Communities Speak for Themselves: An Interview with Adrienne Hollis

We talked with Dr. Adrienne Hollis about her work at Union of Concerned Scientists, the power of spreading information, and the need for environmental justice communities to have a seat at the table.

Photo by  Isabella Jusková .

As part of The Trouble’s commitment to analyzing climate policy strategies, we are publishing a series of interviews and facilitated dialogues between people with different roles in the climate movement. 

For our latest installment, we spoke with Dr. Adrienne Hollis, Lead Climate Justice Analyst for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Hollis has also served as director of federal policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice and has experience as an environmental toxicologist and environmental attorney. We discussed her work at UCS, the power of spreading information, and the need for environmental justice communities to have a seat at the table.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Stovicek (interviewer):

I would love to hear how you describe what you're up to right now and how you got there.

Adrienne Hollis:

As the Lead Climate Justice Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists here in Washington, D.C., in the Climate and Energy group, my work involves looking at the public health impacts of climate change. I particularly look at it through an environmental justice lens, or person-focused lens.  

The Union of Concerned Scientists regularly publishes very informative reports, so one of the things that I am interested in is making sure that the information is provided to communities, to the public. As if they were asking the question, why should I care? And how does this affect me? And what can I do about it? 

I've been working with environmental justice communities for almost twenty years; this is a continuation and even a deeper delve into that. What we hope to do is to identify priority health concerns—what communities are interested in, what UCS is working on, where the two intersect, and how each group can benefit from working together. It's not one-sided; this is a partnership. Right now, we're engaging in a landscape assessment, looking at who's working in the health and climate change space, because in that way, you can identify where there are data gaps. For example, [something] I'm interested in—we don't think about our homeless brothers and sisters. Not just now, but in the face of higher temperatures. What's the plan? Do states have a plan? Do you have cooling centers? Are the shelters that normally don't house the homeless all day, are they going to adapt to this new… I don't want to say normal, because we don't want it to be normal, but this shift?


OS: How do you reach out to those community organizations?

AH: The way I initially became involved [in environmental justice work] was when I was a professor at Florida A&M University, and I still work with some of those groups. But when I was a director of federal policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice in D.C., I also facilitated the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum, which was about forty-something organizations across the country. People reach out to me, I reach out to them… it’s all about talking and making use of opportunities. 

When I was at Florida A&M University, people would reach out to me to say, "Can you come and talk to us? Can you come and see what's going on here?" My students would jump at the opportunity, and we'd jump in a van and go to wherever it was, and listen to what they were saying, what their concerns were, and see for ourselves what they were describing. It's powerful, going on toxic tours or listening to people talk about what they're doing, because that reminds you of why you're doing this and what you should be doing. I always encourage people, when you get an opportunity, go on it, talk to community members, find out what the issues are, look, because hearing it and seeing it are two different things.

One of the things that I consider that I do is act as a connector, putting people where they can get the most and share the most, where their voices can be heard, because, of course, with environmental justice, first rule: communities speak for themselves. So I do my best to identify places where they need to be, where they should be. Of course, the communities want to be there. It's just traditionally they have not been invited into that space—which doesn't resonate with me, because the first people who should have any input at all into things that affect them like climate change are the ones who are most affected. Frontline communities, vulnerable populations, environmental justice communities... They need to be at the table, they need to be the ones to look around and say, "Who else needs to be here?" So that's one of the things I like to say that I do. And if I can't directly address an issue, chances are I know someone who can. If somebody has a question, then here, here's someone you need to talk to, because they've done it this way. It's putting people where they need to be, out front and sharing their knowledge and information.

OS: You touched on sharing information a few times. What kind of information are you thinking of? Is that information about particular health concerns? About how to advocate around an issue? 

AH: I think of providing people with all of the tools, all of the weapons that they need in their arsenal to choose from. That includes advocacy, engaging in public comment, engaging in public hearings—and a lot of people already do that, and can share that knowledge with others, sort of a “train the trainer” approach. I also consider that to include sharing information about chemical toxicity, what they're exposed to in their community. Sharing information about things that other people are doing that are successful, things that people have done that were not quite as successful, funding opportunities… It's all about making sure that people are equipped with what they need. It's not that I'm coming in and doing something to communities; it's with communities and for communities and through communities, like that. 

Teaching—I haven't stopped doing that since I left Florida A&M. You tell someone something, they're going to tell somebody else what they've learned. When I talk to my friends, I notice that they then have conversations with others. My mom did it (laughs). We were on an environmental tour in Africatown in Alabama, and someone asked a question, and she started telling them things. I thought that was very impressive.

OS: You mentioned funding and access to important conversations as challenges for environmental justice communities. Are there other things that jump out to you as difficulties in this kind of work?

AH: When I say financing, I’m talking about more than the very real need for funds to continue basic operations—even [thinking] about economic justice, the fact that you live in an area where because of the presence of facilities that contaminate the area, you don't have access to a lot of other economic benefits. [Another challenge is] when people aren't willing to use the word climate change. And you have to figure out, “How am I going to approach this?” Maybe you talk from a renewables perspective, or energy, or some other way that [enables] you to participate as you have the right to.  

OS: How have you seen the prominence of environmental justice, and specifically environmental threats to people of color, change—or not change—within the environmental movement in the U.S. over the course of your career? Why do you think it has or hasn't?

AH: I've seen some change, definitely, and some things haven't changed. Let me give you an example. I was at a conference, and it was mostly white people there. People were interested in issues around climate justice, this phrase that I consider to be relatively new. This woman came up to me, and she goes, "So what are y'all gonna do about this new thing?" I said, "What new thing?" She goes, "This new thing called environmental justice. Climate justice, people are getting behind that, but then this new thing came up." And I was speechless for a minute. Another colleague of mine was there and heard it, too, and we kind of just looked at each other. So I think sometimes, things don't change. There are people still who don't know what environmental justice is. What I do see changing is that the EJ community is more vocal. There are a lot of very specific asks when the opportunities present themselves. And I see a lot of groups engaging in direct action, so [they’re] very present.

Many organizations that have been around understand environmental justice, but there are still some who have no clue... It shouldn’t be, “Okay, now this is affecting me, and now I need to talk about it.” Organizations that are mostly white if not all white, they have to—I don't want to say welcome EJ in because that sounds too paternalistic, but recognize that these are spaces EJ communities should have been in anyway.

OS: Talking about the idea of welcoming EJ in sounding paternalistic, in the last interview that we published, one thing organizer Andrea Chu said was that she felt she needed to do her own work in Asian-American spaces, separately from existing predominantly white environmental organizations. If they figured out a way to be helpful, fine, but very much not wanting to say, "We should hope be welcomed into this group that exists with these problems.”

AH: When this administration first… came to be, a lot of people were shocked, you know? And a lot of people who worked in this space were genuinely upset for EJ, but their question was, "What are you going to do? Oh my God," and the answer was, we're going to do what we've always done, and just do more of it. This situation is not new, sadly, so there's no time for shock and surprise. We've got to keep it moving, and just accelerate the activities of the movement and make it more widespread and inclusive. But if you're not with me, I have to move on without you. And I think that's sort of similar to what [Andrea Chu] said. I'm not gonna stop doing what I need to do. I don't have time to convince you to work with me if that's not something you're interested in. If you're not there, then somebody else is going to have to take on that responsibility, because we have too much to do.

OS: Earlier, discussing the work that you're currently doing, you highlighted how these are fundamentally partnerships. Are there things that come to mind for you as important for making those real partnerships, rather than paternalistic, or some other unbalanced relationship? How do you do that in practice?

AH: Well, the first thing you do is you approach from a position of honesty and transparency. You sincerely want to work with somebody. It's not about some ulterior motive, or you want to take the information and use it for your own—say if it was someone from academia, they may use information from a community to publish. You have to be transparent, and everything has to be a partnership. A lot of organizations are using memoranda of understanding, so that everybody can be accountable from the beginning. Let's be clear about what this is, so there won't be any confusion and the data belongs to everybody, the results belong to everybody, because it's going to benefit everybody, right?

OS: One thing that The Trouble does is try to increase dialogue between different corners of the climate movement, so I would love to ask you about the Green New Deal, since it's a focal point right now. Is there anything you think the groups organizing behind the Green New Deal should be doing differently or thinking about differently?

AH: Wow, that's a hard question. It's my understanding that the Green New Deal is a concept and structure, and that people are going to decide what it's going to be, and I'm interested to see what that is going to look like. It has to include environmental justice. It has to. I'm not speaking for UCS, but personally, I'm following as the plans unfold.

The public has to have a say in what this is also. I think that as long as the group that's put together to hash this thing out recognizes that and works with communities to get their input, then I think it'll be fine. But I think if they try to do everything by themselves, then we're going to have an issue. I think the Green New Deal isn't going to allow that to happen. But I'm not sure; I'm watching.

OS: Is there anything that we have not talked about that you want to make sure to mention, or anything that we did talk about that you want to add to before we wrap up?

AH: On the road to ensuring that environmental justice is a part of this environmental conversation, we need to ensure that there are opportunities to share the knowledge and the information and the experiences of the communities. To do that, we've got to partner with people we normally wouldn't even think of. When I talk about environmental justice, if it's farm workers, if it's unions, if it's firefighters out there battling the wildfires that we expect to increase, all of these groups—we're all fighting the same issue. I guess in my perfect world, everybody would recognize that and figure out ways to work better together.

Olivia Stovicek is a journalist and editor based in Chicago with interests at the intersection of social issues and scientific topics; she is a senior editor at the South Side Weekly. She tweets @o_stovicek.