e012. Environmental Justice with Chris Smith

Chris Smith (they/them) is a senior advisor for diversity equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) with The Building People, which provides innovation, innovative solutions that integrates Buildings and people through strategic thought leadership and expertise. This Virginia based company employs about 175 people and serves the federal government. In this episode, Chris explains the massive scope and individual actions that can lead to environmental justice.


Full Interview with Chris Smith

Interview Transcript

[00:00:46] Amy: Welcome back to including you. My name is Amy C. Waninger, I’m your host, I’m also the founder and CEO of lead at any level. My guest today is Chris Smith. Chris is a senior advisor for diversity equity, inclusion and belonging, or DEIB with the building people which provides innovation, innovative solutions that integrate technology

[00:01:06] Amy: buildings and people through strategic thought leadership and expertise. That’s a mouthful. This Virginia based company employs about 175 people and serves the federal government. Chris, welcome to the show.

[00:01:18] Chris: Thank you. Thank you for having me pleasure to be here.

[00:01:20] Amy: Likewise, I am so happy to meet you and chat with you about this because this was looking up what your company did.

[00:01:26] Amy: I had all sorts of questions and I’m sure my viewers and listeners are gonna have some of the same questions. So, I’m curious., first of all, what is the intersection of buildings, technology, and people? and how does that lead to work in the diversity equity, inclusion, and belonging space for you?

[00:01:46] Chris: Quite simply, Amy, it comes into what we call EEJ or environmental energy justice.

[00:01:53] Chris: Environmental justice looks at the fair treatment and like meaningful involvement of people, regardless of how they identify income of a respect to development and implementation of environmental laws, regulations, and alike. So let think about flick Michigan, for example, that was an environmental justice fallacy.

[00:02:09] Chris: So that’s what it really looks at when it comes to that type of thing is and in our buildings, in our piping and or how we’re maintaining our systems, are we making sure that all communities have fair access and equal access to the safest and most healthy buildings or resources,

[00:02:26] Chris: and also, do we have access in the voice, in the decision-making policies and processes for a healthy environment and the same goes in for. We look at communities who don’t have access to the future of renewable energy when it comes to like solar energy and the like, and these are usually frontline communities that are always have been disproportionately carried.

[00:02:46] Chris: The burden of harm from the exploitation of natural resources economic disinvestment under investment, or just all-around disenfranchisement and as a result, and this is a great linker, is that because they have these particular energy and environmental particular specificities and this disenfranchisement let’s say a disaster hits.

[00:03:07] Chris: They have less resources or less access to resources that could be life saving. So it’s a, it could, it goes everything from making sure that you can have drinkable water or you have access to clean water that you have access to a consistent power grid, or that you’re not being poisoned by some old power grid that is now, dysfunctional or an old rotting factory that is now spreading pollutants into the water and the air.

[00:03:32] Chris: So it goes into that.

[00:03:34] Amy: So, before you answered that question, I thought, wow, this is a really niche thing, and then when you answered it, I’m like, this is huge. How are they doing this with just 175 people? so thank you for kind taking the blinders off for me so that I can see of the scope of the work that you’re engaged in.

[00:03:51] Amy: This is huge, because we’re talking not only, I’m just thinking about all of the news stories that I’ve seen and all of the experiences that I’ve heard, things like. Climate change and how its disproportionately affecting people based on economics, race geography our crumbling infrastructure of course, is largely dependent on economic access and economic factors in the communities, and of course there are all sorts of disparities there, excuse me. We’re seeing at the time of this recording, we’re waiting on some rulings from the Supreme court about the EPA and administrative oversight responsibilities from, from the administration and what’s possible and feasible.

[00:04:30] Amy: So, you’re really talking about not just global policy, but national policy, local policy, zoning laws, building codes, accessibility. This is really far reaching and very deep, right?

[00:04:45] Chris: Yes, extremely deep. It is actually very personal. Quick backstory, my mother suffered from cancer.

[00:04:50] Chris: Because at the time at an army base, they buried radioactive material underneath where then they built build residents in their statistical data that shows there was an uptick of people who either had babies with birth defects or who developed cancer later in, in life, because we did not properly dispose of radioactive material.

[00:05:11] Chris: It has to do with everything, and one of the biggest things that I’m currently working on is making sure that our funds are going to people who are knowledgeable and aware of these things these atrocities, honestly. Because traditionally you look at a lot of big companies or corporations and the like, they have not been, I’ll say the most diligent with it.

[00:05:32] Chris: They haven’t taken the time to understand how putting materials in a certain place or not, including certain voices in a process or in a or in a program has literally just negatively affected entire communities for generations. So, it’s a big push.

[00:05:50] Amy: And I’m thinking too about just the continued exacerbation of inequality here, because what happens is there’s a downward spiral of

[00:05:59] Amy: property values, right? The people who are, who have the least resources to fight these sorts of things, that’s where it ends up, and then property values diminish because that’s where these things end up, and then there’s just this continual cycle. What specific areas are you focused on?

[00:06:14] Amy: In your advisory role, are you looking specifically at groundwater for example, or, disposal of contaminants or government policy? What is your specific area of focus?

[00:06:25] Chris: So currently I’m in the office, I focus on advanced manufacturing that has to do with everything from what are, what tools and resources are we going to use as our base products from here on out in our manufacturing, like moving away possible from coal and oil and moving towards more renewable energy sources like solar and electric and wind

[00:06:45] Chris: and how can we incorporate that continuously within our entire structure. So, I’m looking at one access to that, how can we make sure that the funding in that is reaching those communities, and we’re hearing the in stakeholder engagement, making sure these communities, whether it be the workforce development training programs, we’re looking at institutions that have often been looked over like minority serving institutions, for example, HBCUs predominantly black institutions, Asian American and Pacific island or serving institution, and definitely tribal institutions that serve our native American Community.

[00:07:20] Chris: How, what voice do they have in this? And also, what access do they have to policy and decision making concerning this and how can they also, their communities profit off of this? There are a lot of places in traditional manufacturing areas that have seen an extreme economic decline because we are moving away from certain forms of manufacturing.

[00:07:42] Chris: How can we then push these new forms of manufacturing, create training programs for these environments and for these people so that they can have a stake into what we want to move towards while still maintaining our national infrastructure. So that’s really what I’m looking at right now.

[00:07:56] Chris: It’s it is. I am not a stem person but I am learning so much every single day and really, and it took the blinders off me my first day when I’m reading these documents. So, I’m like, wow, this has far reaching implications from the granular nuances to the huge policy levels, and we have to make sure that it’s not just, and a lot of advisors

[00:08:19] Chris: and I, we talk about this all the time that it’s not just our voices being heard. Our goal is to make sure that one,Ttat diversity equity inclusion belong in accessibility is something that we think about day to day in our positions, regardless of that’s your specialty. We have to make this a systemic thing.

[00:08:37] Chris: We have to systematically put it into everything that we do. And two, we have to find ways to make it longevity, so if an administration changes or if something else changes, these things can still be followed through.

[00:08:53] Amy: As you were talking, I was thinking about just the breadth of this, right? Like

[00:08:59] Amy: the way that native peoples have been forced onto smaller and smaller plots of land in the least desirable areas of the country. I was watching a news story just last week about, group that had, they had just millions of acres, and now they’re on this very small coastal neighborhood.

[00:09:18] Amy: They’re down to a neighborhood that’s being eroded due to climate change and they don’t wanna leave because that’s their land. That’s all the land they have left. But at the same time their property is literally washing into the ocean, and so are you looking at this from, you’re looking at it from a national policy perspective?

[00:09:37] Amy: Are you traveling to these areas and talking to people on the ground? Or is this more I don’t wanna say theoretical work, but is it boots on the groundwork for you or is it removed and broader think.

[00:09:48] Chris: So, in my current position, I’m more of the policy, broader thinking, how can we get the right people boots on the ground, instead of the people who have been traditionally in prior positions, I used to work for FEMA, where I was more boots on the ground, and you could see the impact of disasters and environmental in inconsistencies, on communities

[00:10:06] Chris: and it really pushed me to go to the policy realm in the funding. Particularly live in a nation where money is everything, and if we’re going to make changes, we have to put money where our mouth is and is the same says, so I’m more focused on, hey, we have this particular organization or this manufacturing company that has a very good reputation with not only serving the communities correctly, but making sure that any damage that they do, that they find ways to fix it, or they compensate, or they just have policies and procedures in place where they don’t do that damage.

[00:10:40] Chris: Or looking at well, if we’re going to try to build these types of pipelines or we’re going to try to build this, how can we make sure we avoid certain lands? How can we so and so forth and what people can we bring in to advise us to do that? I wanna know where the money’s going, because that’s what matters.

[00:10:58] Chris: If that’s what gets the boots on the ground, the resources that they need, and I need to make sure that the way that we allocate these funds is equitable. Make sure there is an implicit bias and it, and if there is what checks are we putting, make sure that implicit bias doesn’t keep the same cycle going over and over again.

[00:11:17] Chris: I wanna know what we’re doing on where are these billions and trillions of dollars going? And are we doing something different with them? And if we’re not, we need to.

[00:11:27] Amy: So where does the accountability come in for that? Because a lot of times I think the perception of the public is that the people who give the most money to government get the most money from government.

[00:11:36] Amy: So how is, where are you seeing the accountability for the change?

[00:11:41] Chris: Okay, so on, cause we’re currently contracted to department of energy currently, it’s in the mandation of diversity, equity and inclusion plans into proposals that look for funding. We’re looking at metrics that have to be given from these organizations or fundies that or fundies that in order to maintain this contract, you have to give these certain metrics, how much power

[00:12:05] Chris: is going to go to these, for example, if you’re gonna re refurbish a grid, how much power is going to make sure is going to disadvantaged communities. And is that fixed part of that? If you’re going to do this complete solar or wind project where you’re trying to replace pieces of things with solar wind, you have to tell us how this is going to benefit

[00:12:27] Chris: in a specific and measurable way that we can hold you accountable on how it’s going to do this, and it’s still in this beginning phases because stem has traditionally been an area that has been very, extremely disproportionally, heavy towards a certain demographic and a certain gender. So, looking at not changing the, make up the people who make the decisions so that these things can happen having accountable metrics that they have to report back in order to continue to get funding or in order to continue to contract with us at all.

[00:12:58] Chris: But also, how we review these types of applications for this large multimillion dollar projects, again, implicit bias is huge. If you know that you have a university, a Harvard university or university of Michigan, who are these huge research institutions that often have, and historically have had the backing from the government, from the beginning, from its exception, to have these resources, as opposed to North Carolina, A and T or the who has an extremely great stem program, but has not been backed in the same manner, looking at getting rid

[00:13:33] Chris: on their applications, those names, and just looking at their ability and leveling the playing field. So, voices that aren’t often in power or aren’t often utilizing these massive amounts of funds to make an impact can. So as making sure from the top end that we are having, who we need to have, that are, that the people who are making decisions are diverse and it’s a slow process, but it’s a necessary.

[00:14:03] Amy: So, as you’re working from the top down from national policy on down, I’m thinking about everyday people in the US, what can we do to help promote equity in economic justice and environmental justice? What can everyday people do to help further your mission?

[00:14:25] Chris: I’ll say the first thing you can do is one, pay attention.

[00:14:29] Chris: There are so many organizations and communities that try to reach out to communities and get little feedback. If you want your voice to be heard, you have to talk, you have to respond. You have to be willing to engage, and also, and I think with an engagement you have to understand that this thing is a huge process

[00:14:50] Chris: and this engagement the policy decisions that we’re making now, we’re not gonna see the effects and changes of things for maybe 20 to 50 years because it takes changing an entire infrastructure in an entire environment rebuilding itself in order for these changes to happen. So that was it be patient and engaged.

[00:15:11] Chris: Second of all when you’re being patient and engaged, do the little things and take the opportunities that you all can every single day to be a part of that change. There are and even if that’s generational differences, if you are an older individual and you’re so used to things like you’re so used to manufacturing happening this.

[00:15:30] Chris: There are job programs out there that we’re putting out, particularly for that demographic that will allow you to work. If you still wanna work, take advantage of those situations. We have to get out of our own stubbornness sometimes and be willing to take advantage of the situations. And do that as well

[00:15:47] Chris: when it comes to other demographics, be willing just be open to change and be open to learning new things so that we can move forward. Cause the biggest is one of the biggest issues we’re dealing with right now is how are we going to physically maintain this infrastructure? How many knowledgeable technical hands do we have and who are, who where are we gonna get them?

[00:16:10] Chris: How are we going to train them? How are we going to make these types of jobs? Interesting to people like for me, am I going be the person that hoist myself up hundred feet in the air to fix a bolt on the windmill? No, but I want to make sure that if policy isn’t your thing, if accounting, isn’t your thing,

[00:16:32] Chris: if college isn’t your thing, you have a job that is not only important, but necessary for the furtherment of the country and our own health and wellbeing. So, it’s like we have to buy into the system to get from the system a little and there’s, again, there’s always improvements. We’re still human.

[00:16:50] Chris: We’re going to have our bits of corruption, we’re going to do it, I always encourage people to name a civilization that hasn’t.

[00:16:58] Amy: That’s fair. That’s fair, and you bring up an interesting point. We’ve talked on this show and I’ve talked in some other programs that I’ve done with folks about how the trades have been neglected.

[00:17:08] Amy: For so long as a viable career option as a good path to middle class, work and. Partially because of that, the demand for trades has gone up. The compensation for people in the trades has gone up, and so it’s even more true now maybe than it used to be that these are paths to jobs that, that are family sustaining, that are broadly needed, that are constantly hiring

[00:17:34] Amy: and what I’m hearing from you is not only is all of that true, but it’s also how we Futureproof our nation.

[00:17:42] Chris: Yes, we need the sectors of people, one., first and foremost, we need to protect those sectors of people and we need to change our messaging around the trades. I remember growing up I was talking to, I spoke to so many people and we had a trade school that some people who were in high school that were said would go to trade school and they were always looked down upon and I’m like,

[00:18:00] Chris: Why? this person could come out, be a construction worker 18 and be making at least 70 more thousand dollars than I am while I’m a freshman in college and building up a career. But it’s the perception and mentality that we have around the blue-collar work. That it’s less than that, it’s not as important, really,

[00:18:18] Chris: it’s the backbone of the entire nation, and without it, we can fall. I could read a book all day, but if I don’t know how to put a solar panel together, we might be screwed, it’s like it’s needed and we need to change our messaging. We wanna make sure that these people have support and that in our economy and our laws and our policies that we’re supporting this social economic class or this labor class, so that they know that they are an important part, give them a voice, give them rights, give all of them the same consideration importance that we give 10 billionaires.

[00:18:51] Chris: Cause honestly, when it comes to critical material, if these people don’t make the critical materials or have the proper manufacturing mechanisms, there’s no computers.

[00:19:02] Amy: And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that in this country, in the last two years where we’ve run out of things, or we have things that we can’t get because we can’t get them from point a to point B because there aren’t people to transport.

[00:19:12] Amy: Exactly. Or, the bridges don’t work, the bridge even crumbled, and so you’ve got somebody who, you had everybody to make the thing and you had the people to transport the thing, but the bridge crumbled, so now they can’t get from point a to point B and all of that comes down to not investing in

[00:19:30] Amy: our people, not investing our attention, not investing our resources and our time and our money into building up the trades and ensuring that our infrastructure is maintained and future ready, and so then when you add to that, the complexity that we’re gonna run out of fossil fuels at some point.

[00:19:46] Amy: And also, that’s damaging, other areas of our economy. Now you’ve got, now you’re just doubling down on that demand, and I just, I think, I’m so comforted to know that there are smart people that are devoting every single day to solving these problems, and there are at least 175 of you, which makes me happy.

[00:20:04] Amy: I think it’s probably not enough. But it makes me very happy to know that these things are being managed at every single stratum and across, across the country. What do you see as the future of this work? Is it more of the same or is there some transformational leap that you need to take in your own work to further this cause?

[00:20:24] Chris: its gonna sound crazy to say, the next step in my work is where I’m not needed anymore because everything is already normalized and standardized and built into our (inaudible). I hope for the day that I’m unemployed because I’m not needed, not cause I’m not wanted, cause I’m not needed when I can walk into a room and I can already hear.

[00:20:46] Chris: Key bits and pieces of conversations that are already like we need to think about this community when we do this, or how are we not reaching this community or do we have the proper stakeholder engagement? Are we making sure our funding is going to the right places? How diverse is our workforce?

[00:21:00] Chris: Why is everybody in charge look homogenous? What’s going on? Like where this is the norm, the next step for me is where I’m no longer necessary, and then I can do something else, but it is getting to that place, and now the next immediate step is making sure that we have processes and procedures, processes, and procedures in line

[00:21:21] Chris: that can be standardized and can be institutionalized that automatically have checks and balances to make sure that we’re taking care of the most disadvantaged communities or the communities that aren’t involved in the processes or in the policy making, or don’t have a voice in the way that they should.

[00:21:39] Chris: Cause it starts from, and then we can work on the technical aspects, we can figure that stuff out, but we need the voices, we need a more diverse group of people working in the energy field in all the stem fields and we need that in order for it to be heard. It’s somewhat difficult being, it seems like the lone voice in the wilderness.

[00:22:01] Chris: I need more

[00:22:02] Amy: Yeah. Together, I think I, and I think that’s so important, right? It takes all of us together and everybody can focus on their piece. But we all need to focus on our piece in solidarity with one another.

Chris: Exactly. Exactly

[00:22:18] Amy: Because everything needs attention. There are times when you look around and you think, oh my God, everything’s broken. Everything broken sometimes. It’s I can’t be everywhere, you don’t have to be everywhere. So, you’re saying, travel in your lane but look around sometimes and say, hey, Let’s work together on this let’s partner on this let’s collaborate, let’s build a coalition.

[00:22:33] Amy: As I’m doing my work, how do I think about how that impacts your work? And start to really internalize these messages and systematize these overlaps so that as we connect with one another, we remember exactly to carry that voice forward in our work, wherever that work ends up.

[00:22:52] Chris: And I’ll definitely say, make that voice something that’s very critical in the beginning education, around science technology and engineering mechanics, that there should be particular classes or not even just, individual classes. It should be integrated into every subject, every class you take, there should be an element of it in there saying okay,

[00:23:14] Chris: this is how we look at this, this is how we look at that. So and so forth. This is what it means to society with this, so that when we have people who are going to be the decision makers, to who are going to be applicants who are for different opportunities, who are going to be the, who are gonna be the people who build and create the technology and the future for us that they have it in mind

[00:23:35] Chris: and it has to become ingrained in our society that this is necessary. It’s very sad that we have to have people that specialize in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, accessibility. It is the more I think about it. It’s disconcerted that this is actually a thing that has to be because it’s not just normal.

[00:23:57] Chris: But until that thing happens, I’m here.

[00:24:01] Amy: yeah, I think the good news is you’ve got job security. The bad news is you’ve got job security. Chris, this has been such an enlightening conversation. Again. I am so glad that you are you and doing the work that you’re doing and you know that there are good

[00:24:14] Amy: practiced expert hands at the wheel of this because it is so sorely needed, and I promise to do my part to make sure that I am more aware about things as simple as local zoning issues where roads are going to be put and speaking up about inequities there, because I think it, like you said, it takes all of us where we are doing what we can with what we have.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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