Earth Day and Equity

How Can the Earth Day Movement Continue to Support Equity & Justice


Earth Day has been an international event and movement since 1970 and one of the most widely observed secular holidays. At the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (the Agency), we try to live with the sentiment that Earth Day is everyday, so everyone, everywhere can breathe clean and healthy air. We also make sure we participate in something extra on this special day.

This past Earth Day, Agency staff visited a variety of community-led clean-up events hosted by the Duwamish Alive! Coalition, with most of the sites located in two of our focus communities of South Park-Georgetown and Tukwila-Allentown—communities that are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. We took this as an opportunity to support like-minded organizations and let the community know we are here to support them and their efforts of ecological restoration.

We began the day visiting clean-up sites along the Duwamish River where volunteers were working to protect and restore the health of the local watershed. From an ancient bog to a salmon-bearing creek, it was clear that the vitality of the Duwamish River is connected to both the natural and community ecosystems. This was an enriching outreach experience as we were able to meet volunteers, partner organizations and community members at the many different environmental clean-up sites. To see the diversity of organizations and volunteers, old and young alike, rolling up their sleeves to make a difference was inspiring. It also gave us hope that the next Earth Day, and many more after, will include a wide diversity of people and events as this provided an example of an inclusive approach to improving the environmental quality of an area.   


The external aspects of the environment are not the only things that matter to communities, however. Many low-income communities and communities of color are also adversely affected by impacts of climate change, which are both visible and invisible. The beginnings of the Earth Day movement always had equity concerns at its core, which amalgamated a variety of environmental issues and raised awareness that these seemingly separate facets are indeed connected. The movement also led to many unprecedented political changes that brought the greatest benefit to the low-income communities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, which led to the passing of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Quality Improvement Act, and many other things that were critical for improving ecological sustainability and health for all people.

Earth Day was a launching pad for the modern environmental movement that brought together many different people with a common interest. The next phase of this movement is critical in an uncertain political climate with many low-income communities and communities of color still facing high levels of air and water pollution. So what will the next phase look like alongside current social justice issues? How can it continue to address, in an inclusive way, all aspects of environmental justice and equity concerns?


Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day says, “The popular narrative is that 'the environment' is a white, suburban issue. But the Black Congressional Caucus has perhaps the strongest environmental voting record in Congress. And the most consistently pro-environment constituency in polls is Hispanic. The reasons are clear—low-income communities suffer the greatest burdens from all environmental problems, from poisonous effluent plumes to a simple lack of contact with nature. Earth Day 2020 will highlight the social justice aspects of environmental issues. It will place special emphasis on the disproportionate impact of climate change and the resulting floods, fires, droughts, hurricanes, and other extreme consequences for low-income communities and the destitute of the world. And it will ensure that resulting policies are sensitive to the special needs of those living at the margin.”

Much like the first call to action in 1970, there needs to be yet another one with equity and justice at the center, in order for the environmental movement to go to the next level so all people are empowered to be an agent for change. It is important to remember that change can look many different ways, whether it is cleaning up your local watershed, supporting local environmental justice issues, or connecting with nature in some way. So what can you do to help champion the next iteration of the environmental movement to ensure the issues and concerns of those affected first are heard and addressed? 

By Joanna Gangi, Equity and Community Engagement Communications Specialist