Where does social justice fit into environmental advocacy?

posted by Angelisa Belden on Friday, March 10, 2023

For nearly 30 years, IEC has worked to protect and improve Iowa’s environment through advocacy and policy actions at the state and local levels. From working with state regulatory agencies such as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Utilities Board, to engaging local municipal leaders, to meeting with state legislators, we advise, educate, and advocate for effective policies that will deliver positive environmental benefits at scale.  

Each year during the legislative session, thousands of people rely on our bill tracker, action alerts, and weekly Legislative News Bulletin to keep them informed of issues they care about. Recently, we’ve been receiving inquiries as some individuals and media outlets notice seemingly unrelated issues appear in our legislative work, related to gender, diversity, education, and other more typically social issues.  

So why is IEC registering on such bills? 

Dr. Robert Bullard presenting to a crowd at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast Jan. 2023

As we’ve noted in the past few years, IEC has been increasingly dedicated to protecting the environment for ALL Iowans, and that means some new ways of thinking and engaging. Dr. Robert Bullard put it well in his January keynote address at the YMCA of Greater Des Moines’ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast when he pointed out that your environment is where you live, where you work, what you eat, and so much more. It’s not only a protected pristine wilderness or far off landscape—though those are incredibly valuable and important—but it’s the streams and rivers we encounter on our daily drive, the breeze that blows through our windows, the trees that shade our streets and yards, and so much more. We need safe, healthy environments in our neighborhoods, schools, and factory floors, with clean indoor air and drinking water, free of toxins. 

Environment as Community

Environment isn’t just a physical space, either. Our environment is also our community and how we work together to deliver the promise of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ to all. Legislation that aims to limit Iowans’ freedom to teach and learn about issues of race, equity, identity, and justice, past and present, threatens a safe, healthy environment.

Red sign with text 'Indigenous Justice is Climate Justice' being held up during marchWe 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 vulnerable and marginalized communities.  

That’s why issues of social, environmental, and racial justice have taken focus in our work. We see these issues as linked, even though the environmental connection is not always obvious. When we assess whether to register for or against legislation, we rely on our organizational principles on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. In accordance with those principles, we talk and collaborate about justice impacts with partner organizations who are not necessarily focused on environmental issues. 

Education is Vital

Group having a discussion during IEC's Environmental Justice Summit January 16, 2023Since our founding, IEC has also been an organization committed to education, and especially to education grounded in science. For Iowa to have a healthy, sustainable environment, we need a public that is educated and informed. This means we need strong schools, libraries, newspapers, and other forms of media. We need the freedom to teach about and research a wide range of topics, including those that might make some of us uncomfortable. And we need the courage and humility to listen to and learn from people with different perspectives and experiences than our own. 

Environmental justice is about recognizing and correcting disproportionate impacts of pollution and other environmental harms on vulnerable and marginalized communities. When we practice environmental justice, we are ensuring equitable access to decision-making processes and equal protection from environmental hazards. If we cannot discuss disparities or learn from past injustices, we cannot address environmental justice or fulfill our mission to create a just, healthy environment and sustainable future for all Iowans. 

We are proud to use our voice and expertise to be allies for individuals and institutions in need, as well as Iowa’s wildlife, land, water, and air. Our environment impacts us all and IEC will continue these efforts to protect and defend on all fronts.  

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About The Author

Angelisa served as IEC's Communications Director from 2018 to 2024.

Previously, she worked in membership and marketing for WTTW, Chicago’s PBS station. Angelisa grew up along the Turkey River in Fayette County, Iowa, and earned her B.A. in Communications and Journalism from th ... read more