Why Does the State Allow Environmental Inequalities to Persist? Talking with Jill Lindsey Harrison

“What state and federal environmental regulatory agencies in the US have not yet done is reform the way agency staff make decisions.”

Jill Lindsey Harrison cares deeply about environmental justice. In my experience, that kind of caring is not an asset when talking to environmental regulators: too much passion can easily get you branded as a pain in the neck. That’s why Harrison’s latest book, From the Inside Out: The Fight for Environmental Justice within Government Agencies, is such a remarkable achievement. Regulators spoke candidly with Harrison and allowed her to sit in on meetings, revealing both their hopes for environmental justice and how their institutional cultures get in the way. For us pains-in-the-neck, the book’s nuanced account provides rare insight into how regulators think and what needs to change if agencies are to be real allies in the pursuit of environmental justice.

Harrison is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her previous book, Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice (2011), was honored with the 2012 Fred Buttel Outstanding Scholarly Achievement Award, from the Rural Sociological Society, and the 2012 Association of Humanist Sociology Book Award. She has recently joined the US Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which advises the agency’s administrator on matters related to environmental justice.

Gwen Ottinger (GO): Could you crystallize the main points of From the Inside Out?


Jill Lindsey Harrison (JLH): In this book, I look at state and federal environmental regulatory agencies’ efforts to address environmental injustice—the fact that racially marginalized, Indigenous, and working-class communities bear the greatest burden of environmental problems.

In response to the demands from environmental justice movements for more equitable regulation of environmental conditions, these agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have done various things in the name of environmental justice (EJ). They have passed EJ policies, convened EJ advisory committees, created EJ grant programs, and established EJ screening tools, which are mapping technologies that enable users to identify the scope of environmental hazards spatially, and how that relates to different forms of social vulnerability, like poverty.

These agencies have also appointed or hired EJ staff. These are folks who work within these agencies, or, in some cases, who have been brought in from the outside. In most cases, these individuals already worked for the agency and now have been formally tasked with overseeing the design and implementation of EJ reforms. In most environmental regulatory agencies in the US, there is maybe one person with that role. In recent years, the US EPA had several dozen such staff across its 15,000 or so total employees. So, EJ staff are rare within any agency. And it’s important to note that most of these individuals have no authority over anybody else in their agency.

Those are the types of primary steps that agencies have taken so far in the name of environmental justice. They have required a lot of work and persistence. But what is important—and this is something that you really have to read between the lines for, because agencies don’t emphasize this—is to identify what they haven’t done. And what state and federal environmental regulatory agencies in the US have not yet done is reform the way agency staff make decisions about permit applications, write regulations, and enforce environmental laws and regulations. These are the decisions that exacerbate—or could reduce—environmental inequality.

Such meaningful EJ reforms to permitting, rulemaking, and enforcement are possible. I spell out in the book what these more substantial reforms could look like. Legal scholars have shown that many of them are entirely consistent with agencies’ regulatory authority. Many of these reforms can be done with existing resources; and they are essential for actually changing material conditions on the ground to reduce environmental inequalities across communities and to decrease cumulative environmental impacts in the communities that are most overburdened and vulnerable to the effects of exposure to those hazards. And yet, agencies are not doing them.

So, the question is: Why? Why are they not implementing such reforms? What agency leadership and staff will tell you is: “Our hands are tied. We do not have the authority or resources to implement the reforms EJ advocates are calling for.” And to some extent, this is supported by scholarship that shows the political-economic constraints on agency practice—the ways in which powerful industry actors pressure policymakers and agency leadership to not regulate hazardous industries too stringently.

We saw clear examples of this during the Trump administration, with the appointment of different industry actors into leadership positions within these agencies, and then they changed regulations and otherwise informally limited the extent to which agencies could restrict environmental hazards across their jurisdictions. A related part of that story is that industry-supportive legislators have cut the budgets of these agencies, thereby limiting staff members’ abilities to invest time into changing the way work is done.

So, part of what I do up front in the book is show that there is certainly some truth to this narrative about why agencies’ EJ reform efforts fall so far short of EJ movement principles. But I also show that there is more that agencies could be doing, even in existing conditions of constrained resources and limited analytical toolkits.


GO: Right.


JLH: So, then the question is: What else is going on? There is something else. In order to figure out what else is going on, I conducted qualitative research. I conducted an extensive array of confidential, in-depth interviews with agency staff across state and federal environmental regulatory agencies. About half of those I interviewed are EJ staff. The remaining half are other folks who work within these agencies and have had some familiarity with EJ reform efforts. I also conducted observations of staff as they interacted in meetings about proposed EJ reforms, and I collected and analyzed agency documents pertaining to or relevant to environmental justice.

What I found through all of this research—through analyzing my interview data and observational data and the documents that I amassed—is that agencies’ EJ reform efforts are limited not only by these external factors that constrain what staff think they can justifiably do; they are also constrained by elements of their workplace culture that compel some staff to push back against these reforms, that compel staff to see and to challenge EJ reforms as inconsistent with what it means to do good work within their agencies.

Agencies’ staff have some discretion—they make decisions about how to do good work—and while some use that discretion to help develop and advocate for EJ reforms, others use their discretion to push back against them. EJ staff and supportive colleagues face considerable resistance from coworkers who stridently reject their proposed EJ reforms as violating what good environmental regulation entails. From the Inside Out focuses on this pushback against environmental justice inside EPA and other environmental regulatory agencies—what forms this pushback takes, where it comes from, and how much it undermines the prospects for crucial EJ reforms to regulatory practice.

Much of the resistance to EJ that I observed and was told about pivoted around the race-conscious nature of EJ reforms, with staff arguing that analyzing and addressing racial environmental inequalities violates their sense of what it means to be fair. That is colorblind racism; it is widespread in US society, and it manifests within these predominantly white organizations in ways that undermine the prospects for EJ reforms.


GO: I got to know your work from your first book, which was actually about activists and the different ways that different kinds of activists defined justice in their EJ work around food and agriculture. And this book is very different. What made you decide that you had to go inside environment agencies for this next project?


JLH: My first book project stemmed from my dissertation research, and it was focused on agricultural pesticide politics in California. What was going on then, in the early 2000s, was that the State of California was making investments in EJ reforms to the California EPA. Regulators were grappling with a question: What does it mean to do environmental justice, in a broad, general sense?

I attended some of the public meetings the agency held about that and found them really intriguing. At the same time, I was interviewing some regulatory staff about conflicts and public dissent, and about how well the agency was addressing pesticides. And some of these staff said, “OK, we can talk about pesticides, but we’re also making all these other investments into what it might mean to change agency work more broadly, across these different material issues that we regulate. So, while folks are challenging us on environmental justice grounds about pesticide drift, we’re also developing agencywide EJ reforms.”

In a sense, From the Inside Out is a response to that invitation by regulators to observe what they were doing in regard to broader EJ reforms. Looking at the agencies’ EJ reform efforts, and their EJ programs, gave me that window into asking this question: What are the prospects for justice in and through the state?


GO: You framed their telling you about environmental justice as an invitation. Were regulatory agencies proud of the work they were doing?


JLH: I would say it’s mixed. Agencies tout their EJ reform efforts, but EJ-supportive staff are frustrated by how little they’ve been able to do that systematically reduces environmental inequalities.

Look at what any given government agency has done on environmental justice. If you look at these efforts from the perspective of EJ movements—what they have been pushing for for so long; the appalling nature of the environmental hazards communities are exposed to; the incredible degree to which they have been functionally dismissed by agencies for so long—you are bound to be disappointed.

Yet, through going inside these agencies, I found that many staff—at all ranks—do not feel disappointed; instead, they disparage proposed EJ reforms as violating what they think it means to be fair and effective. At the same time, I also found that there’s a number of staff pushing hard for changes to the ways that decisions are made within their agencies. They are fighting for environmental justice from the inside of these agencies.

That diversity of thought around these issues within agencies is part of what I wanted to lift up with this book. I think we need to recognize that diversity of thought for both empirical and political reasons.

First, there is passion and momentum for environmental justice within these agencies. These are EJ allies, and they are innovating ways to help the EJ movement penetrate these organizations. Just like the “insider activists” that scholars have identified in other settings, these people are part of the broader movement and have a special ability to help effect change. We need to harness their power.

Second, recognizing that diversity of thought also means grappling with the fact that a lot of staff within these agencies do not see environmental justice as consistent with their agencies’ mission, they don’t see it as consistent with what they should be doing to be good environmental stewards. That is the more disappointing and heartbreaking side of the story, but it is something we need to recognize, ask questions about, and challenge.

When we think about President Biden’s call for “building back better” and the future of the US EPA and other government agencies, we have to ask this question: Given my findings about staff pushback against proposed EJ reforms, what is needed to rebuild the EPA into an organization that actually supports environmental justice? Staff are committed to being good environmental stewards and public servants. But we need to find ways to move environmental justice to the center of what that means.


GO: I very much appreciate your identifying that diversity of thought and looking from the viewpoint of different staff members. But I want to bring you back to a key question: What are the prospects of justice through the state? Because highlighting diversity among staff at agencies doesn’t resolve that question. I wonder if you have thoughts on how to move between the level of individual diversity and the level of the state as an institutional actor, either conceptually or politically?


JLH: This is one of the key questions of our time. Black Lives Matter and related movements for racial justice have been lifting the veil on how incredibly violent state institutions and state actors have been and can be.

A lot of scholars have rightly attended to this and asked important questions about whether it even makes sense to think about pursuing justice in and through state institutions, if our vision of justice is one that takes seriously the experiences and calls of folks in overburdened, marginalized, and violently oppressed communities.

Still, the reality that keeps me looking for signs of hope within state institutions is that the state is still there. We can turn away from it and we can lift up the really important work beyond the state that various communities of different stripes are doing to pursue a more just world—yet, the state will still play this incredibly pervasive role in our lives, in highly unequal ways.

That reality has inspired me to continue to look within state institutions for those signs of resistance within them, and to really think about the ideologies and the material constraints that shape the efforts of staff and the movement members who are advising them to reform state institutions in ways that can help to serve justice.

The question is: Why? Why are they not implementing such reforms?

GO: It’s clear you come to this work with real commitment to environmental justice. Yet your field work shows that you got very candid responses from people who think it’s all nonsense. People said some really dismissive and offensive things to you; I’m sure even more so than what made it into the book. And they were not only dismissive of you, but dismissive of the public or of communities of color that are being harmed by EPA decisions or agency decisions.

I’m curious to know how you navigated your role as a researcher, on the one hand, and someone who is personally committed to environmental justice, on the other? How, in doing the research, did you show up in a way that allowed you to build trust with your interviewees but that still felt like it had integrity?


JLH: I approach my interviews by putting EJ reforms, broadly defined, on the table. Then I ask staff to describe for me how they feel about them, what they think those reforms should entail, and what they have found troubling so far in their agencies’ EJ reform efforts. I come to the table to say: “I’m interested in these reforms, but I also want to hear from staff on the inside about which of these make sense to you and which don’t and why.”

I am certain that my whiteness played a role in many of my research participants’ comfort with being critical of their agencies’ EJ investments. Those critiques came from white people. I can only imagine that our presumed shared whiteness played a role in fostering that comfort, when they probably would not have expressed these same criticisms had it been a scholar of color who came to interview them. And that is, in part, because environmental justice explicitly calls out the racially inequitable nature of environmental regulation, and environmental hazards more broadly, and calls on agencies to take a race-conscious approach to environmental regulation, but in a context of considerable white resentment of such demands.

My job is to try to understand the ways my interview participants see the world and to use that to help explain social phenomena. I try very hard to put my judgements aside while I am in the field and analyzing my data, to focus on using my time to learn from my participants. That said, I don’t hold back in my writing in terms of making clear which perspectives I find heartening and which I disagree with. In doing so, I strive to help explain why it is that people do things that we find confusing or frustrating.


GO: Or maddening, I would add.


JLH: Yes, maddening. Absolutely.


GO: In the book, you don’t hold back in your disagreements and your really honest assessment of where people are working against this broader project for environmental justice. Now that your book is out there, has it changed your relationship with any of the people that you interviewed or the agencies that you spent time with?


JLH: My relationships with some of my key research participants have continued to deepen over time. Those are all staff who have really been invested in environmental justice, some for a long time. And the ones whose ideas and practices I challenge in the book … I haven’t heard from them as much.

I received a lot of communication from staff I’ve known for a long time, as well as from staff I’ve never met before from across the United States, who have been reaching out to me to say: “Your book resonates with my experiences.” It has been heartening to hear from so many different staff from a wide array of agencies.

We are also at a moment when agencies’ feet have been held to the fire for the past year and a half, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans and the ensuing movements for racial justice. Government institutions, like so many other powerful institutions, have been called out and asked to account for their contributions to racial injustice. So, the book came out at a fortuitous moment, in the sense that agencies are doing a lot of work to grapple with how they have been complicit in racial injustice, intentionally or unintentionally, and/or how their practices can be reformed to better address those injustices moving forward. As part of that effort, many agencies have invited me to share my findings with their executive leadership and broader staff.


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I’m cautious, of course, because what really matters is what agencies do with this reckoning. What really matters is the extent to which agencies take advantage of this moment and change the ways they do core regulatory work to reduce environmental inequality, reduce cumulative impacts in the most overburdened communities, and create ways for community members to not just speak but meaningfully influence agency decisions.

Those are some of the key benchmarks of environmental justice when it comes to government agencies, and those are the standards against which we will judge these agencies in the coming years.


GO: You started the research during the Obama years, so you’ve seen two changes of presidential administration. How big a difference do these changes make to the issues you’re highlighting? Does the impact of a new administration filter all the way down to the workplace culture in these agencies?


JLH: Certainly, the changes in presidential administration at the federal level have shown how much changes in leadership can really shape what agencies and the staff within them can do.

Under the Obama administration, we saw an emphasis on environmental justice and some investment in EJ staff. The EPA was able to make some progress on environmental justice that it hadn’t under previous administrations.

But we saw more acutely and more clearly how agencies’ EJ reforms can be influenced by leadership changes when the Trump administration came in. That administration threatened to gut the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice completely, rolled back various regulations, prohibited staff from using certain language, and made other changes that undermined environmental regulation, in general, and the agency’s EJ work, in particular.

The Biden/Harris administration’s emphasis on environmental justice is definitely much greater than what we saw under the Obama administration, in terms of discourse and resources. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is busier than it has ever been, in terms of trying to help all these other offices, across the EPA and other federal agencies, really try to implement the directives of the administration.

So, if you have a context in which leadership is united in support of environmental justice, these changes in leadership can make a big difference. That is, if leadership’s support of environmental justice includes insisting on EJ changes to regulatory practice; holding managers and offices accountable for making EJ reforms; and fostering change in agency culture. (An example of the latter, from the past year, is the “Environmental Justice and Systemic Racism Speaker Series,” which the Office of Environmental Justice implemented.)

On the one hand, some of those investments into cultural change can provoke more resistance from staff who are hostile to environmental justice and racial justice work within their workplaces. On the other hand, in my communications with EJ staff at the EPA and other agencies across the US, I’m hearing that more people than ever are stepping forward to ask how they can help support their agency’s EJ work.

What we’re seeing is that having that leadership endorsement of racial justice work creates space for staff who may have been hesitant but curious to come forward and say, “I’m ready to step in and be part of this work.” That is so important. Making environmental regulatory agencies more just will require all hands on deck. I want to help agency staff be willing and able to step up, join the cause, and implement the reforms we need for a more equitable world.


This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohenicon

Featured Image: Provided by Dr. Jill Lindsey Harrison.