In Chelsea, environmental justice is a political issue
These and other pre-existing environmental factors conspired to place a significant public health burden on Chelsea residents, who are predominantly low-income people of color. (For example, Chelsea had one of the highest prevalence asthma in the state.) It’s no coincidence that COVID-19 has hit this small immigrant town so hard that it has become the first epicenter of the pandemic in the state.
But how do you bring the power of elected officials into the equation? Enter María Belén Power, who was among those advocates who sounded the alarm on Chelsea’s disproportionate environmental risks years before COVID-19. “Massachusetts has a false sense of being progressive,” Power, an immigrant from Nicaragua, told me. “Because you’re so progressive on some issues, you’ll turn a blind eye to all these other issues,” like environmental justice, she said. It wouldn’t have taken COVID-19 for us all to be aware of Chelsea’s inequalities.
Power, which oversees environmental justice campaigns at Green roots, a Chelsea-based nonprofit, feared things would return to normal before the pandemic of blissful ignorance. So she decided to come to the local office – for District 8 seat on Chelsea City Council – to continue to stress the need for local action on policies that lie at the intersection of the environment and not only public health, but also housing and industrial and commercial development.
This is what makes Power’s candidacy so promising. She brings a wealth of experience in environmental justice to a municipal body that can have a huge impact. “Our community was the first and worst affected by the pandemic,” she said. Two-thirds of residents are renters, she said, so they’re prone to displacement. If elected, Power would like to focus on the tools the city has to help landlords and tenants stay in their homes. As for environmental justice, “there are so many industries that I think we can hold more accountable,” she said. Power believes city council has a lot of power that is not being exercised to protect Chelsea residents “from the airport, other polluting facilities”.
Along with other advocates, Power was involved in the multi-year effort to codify the principles of environmental justice into state law, which was finally realized in March. There is now a definition of what an environmental justice community is, and the law gives these communities a greater voice in approving local proposals. Power was also named to the premier White House Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, the only person from Massachusetts among the 26 members. As such, Power is working on Justice of President Biden 40, an effort to deliver at least 40 percent of all federal investments in climate and clean energy to underprivileged communities.
At the election campaign, “someone asked me how the [White House Environmental Justice] advisory board will influence my fieldwork if elected, ”said Power. “I said it was actually the opposite. It is our work on the ground that influences the kind of policies at the federal level that make the most sense.
This has been one of the biggest lessons from the pandemic: the undue burdens on poorer communities like Chelsea, including risks that go far beyond the threat of COVID-19. A certain type of power and neglect left Chelsea vulnerable in the first place. And the only answer is a new wave of political representation.