Faculty Spotlight: Professor’s Path to Environmental Justice Career Started on Cape Cod Beach

January 19, 2022 By Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu

More than four decades later, the memory is just as appalling to Celeste Greene. As a college student one summer, she was lifeguarding on Cape Cod when a huge amount of medical waste washed ashore.

It turned out that a barge from New York City had dumped the contents – which included used syringes – right in the Atlantic Ocean. These contents then found their way to the beach area in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where Greene had been teaching kids how to swim.

“It just really struck me – ‘How could this be? How could this kind of stuff that’s dangerous and could hurt somebody be in our water?’” Greene said. “It was an awakening. It was like, ‘We have to do better than this.’”

In the aftermath of the incident, Greene – a San Francisco native who was raised in nearby Piedmont and now teaches in the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies – began taking an interest in any and all environmental causes. That included the creation of a recycling program for the entire Greek system at the University of California, Los Angeles, which she attended as an undergraduate student.

But it wouldn’t be until a few years later, when Greene was getting her master’s degree in public administration at George Washington University, and, later her Ph.D. from Florida Atlantic University, that she came to understand how environmental issues intertwined with racial and socioeconomic ones – a movement called environmental justice.

“It just spoke to me that we need to do something … to make sure that we take care of people so that they are not disproportionately impacted,” said Greene, who wrote her dissertation on the impacts of pesticides upon migrant farm workers.

Since then, Greene is encouraged by how far the movement has come. “Environmental justice is becoming integrated into all facets of government,” Greene said.

“In order for our society to move forward during these turbulent times, we have to be aware of past wrongs, acknowledge those, and try to build bridges. We have to make amends and create policies that are inclusive and don’t disproportionately impact certain populations.”

In 2007, Greene started the online public administration certificate program at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies; she teaches courses on public policy, the environment and sustainability. In recognition of her outstanding teaching, Greene was the recipient of the school’s Adelle F. Robertson Teaching Award in 2017.

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Greene has been a strong advocate of online learning for many years, well before the pandemic pushed the medium into the mainstream.

“My students are juggling families, they’re juggling work commitments, and so I know this works best for them,” Greene said. “And so that’s what gives me the satisfaction – knowing I’m helping them advance in their professional careers, but also having that work-life balance.”

Last month, Greene – who, prior to going into higher education, worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide and at the Environmental Protection Agency as an environmental protection specialist – was appointed by the U.S. Department of Energy to serve as a member of the Environmental Management Advisory Board. In the role, she’ll be providing advice on environmental justice and intergovernmental and stakeholder engagement.

UVA Today caught up with Greene – who lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and two sons – to learn more.

Q. How would you define environmental justice?

A. Environmental justice involves three things: Looking at the disproportionate impact of pollution on minority and low-income populations; involving all of those populations and having adequate representation in the public policymaking process; and then looking at enforcing the laws that are on the books to make sure that we don’t have those disproportionate outcomes …

If you’ve seen the movies “Dark Waters” or “Erin Brockovich” – that’s environmental justice right there.

Q. What were your biggest lessons from working on Capitol Hill?

A. Working for [former U.S. Rep.] Leon Panetta – he was the House Budget Committee director – I was able to interact with constituents. We would respond to their letters and we could really influence policy and [suggest] sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation. That really did make an impact.

It did open up my eyes, too, as far as seeing that it takes a long time for an idea or concept or policy to become law. The Brady Bill [addressing handgun violence] died like nine times before it became law, and so it just really opened up my eyes to the policymaking process and what goes into it.

And it was just a lot of hard work. We were there from 8 in the morning until 6 at night, pretty much every day.

Panetta was a very middle-of-the-road person. He was a Democrat, but he was respected by both parties. He was able to compromise and get things done, and they respected each other even though they disagreed. Back then, they still respected each other and they were friends, even though they were different parties. I just don’t see that as much anymore.

Age of Uncertainty book cover by Celeste Green

Q. How does your career expertise inform your teaching?

A. Having worked on Capitol Hill, I can use that background. Having worked at the EPA, looking at the policy and how laws are implemented once they’re passed by Congress – it can be kind of contentious sometimes balancing the interest groups with businesses. It can be very contentious, so I think bringing that kind of practical experience helps with my teaching, and also with just looking through that equity lens and bringing that perspective.

In my “Intro to Public Administration” [course], I use a book called “Achieving Social Equity: From Problems to Solutions,” and it looks at different aspects of public administration and looking through that equity lens, which is now considered one of the four pillars of public administration. We have to integrate that, but into every aspect of government.

Q. What are the main things you are hoping you can help get accomplished as a member of the Department of Energy’s Environmental Management Advisory Board?

A. It will really be just providing that environmental justice perspective. I haven’t had a meeting yet because I was just appointed … but just making sure that the work the Department of Energy does has that environmental justice lens and they keep in mind the impact – whether it’s remediation or whatever they’re working on with nuclear energy or what have you – the impacts that the department’s work has on those minority and low-income populations.

Q. What inspired you to write your new book, “Environmental Justice and Resiliency in an Age of Uncertainty”?

A. I’ve been teaching and writing on environmental justice for more than 25 years, and it seems like it’s now become mainstream – but people still don’t really know what it is. So I wanted to write something that explains what it is and how to take it to the next level – integrating it and looking at different issues through an environmental justice lens, whether it’s public works, energy justice, climate justice, health equity, smart cities. My book touches on all those topics.

It’s really for practicality – for people to understand how to integrate environmental justice perspective into their work.

Q. What do you enjoy most about teaching students at UVA?

A. Gosh, I love teaching students. I think the thing is, I learn from them. They all have great, diverse backgrounds because they’re working adults. I just love inspiring them and opening their eyes to new concepts, and seeing them use that knowledge.

One of my students, who now works at the Department of Energy, has said how valuable the experience that she gained has been. And I have another student who has gone on for his master’s [degree] at Harvard and is working in Florida to help incorporate a city. He has said everything that he’s used in my class, he’s using in his work.

So it’s just really rewarding to see students use their knowledge and do good things in the world.

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Whitelaw Reid

Manager of Strategic Communications University of Virginia Licensing & Ventures Group