- Co-founder and executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action
- Activist who opposes “environmental racism”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University in 1967, Peggy Shepard began her professional career as a journalist, becoming the first African American beat reporter to write for the Indianapolis News. In 1971 she moved to New York to launch a separate career in publishing, and eight years later she took a job with the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. After that, Shepard held an editorial position at Black Enterprise magazine; she also served as the public relations director for Jesse Jackson‘s 1984 presidential campaign.
In the late 1980s, Shepard was elected Democratic Assembly District Leader representing West Harlem, New York. On Martin Luther King Day 1988, she and a group of fellow protesters donned gas masks and held up traffic near a sewage-treatment plant in West Harlem, where they were promptly arrested for their disorderly conduct. Later that year, Shepard co-founded an organization called West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), which later changed its name to WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She has served as the WE ACT’s executive director since 1994.
In 1993-94, Shepard, in addition to her duties with WE ACT, was also the women’s outreach coordinator for the New York City Comptroller’s office.
In her position with WE ACT, Shepard quickly established a reputation as a crusader against what is commonly called “environmental racism.” One noteworthy project on which she and her organization worked was a multi-year struggle against the Manhattan Transportation Authority (MTA). At issue was the fact that six of the MTA’s eight bus depots were located in Northern Manhattan, an area populated primarily by nonwhite minorities. Shepard alleged — despite a dearth of medical evidence — that diesel exhaust from the many buses in that area had led to an asthma epidemic among nonwhite children there. “The MTA would not get away with putting the diesel depots and diesel bus parking lots in other neighborhoods in Manhattan,” she said. “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.”
In 2003 Shepard received the Heinz Award, which had been established in 1993 by Teresa Heinz Kerry “to honor outstanding leaders in areas of great importance” to her late husband, Republican Senator John Heinz; the award came also with an accompanying cash prize of $250,000. A Heinz press release announcing Shepard’s honor dubbed her “an environmental crusader … against a systemic form of racism that threatens to sacrifice the environmental health of poor urban areas.”
In addition to her work with WE ACT, Shepard has served variously as chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council; a co-investigator of the Columbia Children’s Environmental Health Center; a board member of the Environmental Defense Fund, Earth Day New York, the New York League of Conservation Voters, New York Audubon, and the News Corporation Diversity Council; a member of the New York City Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Board, the New York City Waterfront Management Advisory Board, the National Children’s Study Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health, the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Research Council’s Committee on America’s Climate Choices (a report to Congress published in 2011).
Shepard also holds honorary doctorates from Smith College and Lawrence University.
Further Reading: “Peggy Shepard” (WeAct.org, BioHabits.com, LinkedIn.com); 57 Varieties of Radical Causes: Teresa Heinz Kerry’s Charitable Giving (by Ben Johnson, 2004, pp. 38-39).
- WE ACT 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.
- In point of fact, cities invariably situate bus depots in those areas most likely to use them, and studies have shown that minorities disproportionately avail themselves of public transportation. As political analyst Ben Johnson observed in his 2004 pamphlet 57 Varieties of radical Causes: “Inverting forty years of civil rights rhetoric, Shepard interpreted increased government spending [on bus depots] 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.”