Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Rosemary Enobakhare, coalition director of Clean Water for All, where she works with partners to defend clean water protections at the federal level. Enobakhare was appointed by the Obama Administration to serve as the deputy associate administrator for Public Engagement and Environmental Education in the Office of the Administrator at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In this role, she led the Agency’s community outreach program and developed strategic engagement plans to positively impact the EPA’s public policy and ensure that nontraditional communities were both a part of the conversations and the solutions.
Jocelyn: How and why did you become an environmentalist?
Rosemary: I don’t consider myself an environmentalist and having a career in environmental justice was not top of mind when I was in school. I came to this work because of my belief in equality. I fundamentally believe that having access to clean air and water is an equal justice issue.
I think of myself as an organizer and I do this work because it is so important. People who look like me must have a seat at the table in these conversations. I see myself as a voice for my community in advancing clean water issues.
Jocelyn: What exactly are the issues you’re working on right now?
Rosemary: People have heard a lot about the water pollution in Flint, Michigan but the fact of the matter is that there are cities across the country with lead levels higher than Flint. In our new report, Water, Health, and Equity: The Infrastructure Crisis Facing Low-Income Communities & Communities of Color – and How to Solve It, we share information about the dangerous state of our current water infrastructure and outline the policy priorities necessary to address it. We also show why the Trump Administration’s Infrastructure bill is not the right answer.
Jocelyn: It’s a powerful report. I hope that BlackHer subscribers will read it. I was horrified to learn that 27 million Americans “are served by water systems violating health-based standards established in the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Rosemary: As citizens, we often see water quality as an issue that is happening “over there.” Instead, we need to be asking, “What is happening with my water?” You don’t need to be a scientist with a bachelor’s degree to ask these questions or investigate water quality issues. People in the community are beginning to know something is wrong with their water and they are ready to hold elected officials accountable.
Paying attention to water quality issues is important because the Trump administration is focused on giving polluters free rein. In fact, the Trump Administration is threatening to increase environmental degradation.
Jocelyn: It’s awful. Help us understand the crisis. What is happening with water quality?
Rosemary: Our water infrastructure is aging. In many places, we have pre-war pipes. These water systems often include lead pipes. According to our report, “approximately 15 – 22 million Americans nationally are still served by lead water pipelines.” Low levels of poisoning can be especially damaging to babies and children. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)… African-American children are at least 3 times more likely than white children to have elevated blood lead levels.” In Indiana, for example, there are people living in housing projects served by contaminated water. In Chicago, schools are having to cover up and prevent the use of water fountains.
It’s challenging because, for many Black and Latino families, environmental issues are at the bottom of the list when we think about all the challenges that we need to address. But that’s a mistake.
Jocelyn: As concerned citizens, what can we do about our water quality? It doesn’t seem like there is a quick fix.
Rosemary: You’re right. There is no easy or quick fix. But the good news is that water quality is important to so many different constituencies. At Clean Water for All, we’re proud of our very diverse coalition. From hunters and anglers to business and conservation groups, there are a lot of folks who care about, want and need access to clean water.
For communities of color and low-income communities, it’s important to pay attention to funding opportunities, especially for infrastructure repair. Sometimes there is money in state budgets to upgrade water systems but instead of prioritizing communities of color, the funding goes to rich communities first. For example, in Jackson, Mississippi, where I am from, we struggle with water issues. You would never see water contamination in places like Madison, Mississippi, which is a wealthier and whiter community.
Jocelyn: I was so disturbed to hear that citizens of Flint were paying for and at times, struggling to pay for contaminated water. That’s absurd. Are people across the country paying for contaminated water?
Rosemary: Unlike energy savings, there are no subsidies at the federal level for water. So, another thing we are working on at Clean Water for All is water affordability. We are trying to help citizens deal with astronomical water bills. In many places, utility companies are putting the burden on communities to deal with the water crisis. We want to change that by creating public subsidies and incentives to pay for water.
Fundamentally, we believe that water is a human right. Paying for water, especially contaminated water, is something that we must address.
Jocelyn: If BlackHer readers want to get more involved in the fight for clean water, what should they do?
Rosemary: We would like to see federal policies that focus on equity and affordability of clean, safe drinking water, but right now, there is no one size fits all approach to our water quality crisis. Citizens must approach the issues state by state and community by community.
I’d encourage people to join local groups like the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. My organization, Clean Water for All, is national but if people reach out to us, we can connect them with people on the ground in their community and state. Folks can also learn more by downloading our report.
Jocelyn: Rosemary, who are your BlackHer Sheroes?
Rosemary: I come from a line of awesome women, including my grandmother who was from Magnolia, Mississippi. My parents are immigrants. My dad is from Nigeria where there are also huge environmental contamination issues, especially from large-scale oil production. It’s a global problem.
I’m indebted to my grandparents and parents. That’s why I work so hard each day.
Jocelyn: Let me ask you the Miracle Question. You go to sleep tonight, and you wake up and it’s November 2019 and the miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?
Rosemary: We continue to fight and support one another. We’re making sure that we live in a safe, healthy world because after all, we aren’t doing this for ourselves, we’re doing it for our children.