A passionate environmental lawyer and activist, Claire Woods works with communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation, to use the law to protect their health and the environment. After working at the U.S. Department of Justice and NRDC, she is now the director of the environmental justice policies and programs at Greenfield Environmental Trust Group.
I’ve been doing this work for 10 years, working to enforce our nation's environmental laws, the laws that we all depend on to protect our health and our communities. My clients are often people of color because communities of color suffer the most as a result of environmental problems this country faces.
There is so much people can do to create change, including making better choices about the products you buy and the companies you support. When you shop at The Little Market, you are making the choice to support sustainably made pieces that help reduce your carbon footprint and positively impact communities.
One thing that gives me hope is that people are talking about this issue now. When I was in law school studying environmental law I thought, 'Why doesn’t anyone else care about this? Why aren’t people talking about the fact that our planet is suffering?' When our planet suffers, communities suffer, and people suffer.
actions you can take to be
an Environmental Advocate
“One thing you can do is to research your bank to see if it is divested from fossil fuels. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, banks around the world have helped finance trillions of dollars in fossil fuel projects. And the banks with the largest fossil fuel investments happen to be many of our go-to banks: J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Bank of America. Consider switching to a local bank or a credit union, which often cater to more environmentally-conscious investors.”
"A civil action"
by Jonathan Harr
"How to Save a Planet"
with Dr. Ayana Johnson
“Google ‘environmental justice organizations in my area.’ There are hundreds of community organizers and environmental justice organizations that are fighting like hell to create change for their communities and they need our support.”
Shopping at farmers markets can definitely help you reduce your environmental footprint. Typically, our food travels hundreds or thousands of miles, first from the fields to distribution centers, then from distribution centers to big chain grocery stores. When we buy locally, we reduce the carbon costs associated with transporting our groceries all of this way.
shopping at your local market has the power to
reduce carbon costs of food transportation
minimize exposure of chemicals + pesticides to food + farmers
reduce plastic + other packaging
our chat with claire
What sparked your interest in the environment as a career?
"I took a course in environmental justice during college and was instantly invested. I was horrified that Black and brown families in this country have to live with toxic pollution in their air, contaminants in their water, and industrial facilities in their backyards, while so many rich white people can essentially pay to keep those harms far away. I learned that these systemic and racist realities have real impacts on people’s lives and health. I knew I had to find a way to spend my life helping to right those wrongs."
What would your 10-year-old self think about your career?
"I think she’d be amazed that I’m a real-life adult, somehow surviving in the world, all while doing work that helps real people and families."
What gives you hope?
"I am hopeful because I finally feel momentum behind the mission to fight against climate change and environmental destruction. When I first started out in this field, I was the only person I knew who cared about the environment. Media outlets didn’t write about it. Our politicians questioned if it was real. Even my friends asked why I would forgo a law firm salary to work for the trees. But today, we’re urged to make better choices for the environment in almost every space we’re in. If this much change can happen in 10 years, I’m hopeful about the progress we can make in the future."
What is the link between climate justice and racial justice?
"The link between the environmental burdens we face and racial injustice is undeniable. There are hundreds of thousands of polluting facilities and contaminated sites across the country. The environmental, health, and economic burdens of these industries fall almost entirely on Black and brown communities. This means that Black and brown communities are forced to subsidize industry profits with their health, and sometimes, their lives.
In every single environmental context, the needs of Black and brown communities are placed second to industry and supposed economic growth. Transportation infrastructure, including highway corridors, massive warehousing facilities, and bustling port complexes – all of which spew diesel and other pollution into the air, causing respiratory conditions and other illnesses – frequently cut right through Black and brown communities. The EPA’s own findings show that nonwhite people, especially Black people, face a greater risk of premature death from air pollution than those who live in communities that are predominately white. In fact, race, together with ethnicity and language spoken, has the strongest relationship to violations of our federal drinking water protections. Nearly 130 million people in the United States live with drinking water violations; and systemic racism and disinvestment exacerbates these problems in communities of color.
Let's be clear – these injustices aren’t just a coincidence. They are happening because of systemic racism, which has resulted in federal policies and federal laws that don’t protect Black people and other people of color. They happen because land use decisions made by our local governments have historically prioritized industry over the health and welfare of people of color. They happen because industries build facilities in communities where they don’t think people have enough political capital and power to fight against the harms they bring. There is no question that racial injustice is inextricably linked to the environmental problems we face. Many of us in the environmental field work to change this unjust status quo, in our work, in our relationships and personal lives, and in everything we do. "
What would you say to someone who denies climate change?
"I would tell them to pour over the scientific literature – and digest the research of every single reputable scientist who has studied the question – then come back to me for a real discussion."
For someone who wants to be more eco-conscious but doesn’t know where to begin, what do you recommend?
"One thing you can do is to research your bank to see if it is divested from fossil fuels. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, banks around the world have helped finance trillions of dollars in fossil fuel projects. And the banks with the largest fossil fuel investments happen to be many of our go-to banks: J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, Citibank, and Bank of America. Consider switching to a local bank or a credit union, which often cater to more environmentally conscious investors.
If you are able to, invest in an electric vehicle next time it's time to get a new car. I switched to an electric vehicle a few years ago, and it is the best decision I’ve made. I haven’t been to a gas station in two years! It's been amazing for my environmental conscience and also for my wallet. "
What impact does shopping at local farmers markets have?
"Shopping at farmers markets can definitely help you reduce your environmental footprint. Typically, our food travels hundreds or thousands of miles, first from the fields to distribution centers, then from distribution centers to big chain grocery stores. When we buy locally, we reduce the carbon costs associated with transporting our groceries all of this way.
Supporting local farmers is also great because farmers who sell locally are often also producing organically, which not only minimizes the amount of pesticides and chemicals used, but also reduces the possibility of exposure for farmworkers. And organic products are often less expensive when you buy them at farmers markets!
And of course, shopping at a farmers market can help reduce plastic and other packaging. Don’t forget your reusable bag!"
Is there a book you would recommend for someone who wants to learn more?
"I always recommend that aspiring environmental advocates read 'A Civil Action' by Jonathan Harr. It tells the story of a Massachusetts community that was ravaged by cancer because of contamination in the local groundwater aquifer. Eventually, after a civil suit and an EPA enforcement case, the companies responsible for the contamination had to pay to clean up the land and groundwater. It's a beautiful story with a purpose, and it motivated me to work towards protecting people and the environment."
Is there a podcast you would recommend for someone who wants to learn more?
"'How to Save a Planet' with Dr. Ayanna Johnson is a great podcast to listen to if you want to learn more about protecting our planet."
Is there a motto that you live by?
"'Always eat.' It was something my Great Aunt Hilda used to say. It sounds simple, but really it has a much more complex meaning. It means that, no matter what you’re going through, no matter how stressed you are about a case or a client, no matter how exhausted you are, always make sure to take care of yourself and your body. My Great-Aunt’s old saying has served me well, in so many ways."
What is something people might not know about you?
"My grandfather on my mom’s side is from Iraq."
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Explore the conversation:
Close friends Meena Harris and Claire Woods discuss the importance of representation in the environmental justice movement and how and why environmental and racial justice are so closely connected. Tune in to learn about the most critical global challenges.