Our interview with Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, Rev. Mariama White-Hammond
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond is an ecological justice advocate, the pastor of New Roots African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dorchester, and now Boston’s new Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, appointed by Mayor Kim Janey. She grew up in Roxbury, a designated Environmental Justice Community, and hopes to build on her experience to help the city equitably transform itself to meet the needs of the community and fight the climate crisis.
I recently spoke with White-Hammond about her environmental vision. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can also read my recent article about Boston’s environmental priorities here.
On her top priorities:
Food justice and heat islands are two things that we are prioritizing because they matter, but also because in the recovery period, these are things that are pretty crucial. We’ve seen in this last year how many of us are food insecure, and there is great work already happening in the Office of Food Security, and out of Health and Human Services. The Department of Neighborhood Development has also been doing great work.
What we would like to add to the mix is: how can we be thinking even more not just about people buying food, but people growing food? And how can giving people access to space to grow food also be part of our resilience strategy? We’re not going to be doing that work by ourselves, this will be with these two other departments, and cabinets that have already really started the work.
With the heat islands, again, that was work already moving, but there are some resources with COVID to help people recover, and what we know is that some of our neighborhoods that had real challenges around heat also have had real challenges around COVID. So how can we help those folks to recover in a way that’s strong and equitable? And recognizing that if a lot of what we’re doing is asking people to go outside to interact, we need to make sure that they’re not going to fry when they’re out there. So how do we look at ways to provide more shade, looking at interventions like putting in a little bit more soil, greenery. Even those small interventions that can begin to lower temperatures.
And we’re also gonna look at what people need in their homes. We want to do that in the greenest possible way. But we cannot have our folks, as they’re getting more accustomed, and finding the courage to go out, as not everybody’s ready to go out, we need to make sure that we cannot lose a single person to baking in their homes. That’s not what an equitable recovery looks like.
Finally, in terms of green jobs, there’s been lots of work on green jobs. It’s something I was working on really actively before I came in, and the question is: How can we move from a conversation about Green Jobs to begin implementing some real pathways around Green Jobs?
We know that arborists, for instance, it’s a good profession, and they are struggling to find enough folks to fill those jobs. Well, if they’re looking for folks to fill jobs, what can we do to help our students in local public schools to know what they need to do to get into those jobs? And there are many green jobs, jobs that have long-term security, jobs that pay well, but we want to make sure that our residents know how to get into those professions, and that we are supporting our institutions like Ben Franklin Institute of Technology, like Roxbury Community College, that have already made investments around teaching and training people.
On short-term vs long-term goals
You know, COVID is on everyone’s mind right now. And I think the best way to organize people is to meet them where they are. So how do we start where folks are already thinking, and build that into something that makes the city more sustainable? And yea, I hope we’re gonna be able to keep those folks in some other conversations about development and wetlands and building performance standards, there’s a lot of other things that we’re gonna be looking at.
These three things are things I think are very tangible and accessible for folks who may not consider themselves environmentalists, and they might not have thought about some other issues. These are things that touch people’s lives in really tangible ways, every time you have to cook dinner, and every time you swelter. I grew up in a house on the third floor with no air conditioning, and that was before climate change has gotten as bad as it is, so I know what that means to deal with summer heat. We want to lean in on these very tangible things that folks are facing, and go from there.
I think as an example of where we’re going long-term, we have a grant program that opened on April 26, and it’s part of the Air Pollution Control Commission, which is also part of our work in environment. We’re inviting community members to get engaged around ways to improve air quality, and we’re being really expansive. We’re really excited, one of the projects that’s happening in Roxbury is that we have this new car share that’s gonna be income tiered, so it’s gonna pay attention to how much money you have, and allow you to use a car share based on that. …
We’re trying to engage folks, make it super accessible. There’s an image of who an environmentalist is, and it’s not me, and I’m very aware of that. We want our whole city to engage, because we’ve gotta change. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges, climate change is very real, and if we don’t change on a fundamental level, we are all gonna suffer, deeply.
On the significance of the Green New Deal to the Janey administration
That’s a good question, and that’s not a conversation I’ve had with the mayor, so I couldn’t say in great depth how she sees it. I know she supports it, that’s why she’s put a million dollars into this green jobs program. It’s really exciting to come in and have some resources to get that done, and she sort of said to us ‘Run with it.’ What she has said is, and we’re in total agreement here, ‘We’re not gonna spend those million dollars just talking about what we hope might happen with green jobs, right? How do we get some things moving on the ground, how do we support some folks who are already moving?’
So there’s a lot of agreement across the council, there’s been multiple initiatives, and yes, I did some state-wide organizing around this, and region-wide organizing. The same communities that have been burdened with pollution have also been burdened with unemployment, so it just makes sense to say ‘How can we engage you in the work to turn this around?’ The mayor is very clear about equity being at the heart of her administration, and so that’s what we’re trying to do with green jobs: really make sure that the benefits flow to those communities that have been traditionally left out.
On differences from the Walsh Administration
I knew him well, he was my neighbor, and I saw him grow in his climate commitment over his time as Mayor. A lot of the initiatives that I’m working on are building on that. I do also think we are putting equity more clearly at the center of the work. Not that it was lacking, it was there, it was one of the pieces that people were looking at. We want it to be the starting point of how we’re approaching the work. I think that you’ll see a deeper commitment, and a more shared commitment, because that’s a charge she’s made not just to us, but to every department, to go deeper in their commitment to equity, and we’re looking forward to doing that.
On the proposed Eversource East Boston substation
Oh man, this process has been so flawed. I’ve been in it from the beginning, I remember I was at the hearing where Channel Fish argued that it was not safe for their machines to be close to the substation, and then I was like ‘So if machines for dead fish are not safe near the substation, why would children be safe near the substation?’ The data that Eversource is using to justify the substation is from 2013. I mean, do you remember what you were doing in 2013? The world has changed a lot since then, and so, Mayor Janey’s first push is ‘You need to justify that the rationale that you’re using for this substation to be needed is actually still valid.’
So we are exploring every option. This is an example of where she is taking a more pointed stance than was taken by previous administrations. It’s just the textbook definition of environmental injustice. A community that’s had nearly a third of its land taken by the airport for the benefit of the entire region, and then has to live near jet fuel, and salt heaps, and heating oil, and parking lots for people to go to the airport. A community where many people don’t speak English as their first language. They’re asked to take on another environmental burden, and it’s just not right. So the mayor has decided that sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and Eversource has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to environmental justice. We hope they will take that invitation. But if not, we’re going to be very clear in our stance about the injustice of this project.
On working with the Gov. Baker
I am really thankful for some of what Governor Baker has said. Earlier this year he said that climate change is an urgent challenge that requires action, and that’s where we’re starting. It is an urgent challenge that requires action. Sometimes that action is gonna be challenging. Sometimes it’s gonna mean we’ve gotta hold even our own friends’ feet to the fire because they’re not necessarily ready to change. So I think it’s a real opportunity, because I think that the Baker Administration has relationships with entities that need to shift, and we would love to see Governor Baker challenge those groups to shift.
I was active in the Roadmap mostly around this issue of environmental justice language. From what we could see, the governor’s office was really supportive around the environmental justice language, which is really exciting. Now we could use their help implementing those environmental justice regulations in very real active struggles and challenges that are going on.
On ‘Next Generation Roadmap’ and the work needed on implementation to meet the state and city’s climate goals
I think what I’ve learned over the years as an activist is that it’s all about the implementation. So I think the roadmap gives us some good targets, and it also includes some timelines. But complying with those will require courage, some political courage. And I am the eternal optimist, but we’re gonna need some folks to step up who here-to-for have not done so. So we will see. I believe in targets, because if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you’ve gotten there? And I’ve also found that targets don’t always mean that people will follow up with the necessary action, so we’ll see.
That’s where we’ve struggled constantly. And we should applaud, you know, Boston has gotten number one in energy efficiency and Massachusetts has gotten number one in energy efficiency. What I would like to see is: let’s not compare ourselves to other US states, let’s compare ourselves to Europe, and then that would propel us to go much further than we have already gone. I think that the Roadmap puts us in the right target zone to go deeper, but it will also require a shift in our political process and approach in order to execute them. Like the Department of Public Utilities. Justice and equity have been a real challenge for them, a real challenge for them. They’ll have to shift. Lots of people will have to shift. I believe people can change, I’m a pastor, I am eternally believing in people to change, but I think just because you write it down, doesn’t make it so. Each day you have to live into the new future that you hope for, and walk away from those bad habits that have been holding you back, and so now, the rubber has to meet the road.
On the mayor’s ‘Joy agenda’
I think that the mayor is saying, sort of reminding us that the toll that Covid has taken on us is not just on our physical bodies, and just even our finances. It’s also really, in many instances, shaken us to our core. And some of what we need to do is find a way to smile, to enjoy each other’s company, to reweave community, and I think, to do better. To come back better than we were before, and to come back together, stronger, and with deeper love for one another, because we appreciate now more than ever how much we need each other.
So I think, there might be some who would shake that off as not important policy, but from my perspective, given the offense of this past year the pain that we have all felt but particularly the pain that has been felt in the black community post George Floyd, the questions, the fear felt in the Asian community. We need to smile, and laugh, and roll in the grass, and paint, if we are gonna find the creativity and courage we need to become the city we want to be.
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.