what do we mean by “environmental justice” to begin with? Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to start by defining what environmental INJUSTICE looks like: when Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income communities disproportionately bear the burden of environmental pollution and degradation.

Bullard Environmental Presentation

In cases of environmental injustice, community members don’t always have the financial or political means to remove themselves from those harms. They may not even be aware of the risks because they have been historically and intentionally left out of conversations about those risks and the environmental decisions that impact their health and well-being.

Environmental justice concerns in the Midwest

We see this happening throughout the Midwest, also known as the “Heartland” region. Indigenous Peoples were among the first to be impacted by environmental injustices as they were forcibly removed from the environments they had been part of for centuries, disconnected from their relationships with the land, and moved to new and often marginal lands.

The impacts are still being felt by Indigenous Nations today, including the Meskwaki Nation (Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa), the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, as well as other Tribal and Indigenous communities throughout our region.

In urban areas, we see communities near fossil-fuel-powered energy plants, industrial complexes, and congested traffic ways – many that were placed to intentionally divide and disrupt Black and Brown communities – experiencing reduced air quality and higher rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Coal Wastewater

Rural areas face their own forms of environmental injustice. Industrial agricultural and extractive mining practices result in air pollution, contaminated drinking water, and associated health conditions in rural and remote communities throughout the region.

And each of these areas in the Heartland experience a host of shared environmental concerns. Brownfields – properties that are contaminated or presumed to be – expose community members to lead paint and other toxins from former industrial uses and create challenges to healthy redevelopment.

Food deserts in urban and rural areas make accessing healthy food difficult for community members. Rising energy costs place a greater burden on low-income communities who now allocate a higher portion of their income to paying utility bills. And exacerbating many of these conditions, the impacts of climate change such as increased flooding, more intense rain and ice storms, tornados, and extended periods of high temperatures, are being felt first by BIPOC and low-income communities.

How can Heartland EJ Center Help?

The Heartland Environmental Justice Center and our partner network won’t be able to completely solve all of these changes, nor fully dismantle the underlying systems that create these injustices in the first place. But we can be a resource and advocate for you by lending our time, expertise, and resources, working alongside you as the experts on your own communities, and boosting your capacity to make meaningful and sustainable changes for your communities.


We look forward to learning more about your work, building lasting relationships with you and your organizations, and ultimately helping you improve the quality of life and well-being of everyone in your community!

About the Author

Jeff Severin HeadshotJeff Severin is a Senior Program Manager at the Heartland Environmental Justice Center where he coordinates and manages the center’s projects and activities. Jeff has spent his entire career focusing on implementing and managing environmental programs with a focus on environmental justice. Jeff has lived in Lawrence, KS, since attending the University of Kansas, graduating with a BA in Environmental Studies and later a Master of Urban Planning with a focus on environmental planning.

About The Author

IEC is pleased to welcome guest bloggers on a number of different topics throughout the year. If you are interested in submitting a blog piece to IEC, contact us at iecmail@iaenvironment.org.