Michelle DePass on Women's History Month and the Environmental Justice Movement

Michelle DePass, Director of the Tishman Center and Dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy reflects on the environmental justice movement and women's role in the environmental justice movement for Women's History Month.

By Michelle DePass

In recognition of Women’s History Month, I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the genesis of the environmental justice movement and the collective strength of women who actively sought to protect their children and families, and build a better life for their communities.I began my career in the environmental movement as the Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, a community-based, citywide membership network linking grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color across the city in their struggle for environmental justice.

The core of leadership for this work were the courageous women who I interacted and collaborated with every day: Samara Swanston, Peggy Shephard, Nina Laboy, Vernice Miller-Travis, Gwen Smalls, and others – all activists and strategic advocates who linked critical issues of public health, civil rights and environmental concerns, and who were determined to make this city and this planet a better place for everyone.

Years later at The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center, I have the opportunity to work with a group of similarly courageous women; students, faculty, and staff who are working to connect the power of research and scholarship to actions on the ground. This linked-up organizing and action in communities continues and grows, even in the midst of an onslaught of federal political actions seeking to reverse progress on the very issues that we have been making traction on for decades.

I’m fortunate to work with the Tishman Center’s Associate Directors Ana Baptista and Yvonne Watson, along with the Center’s staff, Molly Johnson, Adrienne Perovich, and Rebecca Fuger, and the many talented women in our cohort of Affiliated Faculty to carry out the mission of the Tishman Center to integrate design policy and social justice approaches to environmental issues to advance a just and sustainable society.

Women are resilient – our economic, social, and political lives are tested every day but the resiliency that we’ve demonstrated is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The issues of climate change impact women in substantial ways. It’s often the woman-led households and their children who are left trying to put the pieces together after climate-related disasters. We witnessed after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and Superstorm Sandy how women faced devastating housing, transportation, and economic challenges but still managed to protect their families and rebuild their communities while they advocated for a safer, more just future.In recent months, women all across the country have organized and marched to raise their voices and highlight the inequities of climate change on our communities. As we take this moment to celebrate women and honor their achievements, let’s also take the opportunity to acknowledge that inequities still exist and that the struggle for climate justice and women’s liberation are intimately linked. I am grateful for the leadership of women I work with every day to combat these injustices, and I vow to stand strong, side by side, in solidarity with these women to build a future that is safe, healthy, and just for all.