Engaging with Grace: Sherri White-Williamson Brings Rich Experiences and a Passion for Community to NC BREATHE

“Everybody should know how their lifestyle can affect people who have less power to make decisions about what comes into their neighborhood.”

– Sherri White-Williamson, NC Conservation Network

Sherri White-Williamson is a passionate advocate for environmental justice, especially in rural areas. A frequent NC BREATHE presenter, White-Williamson will moderate the “Voices from the Frontline” panel at this year’s conference. 

White-Williamson brings a wealth of experience. She currently serves as Director of Environmental Justice Strategy at the North Carolina Conservation Network. She co-founded the Environmental Justice Community Action Network in Sampson County. And she’s an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. From 2004-2015 she served as a program analyst at the US EPA, most recently in the Office of Environmental Justice.

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

Recently, White-Williamson helped CleanAIRE NC win a $500,000 grant from the EPA to establish a community air monitoring network in Sampson County. In this brief Q&A, learn more about White-Williamson and what she’ll bring to NC BREATHE on Thursday:

What drives you in the work you do?

My passion is environmental justice (EJ), with an emphasis on rural EJ. Often that part of the focus is missing. People think of EJ as an urban issue. They hear environmental justice and think of industrial development and smokestacks. But it’s also about where food comes from, and who’s being exposed to pesticides and getting asthma and other chronic diseases.

Who do you think should come to the NC BREATHE conference, and why?

It’s important for everyone — not just folks in the environmental justice community — to engage. It doesn’t matter where you live. Ultimately what you do has an impact on an environmental justice community somewhere.

Can you share an example to show us what you mean?

I happen to live in the county with the largest regional landfill in North Carolina: Sampson County. Our landfill receives trash from 100 counties in the state. It’s ranked No. 1 in the state in vinyl chloride emissions and No. 2 in methane emissions. That landfill has been sitting in the middle of a predominantly African-American community for over 40 years. 

Now there’s talk about installing a transfer station there. My first thought about that was: Where in the world is the trash going to go? Because the landfill already gets 250 trucks of trash a day.

A couple of years ago, my students at Duke found out that trash from Durham was sent here. That trash contributes to bad air quality in the local community. My students are learning that, even though we may not see where our trash goes, it ends up somewhere, and nearby there’s a community, probably a Black or Brown or low-income community. Everybody should know how their lifestyle can affect people who have less power to make decisions about what comes into their neighborhood.

Tell us about the work you’re currently doing.

CleanAIRE NC just received a $500,000 grant from the EPA to provide 20 air monitors in Sampson County, so we’ll be able to actively monitor air quality here. With the assistance of CleanAIRE NC, we’ll be able to work more closely with community members. We have an opportunity to start collecting and analyzing data. That’s something many communities don’t have at this point in time.

What are some of the greatest environmental injustices in NC right now?

The biggest challenge is the proliferation of poultry CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in the state. Poultry is not regulated by the state, so we only know anecdotally where poultry CAFOs are being placed, and the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) is not regulating them. We also know poultry CAFOs are being placed in the same places where all the other pollution is currently occurring in the state. 

Our DEQ fails to protect the most impacted communities because we’re not monitoring and analyzing exposures as we should be.

Tell us more about the NC BREATHE conference.

It brings a lot of attention to some of the respiratory illnesses that afflict members of EJ communities, particularly things like asthma. The conference helps educate professionals as well as the other folks in the room. 

The “Voices from the Frontline” panel brings attention to community voices. Oftentimes professionals and academics don’t take the time to focus on the community and folks with lived experience. It’s good to have those voices in the room so we learn how to help a little bit better and become more sensitive to what folks are experiencing. NC BREATHE is a good way to connect with people and have those conversations.

You’ve mentioned your focus on young people. Why are youth so important to the environmental justice movement?

The future is really about youth. They need to understand the history, and they also need to understand how to engage in EJ communities. A lot of young folks focus on climate or on sustainability, but they also need to understand how environmental justice incorporates all of those things. It’s important to know how to interact with people in the community. EJ communities are unique in that they can smell a person who’s not genuine a mile away.

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.