An Interview with the 2018 Commencement Speaker

This year’s commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2018 will be Peggy Shepherd, one of the country’s leading voices for environmental justice, as well as one of its strongest advocates. The commencement, which will be on June 10, will take place on the campus green.

Shepherd is a Howard University graduate and a co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which started as a grassroots organization in West Harlem of New York City. WE ACT, now a professional advocacy group, was created to combat environmental racism in Manhattan. Environmental racism is a phenomenon supported by evidence from dozens of local and national studies where people of low income – especially those who identify as non-white – are disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation.

Equity in both environmental quality and government response to such grievances is called environmental justice. In 1991, Shepherd joined more than one thousand experts in the field at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. There, the delegates drafted and adopted 17 principles of Environmental Justice, which are still used today. Afterwards, Shepherd dedicated herself to going back home and building community support. In her experience, she has found that the best solutions for environmental justice were the ones that came from those most affected by these issues. Not only does this protect the agency of marginalized communities, the most affected are usually the ones who will be most committed to making change happen.

Since 1988, Shepherd and her organization, WE ACT, have dealt with unfair practices in New York, such as toxic waste from polluting facilities along the West Harlem waterfront, where other wealthier neighborhoods have riverside parks and greenery. For the first six years of Shepherd’s activities in West Harlem, everything was run on a completely volunteer basis while they went through a lawsuit against a local sewage treatment plant. Shepherd then used the resulting settlement to start WE ACT and hire professional employees. She explained that this was because for marginalized communities, it is imperative that advocacy is “institutionalized.”

“People go back to their normal lives [after a time],” said Shepherd, “but these problems are continual.”

This will not be Shepherd and President Mark Burstein’s first meeting. About 15 years ago, when President Burstein worked for Columbia University, he and Shepherd were involved in the planning of a possible partnership between WE ACT and the university. They intended to collaborate on Columbia’s environmental education programs. Education about the environment and environmental justice has been a matter of great importance for WE ACT over the years, and Shepherd has been a leader in community-academic research partnerships to protect the environmental health of children.

Burstein and Shepherd would later find themselves on opposite sides of the table during a disagreement between WE ACT and Columbia over the usage and rights to certain waterfront properties. According to Shepherd, WE ACT had organized 200 locals to develop a community plan for a much-needed waterfront park, which the city agreed to build. However, parts of the plan overlapped with an area that Columbia wanted to use for a campus expansion.

As the President of Lawrence University, Burstein has praised Shepherd for her “strong commitment to important human values and her willingness to negotiate and compromise to achieve her objectives” and as a “wonderful example” for the Lawrence community.

Shepherd amended this characterization by clarifying that compromise does not define her as a negotiator. While compromise is a feature of any policy negotiation, one has to know what is a “no-go” for themselves and the ideals of their organization. In the past, Shepherd has also shown herself to be a bold and determined advocate of marginalized communities, unafraid to walk away from negotiations when there was so much compromise, a policy became meaningless. In addition, she pointed out that the first compromise marginalized communities make is the inequality of the system itself.

As well as a community leader, Shepherd has been a journalist, a TEDx speaker, a former chair of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and a sitting member of several committees within the National Institutes of Health. She has won multiple awards for her work on the environment, including the Rachel Carson Award in 2004 and the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

On June 10, Shepherd will be recognized by Lawrence University with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. This will be her second honorary degree.

For graduates who are passionate about the cause of environmental justice, Shepherd advised that young people do everything they can to participate by volunteering, interning, applying for fellowships, etc. at places they will be nurtured and given the opportunity to excel. Shepherd proclaimed that people from all different backgrounds and experiences have something to offer to this vital issue.