- Co-founder and executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action
- Activist who opposes “environmental racism”
Peggy Shepard is the co-founder and executive director of the group West Harlem Environmental Action, which she abbreviates as “WE ACT.” Shepard, who received her Bachelors degree from Howard University, began her professional career as a journalist; she was the first African American beat reporter to write for the Indianapolis News. In 1971 she moved to New York to begin a publishing career, and eight years later took a job with the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.
Shepard entered the world of social activism in 1988, when she and a group of other protesters donned gas masks and held up traffic near a New York City sewage treatment plant in West Harlem; they were promptly arrested. Later that year, Shepard co-founded WE ACT. The group successfully sued New York City over the sewage plant’s odor. In 1992 the mayor instituted a $55 million odor-abatement plan, and the 1993 court settlement created a $1.1 million fund for the West Harlem community in question.
Such actions have established Shepard’s reputation as a crusader against what is commonly called “environmental racism.” However, the circumstances that are characterized as evidence of such racism are caused neither by malice nor design, and are often brought on by the very conditions that civil rights leadership sues to create. For example, the current project of note for Shepard and WE ACT is a multi-year struggle against the Manhattan Transportation Authority (MTA). At issue is the fact that six of the MTA’s eight bus depots are located in Northern Manhattan, an area primarily populated by minorities. Shepard alleges (despite the dearth of medical evidence) that diesel exhaust has led to an asthma epidemic among minority children, and that this is a form of “environmental racism.” According to WE ACT:
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states that no agency receiving Federal funds shall administer a program that discriminates against people on the basis of race. If an agency’s actions have the effect of discriminating, the agency is in violation of Civil Rights law, even if discrimination is not intentional.
“The MTA would not get away with putting the diesel depots and diesel bus parking lots in other neighborhoods in Manhattan,” said Ms. Shepard. “We believe it’s discriminatory because [MTA officials] are spending their money to place a disproportionate burden on low income communities and communities of color in New York City.” Thus inverting forty years of civil rights rhetoric, Shepard interpreted increased government spending in “communities of color” as “discriminatory” – a calamity to be remedied by ratcheting up governmental regulation, expanding public health programs, and awarding financial reparations to aggrieved communities and their legal counsel, like Ms. Shepard.
In point of fact, cities situate bus depots in those areas most likely to use them, and studies have shown that minorities disproportionately avail themselves of public transportation. In other words, Shepard’s group has cried racism and filed a federal lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Transportation, because New York City is apparently too attentive in providing taxpayer-subsidized services to minorities.
In 2003 Shepard received the Heinz Award, which was established in 1993 by Teresa Heinz Kerry “to honor outstanding leaders in areas of great importance” to her late husband, Republican Senator John Heinz; winners receive an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000 and a medallion in a ceremony in the nation’s capital. A Heinz press release announcing Shepard’s award dubbed her “an environmental crusader…against a systemic form of racism that threatens to sacrifice the environmental health of poor urban areas.”
Much of this profile is adapted from 57 Varieties of Radical Causes, published by Ben Johnson in September 2004.