Meet the 17 Philadelphians on the city’s new Environmental Justice Advisory Commission

Kermit O stands in Clark Park in the snow

Kermit O, one of 17 members of the city's new Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, walks through Clark Park in West Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The list of Philadelphia residents who will push the city to address environmental injustices like extreme heat, flooding, and air pollution includes a pediatrician, a teacher, an attorney, a Republican ward leader, and a self-declared school abolitionist.

These Philadelphians comprise the city’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, announced Wednesday. The group is tasked with making recommendations to the mayor, City Council, and city agencies to study, report on, and address environmental justice issues. Members will serve two-year terms and be paid $240 per year for their work.

City officials admit Philly’s low-wealth communities and communities of color are more likely to experience multiple environmental burdens and outsized impacts of climate change, resulting in higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Officials attribute these disparities in part to the city’s industrial past combined with racist practices like redlining.

“Philadelphia is committed to ensuring that all residents are equitably protected from environmental harms,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in a press release. “With the establishment of the Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, and a community resilience and environmental justice grant fund, I am proud that our city is taking concrete steps towards addressing the injustices of the past and creating a more resilient future.”

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Here’s a look at the new commission’s 17 members.

Seeing connections between gun violence and climate change

Kermit O, born and raised in West Philly, is a former teacher and self-described “school abolitionist” who focuses on the intersection of climate, land, and food. He’s been an educator for two decades and taught science to middle and high schoolers for seven years. Now he serves on the city’s Food Policy Advisory Council and coordinates Philly STEM Education for Sustainability, a program funded by a PAsmart grant that works with 11 high schools to develop student-led sustainability projects with real community impacts. That program aims to move away from approaching the issue in small, one-off academic projects and instead, investing in  community-based work.

“Let’s actually do real work in the community in collaboration with community organizations and people in the community,” he said. “If we’re talking about food security, if we’re talking about heat island effect or whatever — what can we do to actually change that reality?”

O’s efforts to break down the barriers between people and land led him to work with the North Philly Peace Park to develop educational programming and intern with the Philadelphia Orchard Project. Now he co-directs Wild Seeds, a program in FDR park for self-directed learners with a focus on environmental stewardship and social justice.

Kermit O stands in Clark Park in the snow
Kermit O, one of 17 members of the city’s new Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, walks through Clark Park in West Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Although climate change activism is becoming mainstream in some circles, O said, many Philadelphians have other, more immediate concerns to deal with, like paying rent, putting food on the table, or losing family members to gun violence. To O, the connections between gun violence and other issues like the opioid crisis and climate change are clear.

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O sees the potential to solve many issues through the pursuit of environmental justice.

“If there was more evenly distributed green space and more canopy everywhere, there’d probably be less violence,” he said. “If you didn’t build bus depots and LNG plants in Black neighborhoods and they weren’t dying from higher asthma rates, people would be more feeling like, ‘Oh, I have, literally, the room to breathe and think about these long-term issues.”

Now the activist-educator hopes to use his position on the advisory committee to bring grassroots solutions to environmental issues developed by Philly’s communities into city government.

“If the city is serious about this, they need to be tapping into that community energy,” he said. “People are already doing stuff … [and] nobody knows better what to do than the people that are living in the situation, right?”

O said the coalition of grassroots groups in South and Southwest Philly that have formed to demand a community benefits agreement from the developer of the former PES refinery exemplifies how community-led change should happen in the city. As an EJAC member, he plans to push for the city to get involved and hold Hilco Redevelopment Partners accountable to the needs of residents.

The key to the commission’s success will be council and city agencies drafting policies based on the group’s recommendations and soliciting their approval before moving forward, O believes.

“So it would be a cyclical process,” he said.

Environmental injustice is ‘not supposed to be normal’

Syreeta Thomas teaches middle school science at Dr. Ethel Allen School in Strawberry Mansion — a neighborhood that has seen more than its fair share of environmental inequity despite its close proximity to Fairmount Park. The North Philly resident is currently earning her master’s in curriculum development and plans to eventually write environmental science curriculum. As the first person in her family to go to college, Thomas teaches her students that science is for everyone.

“I think that it’s a shame that most students don’t really get introduced to … environmental science and sustainability until college,” she said. “I feel like it’s important at a middle school level, the elementary school level, and of course, high school level.”

To Thomas, the way environmental burdens fall along racial and class lines in Philadelphia is “almost a crime.” And many who are affected don’t realize it, she said.

Syreeta Thomas smiles for a photo
Syreeta Thomas is a middle school science teacher passionate about community gardens and educating Philadelphians about environmental injustices. *Courtesy of Syreeta Thomas)

“For so many members of my community to be affected by the environmental issues and not know anything about it — to just almost think, ‘Oh, it’s normal for everyone in my family to have asthma’ or it’s normal to have a lot of people who have developmental disabilities because of lead poisoning,” she said. “It’s not supposed to be normal.”

Thomas was part of a smaller working group that crafted the bylaws of the commission. Although she’s passionate about urban gardening, Thomas said the group made sure not to predetermine the direction of the commission’s work.

“Our main goal as a working group was to make sure that we didn’t bring in our own personal environmental concerns to the actual commission,” she said. “We wanted to make sure it was equitable and it was fair, as far as identifying the areas of those highest need.”

Thomas hopes the commission can help residents navigate the “web” of city officials whose work touches environmental issues.

“So that small community organizations have somewhere that they can go where they can actually get answers,” she said.

A Republican, urban gardener, and climate justice advocate

Tyler Ray has lived in North Central Philadelphia all his life. At age 24, he’s the neighborhood organizer at Urban Creators, the grassroots nonprofit that runs Life Do Grow Farm, a full-time student at Temple University studying community development and historic preservation, and the Republican ward leader for the 16th Ward, west of Temple’s campus.

Ray started to “wake up” to the realities of environmental injustice in high school, when he began to venture outside of his majority-Black neighborhood.

“I grew up within walking distance of about five different funeral homes, and I thought that was normal,” he said. “I knew a lot of people who had medical issues. I’ve known people that had hypertension, that had kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, anything — you name it. But when I was younger, I viewed that as normal.”

But in more affluent sections of the city, like Roxborough or Chestnut Hill, Ray saw fewer funeral homes and dialysis centers. That’s when he began to recognize food access as a social justice issue.

“Growing up in a poor section of Philadelphia, you had to eat what was available to you,” he said. “And we would see all the time, very sugary cereal that’s available, cheap, inexpensive, but the vegetables were usually very high.”

Tyler Ray poses for a photo outside
Tyler Ray is a neighborhood organizer at Urban Creators and a member of the city’s new Environmental Justice Advisory Commission. (Courtesy of Urban Creators)

Through the city’s new commission, Ray hopes to advocate for more preservation of green spaces. He sees the potential not only to address food insecurity through gardens and urban farms, but also to mitigate the dangerous disparities in summer temperatures that can be as much as 22 degrees between neighborhoods.

“North Philadelphia, during the summertime, usually is the hottest section of the city, because as we know, science has shown that concrete and tar absorbs heat — yet green spaces such as trees usually reflect heat,” he said.

Specifically, Ray wants the city to prioritize community ownership, such as through community land trusts of green space in the city — rather than the development of those lots into condos.

Although he’s a member of the Republican party, leaders of which have historically resisted action on climate change, Ray does not see environmental justice as a partisan issue.

“As a human, as someone who cares about my neighborhood, I can’t choose to make that a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s a realistic issue. Climate change is a thing, and we need to confront it.”

Ray hopes the new commission will allow those advocating for action on climate change and environmental justice issues in the city to speak with a unified voice.

“I think something like this that’s happening out of the city … now gives us much more pull and much more weight behind who we are.”

The rest of the commission

The remaining 14 members of the commission include a lawyer, a doctor, and a sanitation worker-turned-activist. Here they are:

Mariel Diana Featherstone is a student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Public Health program, focusing on health geography and environmental health.

Radika Bhaskar is an engineering professor at Thomas Jefferson University, where she has partnered with the Office of Sustainability and the Philadelphia Water Department to measure the cooling effect of small urban green spaces.

Carlos Claussell works for the global Institute for Sustainable Communities, where he supports community-led resilience work focused on the advancement of equity for communities of color. According to a biography on the Institute’s website, Claussell has experience designing public transportation and water infrastructure projects in Philadelphia and San Juan, Puerto Rico. He  worked on the city of Philadelphia’s Green City Clean Waters Plan in a role with The Nature Conservancy.

Su Ly works for the EPA, coordinating programs that help individuals, schools, local governments, and businesses become more energy-efficient or transition to renewable energy, according to a LinkedIn profile. Ly graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last year, where he studied levels of air pollution in Philly parks.

Joyce Lee is an architect and sustainable building design expert who founded the consulting company IndigoJLD Green + Health. She has worked with the Queens Botanical Gardens, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Museum of the American Revolution.

Nahdir Austin is a chemical engineer in vaccine manufacturing for Merck and a graduate of Drexel University, according to a LinkedIn profile.

John Armstead is an adjunct professor at Villanova, according to a LinkedIn profile, and a retired director of the EPA’s regional Land and Chemicals Division.

Terrill Haigler wears a face mask on North 17th Street
Terrill Haigler, aka “Ya Fav Trashman” organized an MLK Day cleanup on North 17th Street in North Philadelphia in 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Carolyn Moseley is executive director of the Eastwick United Community Development Corporation. She’s a vocal advocate for solutions to the chronic flooding her community has faced for decades, which climate change threatens to make worse. She has pitched her community a bold plan to move the most flood-threatened residents to higher ground within the neighborhood.

Jerome Shabazz is director of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center, located on a former brownfield site in West Philly. The organization serves environmental justice communities in three distinct ZIP codes and promotes smart growth and sustainable best practices for urban communities.

Ebony Griffin is an environmental justice advocate at the Public Interest Law Center, where she supports historically disinvested communities and communities of color advocating for sustainable neighborhoods. For years she has pushed the city to make surplus land more accessible to community groups and helped gardeners stave off displacement. Griffin’s organization helped put together an online resource for navigating the legal process to secure garden land in the city.

Kintéshia Scott is an attorney at Community Legal Services’ Energy Unit, where she helps low-income Philadelphians get access to affordable water, heat, and electricity through direct legal representation and policy advocacy.

Gabriella Gabriel Paez has spent years planting trees and training other tree advocates in both English and Spanish through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Tree Tender program. Paez advised the city on the Philly Tree Plan, which aims to nearly eliminate the difference in temperature between the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods and the citywide average and is expected to be released early this year.

Paul Devine Bottone is a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and advocate for climate action.

“While I despair over the impacts that climate change will have on those of my own and earlier generations, I am especially troubled thinking of our young people who may never know a world not beset by such chaos,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer last year. “The physical and mental health risks coming to our area from scorching heat, flooded sewers, and air tainted by smoke from far-off wildfires are manifold and daunting to consider.”

Terrill Haigler is a former professional dancer and sanitation worker who gained a viral following through his Instagram account @_yafavtrashman. He now advocates for improved working conditions for sanitation workers and a stop to illegal dumping of debris in Philly neighborhoods.

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