Virginia Guidry Puts Her Passion for Environmental Justice to Work

“There are still environmental injustices we have not corrected in our state. That’s something we need to change.”

– Dr. Virginia Guidry, NC Dept. of Health and Human Services

Virginia Guidry is a woman of many titles. She’s the branch head and environmental justice lead at the Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology Branch of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. She’s also an adjunct associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Epidemiology.

In all of her roles, she advocates for environmental justice (EJ) and health equity. 

Guidry, who appears on the health panel at this year’s NC BREATHE conference, has been part of the EJ movement since her grad school days at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. In this Q&A, she talks about her passion for EJ, the progress the state of North Carolina is making now, and why it’s worth your time to take part in NC BREATHE.

Hear from Virginia Guidry and other voices for change on April 6th at NC BREATHE 2023.

What’s your history with the EJ movement?

I first got involved in EJ research as a student at the UNC school of health. My master’s project estimated schools flooded by Hurricane Floyd back in 1999. I worked with Dr. Steve Wing, who became my mentor when I got my Ph.D. in epidemiology.  

Working with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and REACH, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Health, we looked at livestock operations and how they affected the surrounding communities. I learned how important it is to work with communities and listen to local residents.

I grew up on a farm, and when I walk out the back door of my parents’ house in Maryland, I can take a deep breath and the air is fresh. But that wasn’t the case for the people I talked to in eastern North Carolina. Most days, due to the scale of farming operations as well as management practices there, people can’t go outside and take a deep breath.

There are still environmental injustices we have not corrected in our state. That’s something we need to change. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate EJ into the topics we work on in our branch. I’m happy to say I have a strong team of committed toxicologists, industrial hygienists, epidemiologists, and environmental scientists.

Tell us about your role as an EJ leader for the state.

Executive Order 246 was signed by Governor Roy Cooper in January 2022 to establish EJ leads for all of the cabinet agencies, including mine. Being part of state government and engaged in these topics, I helped ensure the order included language about health and health equity. Because of my background, I was nominated as EJ lead.

How are things going so far?

We’re still just getting things off the ground. At our first environmental justice training in December, Governor Cooper actually stopped by to emphasize how important EJ is to him. The training was interesting because the cabinet agencies are at various points in their understanding. Some had never thought about environmental justice before.

Tell us about your work on community health assessments.

I’ve been working with Omega Wilson, who I’ve known since I was a student at UNC, on incorporating EJ into community health assessments. All county health departments are required to complete assessments on a three-year cycle.

At a meeting held at the UNC School of Public Health last fall, Arlinda Ellison from the Alamance County Health Department talked about including EJ in the county’s community health assessment. As far as I know, Alamance County was the first in the state to include a chapter dedicated to EJ in its health assessment.

Admiral Rachel L. Levine, assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was at that meeting, too. So were the dean and faculty from the UNC School of Public Health and environmental justice leaders from around our state.

Now our goal is to get at least 10 additional county health departments to include EJ in their health assessments in the next cycle. Joe Bowman, an  Emergency Preparedness and Environmental Health Nurse Consultant at DHHS, is leading the work on that.

Any other partnerships to note?

We’re working to include the CDC Environmental Justice Index in our tracking tool for the North Carolina Public Health Tracking Network. Developing metrics is a next step. We’re also partnering with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the Environmental Justice Community Action Network in Sampson County. We’re hoping to do private well testing and treatment in collaboration with them.

Sounds like there’s some momentum.

Yes, the combination of federal funding, state engagement, and local support really help. We want to do as much as we can to implement things now so they become standard practice.

Which of your accomplishments make you feel most proud?

Helping incorporate EJ and health equity into Executive Order 236 and Executive Order 271, which is focused on clean transportation and heavy-duty vehicles. Our team is making progress building relationships and building trust. We’re trying to generate results that back up the things we talk about. I’m also proud to help coordinate the EJ lecture at UNC each year in honor of Steve Wing.

What are some other things you’ll talk about at NC BREATHE?

Our climate and health team will be there with me tol talk about our climate justice work. We’ll also be promoting a new DHHS program that will use our CDC funds to provide climate justice mini grants for communities around the state.

Why should people attend the NC BREATHE conference?

It’s important to engage with a statewide conference that brings people together to build connections and look for opportunities to work together. When you have conversations and things fall into place, you can really get things done.

Register for NC BREATHE Today!

Whether you’re beginning or deepening your climate justice journey, NC BREATHE can point you in the right direction. Register today.