Q&A: White House EJ director talks goals, accountability

By Kelsey Brugger | 07/22/2022 01:37 PM EDT

Jalonne White-Newsome says she wants to make sure environmental justice is “institutionalized” at agencies throughout the government.

Jalonne White-Newsome.

The White House tapped Jalonne White-Newsome to be senior director for environmental justice. University of Michigan

Jalonne White-Newsome will never forget where she was in 2003 when a multistate blackout left 50 million people in the dark for days. She was in Detroit about to get married.

“When the grid went down, I was headed to get my wedding dress,” she recalled last week. “The lights start flashing. The radios went away. I had 12 bridesmaids, eight attendants, all coming from different parts of the country. Folks that were driving in had to get gas before they made it into Michigan. Folks stayed in hotels, they had to use the stairs. Refrigeration was an issue.”

White-Newsome spoke with E&E News three weeks into her new job as White House Council on Environmental Quality environmental justice director, a role that could require her to rely on her even-keel sensibilities during times of chaos.


“It was an experience,” she said with a laugh about the blackout, adding, “It was definitely a deeper appreciation for things that we take for granted.”

White-Newsome enters the White House at a trying time. The Biden administration has missed self-imposed deadlines laid out in an executive order and activists want the White House to do more on climate change, particularly with uneven progress on Capitol Hill.

The former environmental justice director, Cecilia Martinez, quit and told The Washington Post she got “dangerously close to burnout” (E&E News PM, Jan. 10). Criticism from leading environmental justice activists lobbed at Martinez and other White House staff had grown public and awkward (Greenwire, Jan 18).

Last week, White-Newsome met with some of those critics. The rare in-person meeting with leaders of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council was a chance to reset.

“It will take a level of toughness to get some traction where it’s been difficult to get things moving in government,” said longtime environmental justice activist Bob Bullard, an outside adviser to the White House.

White-Newsome has a doctorate in environmental health studies from the University of Michigan, where she researched the health impacts of extreme heat. She worked for the Kresge Foundation on sustainable water resources management. She set up a federal policy office for leading environmental justice organization We Act for Environmental Justice.

White-Newsome led a team that produced a report on how the electric vehicle transition has unintended consequences for Black and Hispanic Americans with high-paying jobs in the auto industry. She was a crusader for Detroit residents after the automaker Stellantis NV built a plant that spewed emissions in a residential neighborhood.

Early in her career, White-Newsome worked 14-hour days as a plant engineer at drywall manufacturer U.S. Gypsum Corp. but was laid off when the company went bankrupt (Climatewire, May 6).

“One day she’s going walk out the door and bump into herself coming in,” said Keith Cooley, board member of Michigan League of Conservation Voters, who worked with her on the report. “She works pretty hard.”

What sparked your interest in environmental issues? 

I think my passion for people and the environment has been something that has been a part of my life since elementary school. It really started with science projects related to air and water, and then coming from a family that is deeply connected to advocacy for those folks that seem to not have a voice or be invisible to society.

What were the science projects? 

I tested water samples from the Rouge River in Detroit, from springs in upper Michigan, and tap water from my home and my grandparents’ home. I used a $5 water testing kit from Home Depot to compare water quality, looking primarily at acidity and pH.

In high school, I conducted an experiment to determine how polluted air impacts the growth of different types of grass. I used my mom’s old diesel car as the pollution source, planting samples of different grass in trays, and sitting the grass behind the tailpipe as the car was running for different periods of time, over a length of days. The goal was to determine how pollution impacted the growth and health of grass.

Were your parents involved in environmental issues? What did they do? 

My father, Joseph White, was a lawyer and his ability to synthesize and make a compelling argument for anything, or anyone, in the courtroom, for a client or family, was amazing. When my dad was college student at Michigan State University, he was a part of a large group of Black students that advocated for the rights of Black students on campus. That never stopped.

And my mother, Terrie Henderson, has been an advocate for low-income families, for those needing a second chance at education, returning to the workforce for all of her life. My mom was born and raised in Detroit and has been an advocate for babies and children, particularly those children that have had to deal with multiple traumas — from family challenges to the impact of lead exposure.

Your parents were involved in the horrific flooding in Michigan last year — that must have been pretty traumatic. What did you learn from the experience?  

That experience with my parents — literally having five floods in the span of two years — by no fault of their own. It was dramatic. When you think about the impact of floods, it’s a physical thing because you’re losing stuff that you can’t replace.

Your home is damaged, but it’s also the mental trauma in the fear that when it rains, it might happen again, and we might have to go through this thing again. And so even after the event happens, then it’s like, ‘OK, so how do we recover?’ And I will say very plainly — that process of getting support, whether it be from local or state, whatever, was very difficult.

How so? 

It was a little bit fuzzy, not transparent, and it definitely caused frustration.

One thing I think about is the access to information. Now, that might seem like not a big deal. But when you are just a regular person, like my parents in their 70s and late 60s, trying to figure out who do we need to send this report to get emergency funds or funds to live someplace. That information was not shared equitably in the different communities that suffered from flooding.

The second thing is — I’m going to bring in kind of my public health perspective — when things happen, healthy conversations around both physical health and mental health are not really a part of that discussion the way they need to be.

It’s like — not only the fact that your home has been compromised. It could be sewage or whatever coming in. They’re not aware that if I go down here and try and get this picture — they’re being exposed and putting themselves in jeopardy. And so, my parents have experienced health issues because of their exposure.

But when those things happened, there wasn’t a local health person on site to say, no, don’t do that. Or bleach and water is not going to kill what’s here.

Then the trauma that comes from it. And so when you continue to be in multiple crises — like many of our communities that suffer with multiple environmental justice concerns and have suffered years and years and decades — that does something to you. Stress kills, it’s in the research.

Let’s talk about your new role as director of environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality. You started a couple weeks ago. What are your goals? 

What I would love to try and accomplish — and what I’d like to say, disrupt in a good way — is really how do we make sure that we do what we said we were going to do in the executive order. The team has been doing a great job of that.

I think the second thing is really making sure that folks understand, and agencies and some of our external partners, that environmental justice is a part of everything. So whether we’re talking about health policy, whether we’re talking about transportation, whether we’re talking about where we get our energy, environmental justice cannot be an afterthought.

I think also it’s making sure that we address some of the many legacy issues that we see in communities across this country. To really begin to right some of those wrongs, and create, again, the healthy, safe environment that everybody deserves.

I would say my vision is still being fortified. It’s a little bit blurry now. But what I hope is that after however long I’m here that environmental justice is institutionalized through our agencies in ways that it hasn’t been before, that environmental justice is not an afterthought.

Right now is a crucial time for the Biden climate and environmental justice agenda. The outside environmental justice advisers have been fairly critical of the White House’s pace in advancing some of its goals, like the Justice40 Initiative. How will you navigate the politics?  

I feel like whether you’re in the federal government, or state government, your community, there are always politics at play. The way that I try and approach it is really thinking about, OK, how do we make sure that one, we have a shared vision. There might be different ways that different folks are trying to get there, which is fine.

I definitely expect politics, I expect probably some bureaucracy. I’m all about — we can’t do this alone. The CEQ EJ team can’t do this alone. It has to be everybody. And that gets complex and complicated.

But if we continue to say, our vision is that we are trying to achieve environmental justice and this is what we’re going to do, we have to stay on task. Of course, that takes patience. That takes making sure we have all the different perspectives that are needed to inform a policy. It’s messy, but it’s necessary.

This week is the first week the co-chairs of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council are meeting with CEQ officials in person. How has that been? 

It’s been great. And this has really been more to build relationship, get to know you. They’re definitely talking about some business.

But this is the first time that we’ve been able to be in person. And so I’ve just been thankful to be able to reconnect with the leadership and so thankful for what they been able to do and give over the past year and a half.

It was a reminder, again, that we can do whatever we want to in D.C., but communities need to see, taste, feel the changes.

How will you measure your impact? 

I am a straight nerd. I think I was in third grade, and I had a Franklin planner. I would literally write down my goals and say, ‘OK, this is what I’ve accomplished.’ So I think there are a couple of ways that we need to test our success and hold ourselves accountable.

Part of that is looking at what we we’ve been tasked to do by the executive order. So basically, we need to get some things done. A lot of the things that we’re working on is not going to like flip the switch and is not going to happen overnight.

And what I will say in my little bit of experience is that oftentimes we get titles, and we have letters behind our name and all that good stuff, and we feel like we know the answer. But really, those answers are already sitting in those communities.

Folks know what they need. They just might not know the route to get the information or get the access to the resources, yada, yada. So where I think we come in — the opportunity for the federal government and other levels of government — is to really listen and understand what barriers exist and try to remove those barriers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: This story was updated to correct Keith Cooley’s title with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.