Honoring Black History Month and the Path Towards Energy Justice: Dr. Yolanda Whyte fights for children

This blog was written by Amelia Shenstone, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | February 25, 2016 | Coal, Energy Justice, Energy Policy

This blog is the fourth in our 2016 Black History Month series honoring advocates and opportunities to advance energy justice. To read other blogs in this series, click here.

When it comes to keeping kids safe and healthy, SACE member Dr. Yolanda Whyte knows that it takes more than a visit to the pediatrician. She is devoted to raising the alarm about the source of many health problems, especially for children of color and those who live in low-income areas: industrial toxics in our air and water. She graciously agreed to be interviewed for SACE’s Black History Month series.

It seems that even amid 12-hour shifts seeing patients around Georgia, Dr. Whyte never misses a public hearing on pollution, especially from energy-related sources. She testified for a more protective water discharge permit for a Smyrna, GA coal ash site, and at EPA’s hearings as it was developing the Clean Power Plan. Thanks to her recommendation, I had the honor of joining her and many other powerful advocates to brief the US Commission on Civil Rights about coal ash and environmental justice and lobby senators against S. 2446, which would weaken EPA’s protections for communities against coal ash.

How did you first become active in fighting environmental contamination?

When I became aware of reports of dangerously high ozone and radon levels here in metro Atlanta, I developed a deep personal desire to get to the root cause of these exposures to protect myself, my pediatric patients and their families. So I educated myself, networked with local environmental groups and realized there was a strong need to influence laws and public policies that regulated our exposures to environmental contaminants.

The first opportunity came in 2008 when a bill was introduced in the Georgia state legislature to lower ozone levels to a standard that was stricter than the national standard. While my name, including MD title, was listed third to testify, I was never called. Ironically, an attorney lobbyist who arrived late and was not on the list testified immediately. That experience gave me some insight into why the medical voice was missing from so many health and environmental laws and policies, and motivated me to challenge my fears with public speaking and speak out more.

I appreciate that SACE has been very instrumental in providing valuable information to the public, raising awareness and playing a strong role in advocacy. I’m also very grateful that SACE has presented me with opportunities to collaborate and strategize with them on campaigns to strengthen the Clean Air Act, especially ozone standards, and address diesel pollution, mercury from power plants, coal ash, and climate change in a number of settings including Congressional offices on Capitol Hill, EPA briefings and hearings, and Georgia EPD hearings, and at conferences.

What are some of the ways contamination is connected to racial and income disparities?

While any community is at risk, there are many reports showing that communities of color that live within close proximity to power plants, chemical plants and landfills and residents often have no idea of the threats they’re exposed to. [Here are a few reports from the NAACP, Greenlaw, and the NIH.] Since there were no visible warnings, cautions, public service announcements or other disclosures, there was no way for communities to know of the need to protect themselves. Furthermore, communities of color and low income communities are less able to defend themselves against large, powerful corporations that are responsible for discharging contaminants in the air and water they rely on. Nevertheless, they deserve to be protected.

What keeps you going in this fight?

Knowing that I’m a part of a much broader coalition that’s making a difference in the health of millions of children across the country keeps me going. It’s empowering to know that there are more ways to influence the health of my patients outside of traditional patient care settings. For example, asthma rates have plateaued and now decreased by roughly 1 percent. This is primarily due to the work of unsung heroes like SACE and other environmental advocates including attorneys, doctors, nurses, community leaders who work tirelessly to create the health improvements that we’re seeing. I also want to acknowledge faith-based leaders like Reverend Leo Woodberry who actively organizes communities and highlights the civil rights focus of our environmental health activities.

Dr. Whyte talks about mercury pollution

What’s your message to parents?

I want parents to realize how they can use civic engagement to keep their children safe and healthy. A parent’s passion speaks volumes when communicating truth to power. There are also simple environmental control measures they can use that can make a tremendous impact in the quality of indoor air anyone breathes, like using an air purifier, keeping plants in the bedroom, removing carpet from the home, avoiding stuffed animals and fuzzy blankets and using fewer aerosols and sprays. Oftentimes, these interventions can help to keep their children less dependent on medications and keep them in school and in nurturing environments.

How would you like to see the world be different in 10 years?

In 10 years, I’d love to see us return to a state where we have more respect for nature and a greater conservation of natural resources.  I see children taking the lead in healing the planet, speaking out more, conducting their own research in school and community science projects and presenting them worldwide and especially to policymakers. I also see children developing practical low-cost solutions that result in the growth of cleaner forms of renewable energy. Children hold the keys to the future and it’s time that we empower them to create change that is needed.

Dr. Whyte serves on the board of directors for Eco-Action, a Georgia environmental justice organization. She has served as vice-chair of the Commission on Environmental Health of the National Medical Association and the board of directors for Physicians for Social Responsibility – Florida. She has been testifying and advocating for health and environmental protections from coal ash since 2012. This includes several visits at U.S. Congressional and state legislative offices, at Georgia Environmental Protection Division hearings and as part of coalition briefings with National EPA, Region 4 EPA Administrator and staff, and also the White House. She earned her Bachelors of Science degree from Howard University and her Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. Following her pediatric internship at Medical College of Virginia, she completed her pediatric residency at Morehouse School of Medicine. Her background includes medical missions to Ghana, Haiti, Jamaica, Vietnam, and Guyana and work with the Indian Health Service.

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