Louis Bailey has a vision. He sees a world where people of color and those with low income are consistently playing a key role in creating fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. A world where everyone is guaranteed the right to live well and breathe easily.
Bailey has been working for a decade to help make that vision a reality. He currently serves as the membership and organizing manager for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit organization working to organize communities and influence the public policy agenda by positioning environmental justice as a major political issue.
“My role at WE ACT is to educate, initiate, and agitate,” he says. “I see myself as a convener, a connecter, and a catalyst for change.”
WE ACT is one of the first environmental organizations in New York state run by people of color. It was formed in the late 1980s to fight against the harmful air pollution being produced by a Harlem-based sewage treatment plant, as well as the operation of six of seven New York City diesel bus depots in the area. Driven by a dynamic team of activists, lawyers, health experts, and visionaries like Bailey, the group has helped make environmental justice more than just a dream.
“Environmental racism is not a new concept,” Bailey says. “Our history is filled with people who were told they couldn’t live in a certain neighborhood, and the dumping of raw sewage and other municipal waste in communities of color.”
“Seeing firsthand [the] environmental justice issues around the country now has broadened my perspective even outside my own community,”
Bailey’s passion is personal as well. He grew up in West Harlem and witnessed the effects of environmental injustices.
“I grew up in Harlem in the ’70s, so I was right there in the thick of it,” he says. “The environmental practices and policies that were allowed were seriously hurting communities of color.”
“Seeing firsthand [the] environmental justice issues around the country now has broadened my perspective even outside my own community,” he adds. “I’ve seen communities around the country that are continuing to suffer the impacts of environmental racism, and racist policies and procedures.”
Much of WE ACT’s work focuses on informing, educating, training, and mobilizing residents to engage in community-driven political and policy-change activities. The group also works to ensure that fair environmental health and protection policies are enacted and carried out at the local, state, and federal levels. Bailey’s contribution to that vision is to travel the country training and educating members and working to gain funding for those efforts.
WE ACT has already made strides in its efforts to combat environmental racism. The group’s notable advances include suing and settling a lawsuit with the City of New York over the polluting sewage treatment plant that helped start the group. It also launched a successful campaign to replace hundreds of diesel-powered buses with those that run on alternative fuels, driving the renovation of a bus depot into a model green structure named after Harlem cultural icon Mother Clara Hale.
And Bailey and WE ACT are far from finished. They are currently pursuing numerous environmental policy and procedure changes in New York, including a recently passed bill that will create an all-electric, zero-emission New York City school bus fleet by 2035. They also successfully spearheaded an initiative to ban the use of natural gas in new construction in New York City to reduce carbon and unsafe gas fumes.
Bailey, meanwhile, is pressing on in communities, continuing to advocate for environmental justice until his vision becomes real.
“I’m passionate about these issues,” he says. “I’m anxious to use the knowledge I gained in earning my master’s at Walden and use it for good. I’m anxious to get back into the communities and educate and bring forth their stories and make sure the policymakers hear their voices.
“We’ve made some strides, but there is much work left to be done.”