After 17 years spent leading this wonderful organization, I plan to step down as CleanAIRE NC’s executive director later this month. I am so grateful for what we have done and built together, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with you for a cleaner, healthier North Carolina.
Looking back, my thoughts turn to my very first campaign with CleanAIRE NC (or Carolinas Clean Air Coalition, as we were known back then). It was the fall of 2005. Charlotte was on the American Lung Association’s list of top ten smoggiest cities, and there were 14 coal plants pumping out pollution across the state.
I cut my teeth on our Clear the Air for Kids campaign, which aimed to reduce children’s exposure to toxic diesel pollution from school buses.
The lessons I learned from that first campaign stuck with me, laying the foundation for CleanAIRE NC’s growth, and the strategies we’d pursue, over the next 17 years:
The importance of clean air for children’s health
Dr. Larry Raymond, Charlotte pulmonologist and medical advisor to the organization, served as my primary mentor on public health in those days. He taught me all the ways air pollution affects our bodies, and the particular risks it poses to children whose lungs are still developing.
The key role of medical professionals as trusted messengers
Early on in the campaign, a sceptical school bus fleet manager questioned diesel pollution’s impacts on children. I replied with research showing the toxicity of diesel emissions, but as I was talking I knew I needed Larry sitting next to me. I realized right at that moment that we need doctors and health professionals to tell the story and advocate for protective solutions.
The importance of scientific research and data to drive policy change
Showing a link between diesel and health wasn’t enough. We needed hard evidence that emission levels inside the school bus were high. We brought scientists from the Clean Air Task Force to Charlotte; their measurements discovered that diesel particle levels inside the bus were up to seven times higher than outside the bus. We compiled this data into a report and presented it to state officials and legislators, convincing them to appropriate funding for bus retrofits that reduced particle levels by 95%.
The injustice of health disparities that can shorten lives in BIPOC communities
The fact that Black and brown children outnumber white children on school buses was not lost on me. What I didn’t know at the time was that Black children with asthma were seven times more likely to die of asthma than white children.
Of course, there’s a missing ingredient to that list. I began that story by describing the invaluable help and support I received from Dr. Raymond. Simply put, we could never have accomplished our goal if he hadn’t been involved right from the start.
In fact, nothing I’ve accomplished these last 17 years would be possible without the supporters, partners, staff, and board members who have walked this journey with me. Thank you so much for your tireless efforts, and for your steadfast commitment to clean air and climate health.
As I take my leave as Executive Director, I’m thrilled that we’ve found someone who can continue and strengthen CleanAIRE NC’s legacy of impactful change. Jeff Robbins has a vision for this organization’s future, and will continue to lead our staff from our foundations of health, environmental justice, and science as we strive to ensure all North Carolinians have clean, healthy air to breathe.