Environmental Justice in the United States: Taking Stock under President Biden

This series of panels hosted at UCLA School of Law in April 2021 examined environmental justice advocacy in the U.S., taking a wide view of efforts at the national level to address disparate outcomes in environmental protection. Panelists addressed the root causes of environmental inequity across a range of issue areas; assessed nascent efforts under President Biden’s administration to advance environmental justice; and developed ideas for further progress using federal law. 

The symposium was hosted by the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law and co-sponsored by UCLA Law's Critical Race Studies Program, Promise Institute for Human Rights, Native Nations Law and Policy Center, Environmental Law Society, and Journal of Environmental Law and Policy.

Contact Emmett Institute program administrator Heather Morphew morphew@law.ucla.edu with any questions. 

The Emmett Institute acknowledges our presence on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples.


  • Climate Justice in the U.S.: The Search for Equity

    Wednesday, April 14, 2021 | 12:15 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. PDT

    This panel will examine efforts to address climate change at the national level through the lenses of environmental justice and human rights, looking especially at efforts to push for equity in climate policy.  Panelists will discuss how national climate change initiatives can or should simultaneously advance efforts for racial and economic equity and other human rights priorities.

    • Yoca Arditi-Rocha, Executive Director, The CLEO Institute
    • Dr. Cecilia Martinez, Senior Director for Environmental Justice, White House Council on Environmental Quality
    • Marissa Ramirez, Senior Community Climate Strategy Manager, People and Communities Program, Natural Resources Defense Council
    • Keshia Sexton, Deputy Director of Organizing, Mothers Out Front
    • Cara Horowitz, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Co-Executive Director, UCLA Emmett Institute (moderator)

  • Clean Air for Everyone: Air Pollution, Fenceline Communities, and Racism

    Friday, April 16, 2021 | 12:15 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. PDT

    The environmental justice movement was born out of longstanding fights for community health and against racist policies and practices governing industrial facility sitings and land use decisions.  Fenceline communities today are still overburdened by air pollution and face uphill battles to protect their health and welfare.  This panel examined equity in air pollution law and policy, assessing areas of progress, remaining failures, and ways to push forward toward clean air for all. 

    • mark! Lopez, Eastside Community Organizer & Special Projects Coordinator, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice
    • Angela Johnson Meszaros, Managing Attorney, Community Partnerships, Earthjustice
    • Suma Peesapati, Assistant General Counsel for Enforcement, CalEPA
    • Sean B. Hecht, Co-Executive Director, UCLA Emmett Institute; Evan Frankel Professor of Policy and Practice, UCLA School of Law (moderator)

  • Indigenous Lands and People: Sovereignty and the Sacred

    Monday, April 26, 2021 | 12:15 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. PDT

    This panel examined Indigenous strategies to protect the inter-dependent environmental and cultural integrity of their tribal lands and ancestral territories. This panel overviewed the historical and current tribal-federal environmental protection framework; tribal innovations to leverage that existing framework, including meaningful nation-to-nation consultations and tribal law; and the need for a reimagined framework rooted in human rights.

    • Monte Mills, Associate Professor and Director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic, Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana
    • Geneva E.B. Thompson, Associate General Counsel, Yurok Tribe
    • Rebecca Tsosie, Regents Professor of Law; Faculty Co-Chair, Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program, University of Arizona
    • Lauren van Schilfgaarde, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Tribal Legal Development Clinic Director, UCLA Law (moderator)

  • Growing the Intersectional Environmental Movement

    Tuesday, April 27, 2021 | 12:15 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. PDT

    The national environmental movement has faced growing pressure to recognize that meaningful, enduring progress is more likely achieved through "big tent" organizing that reaches across social, economic, and racial justice movements. Morally and philosophically, environmentalists increasingly see their cause as intertwined with longstanding fights for economic justice and civil rights. Under a Biden administration, there is more opportunity than ever to grow an intersectional environmental movement, one that joins with those working for economic justice, civil rights, labor protections, and other cross-cutting causes. Is that happening? What are its contours and prospects?  

    • Tom Cormons, Executive Director, Appalachian Voices  
    • Héctor Huezo, Senior Workforce Equity Coordinator, Jobs to Move America
    • Debra Gore-Mann, President and CEO, Greenlining Institute 
    • Adrian Martinez, Staff Attorney, Earthjustice (moderator)

Speaker Bios

  • Yoca Arditi-Rocha, The CLEO Institute 

    Yoca Arditi-Rocha is an international Sustainability Professional with over 20 years of experience. A Biologist with a degree on Corporate Sustainability from the Institute of Global Sustainability at the University of Vermont and a Master's degree in Liberal Arts from Harvard University in Sustainability.

    She is the Executive Director of The CLEO Institute where she works to drive climate action through community engagement, advocacy, and education.

    Yoca is an Al Gore trained climate change speaker and presenter, a member of the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP), and a US Green Building Council certified LEED-Green Associate. She currently sits in the Steering Committee of The Resilience Roadmap Project which aims to deliver practical information and actionable recommendations to the Biden-Harris Administration hosted by the Duke University Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

    Before joining CLEO, she was the founder and executive director of No Planeta B, a consultancy with an advocacy core, which specialized in carbon footprint inventories, climate action planning, sustainable events, climate literacy and corporate environmental capacity training in South Florida & Latin America.

    She has participated in past United Nations climate negotiation conference of parties and has served as the sustainability advisor for several schools, colleges, and organizations in the region. Yoca is passionate about solving the climate crisis and is considered an influencer in this field frequently invited as a keynote speaker to a variety of forums from conferences, to high level meetings, to radio and TV networks like NPR, Telemundo, NBC6, ABC, and others.

    Yoca received the “Legendary Women in Sustainability Award” by the Ford Motor Company in 2019.

    After living abroad for the last 10 years, Yoca has resettled back in Miami with her husband, her son, and her daughter. She speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese.

  • Tom Cormons, Appalachian Voices

    Tom Cormons was hired to open Appalachian Voices’ first Virginia office in 2007, and he took the reins as Executive Director in early 2013. The organization has expanded under his leadership to include new programs advancing energy and economic solutions for the region, new offices in Southwest Virginia, Knoxville, Tenn., and Durham, N.C., and new initiatives to address the harmful impacts of fossil fuels. Tom received his J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles and a B.A. in political and social thought from the University of Virginia. He is a member of the Virginia State Bar, and his experience prior to joining Appalachian Voices includes clerkships with Environmental Defense Fund, Piedmont Environmental Council, Southern Environmental Law Center, and the U.S. Department of Justice. Tom also worked with endangered migratory terns in South America for six seasons, overseeing aerial radio-tracking of the birds. He lives in Charlottesville, Va., with his wife, Heather, whom he met while working as a whitewater and climbing guide in southern West Virginia, and their children, Brooke, Kai, and Cassie.

  • Debra Gore-Mann, Greenlining Institute

    Debra Gore-Mann finds gratitude in developing long term relationships, dynamic teams and shared accomplishments. As the middle child of a biracial, military, first generation immigrant family, Debra embraces the beauty and strength that lies in her differentness. Debra joins the Greenlining team from a background of in-depth strategic and business development expertise. 

    With an engineering degree and an M.B.A. from Stanford (where she was the only African American woman in a class of 300 graduate students), her work has spanned across the private, public and political sectors in uplifting low opportunity communities with funding, team building and financial and people resources. Most recently, she led the San Francisco Conservation Corps, America’s first urban municipal youth corps. 

    As Greenlining’s President and CEO, Debra guides the organization’s growth and direction and serves as the unifying voice for our multifaceted policy work, bringing her unique, intersectional perspective to bear. She works with our board to oversee the organization’s finances, management and governance and partners with our staff and board to develop programs and policy strategies to advance racial and economic justice and to strengthen ties with The Greenlining Coalition. 

    Debra is a sports enthusiast, with a particular interest in basketball and football at all levels (AAU club teams, high school, college and professional levels). Debra, her husband, and her daughter all played NCAA Division I basketball. She currently serves on several nonprofit boards and as a managing director for the fledgling Oakland Rise professional women’s basketball team. One of Debra’s key mentors was Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame football coach for the San Francisco 49ers. 

  • Sean B. Hecht, UCLA School of Law

    Sean B. Hecht is the Co-Executive Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and Evan Frankel Professor of Policy and Practice, at UCLA School of Law. He works with students to serve environmental organizations and government agencies in his role as co-director of the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic. His teaching includes Public Natural Resources Law and Policy, Environmental Law, and a California State Environmental Law seminar, in addition to the Environmental Law Clinic. Sean is a frequent speaker and media commenter on a wide range of issues. He collaborates on projects with practicing environmental lawyers, environmental and environmental justice advocacy organizations, policymakers, and the business community. Sean is also a leading scholar on the ways the insurance sector interacts with climate change. His other research interests include developing legal and policy tools for building resilience to climate change’s projected impacts, including wildfire and coastal impacts; examining the relationship between environmental justice and mainstream environmental advocacy; analyzing the role of environmental impact analysis under CEQA, NEPA, and other laws in protecting health and the environment; understanding the role that science plays in environmental policymaking; and studying the dynamics of federal public land law and policy and the relationship between state and federal regulation on public lands. 

    After law school, Sean served as law clerk for Hon. Laughlin E. Waters of the United States District Court for the Central District of California. He began law practice at the firm Strumwasser & Woocher, litigating cases involving election law, employment law, environmental and land-use law, and insurance regulation. More recently, he served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice, representing the Attorney General and state agencies on environmental and public health matters. Sean will serve as Chair of the California Lawyers Association Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for 2020-21. He is a past chair of the State Bar of California’s environmental law section, and the founding (past) board chair of the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation. Along with co-counsel in Center for Biological Diversity v. Department of Fish and Wildlife (Newhall Ranch), he received the 2016 California Lawyer Attorney of the Year (CLAY) Award for environmental law. In 2020, Sean was appointed as a Fellow of the American College of Environmental Lawyers. He blogs at http://legal-planet.org

  • Cara Horowitz, UCLA School of Law

    Cara Horowitz is the Co-Executive Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law.  The Emmett Institute was founded as the first law school center in the nation focused on climate law and policy.  Cara teaches at the law school and directs the work of the Emmett Center to advance innovative research, public policy debate, and legislative reform to address climate change and its effects. 
    Cara’s areas of focus include California and federal climate policy and local sustainability.  She has testified to the California legislature on climate policy and has been quoted in the Washington Post, the Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and other media.  She serves on the governing boards of local and national environmental organizations, including the Climate Law Institute, Climate Resolve, and the Green LA Coalition. 
    Prior to joining UCLA, Cara worked in the non-profit sector as a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she litigated high-profile cases and advocated domestically and internationally to preserve and protect oceans and wildlife.  She has also worked at Caldwell, Leslie and Proctor, a litigation boutique, and served as law clerk to the Honorable Dorothy W. Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Horowitz is a 2001 graduate of the UCLA School of Law, where she was an articles editor of the UCLA Law Review and finished first in her class. 

  • Héctor Huezo, Jobs to Move America

    Héctor Huezo is Senior Workforce Equity Coordinator at Jobs to Move America

  • Angela Johnson Meszaros, Earthjustice

    Angela Johnson Meszaros is the managing attorney for the Community Partnerships Program. She is based in the California regional office in Los Angeles, CA.

    Angela’s docket focuses on working with communities of color on issues related to air pollution, energy, and the urban environment. Over nearly 25 years, Angela has used a range of tools to enhance the health, safety, and quality of life in communities impacted by environmental hazards including: providing technical assistance to community members to support their effective advocacy on behalf of their communities, litigation, legislative drafting and policy advocacy, and media engagement.

    Angela’s efforts have focused on policy development, implementation, and enforcement in a variety of environmental areas including: the impacts of climate change policy on communities of color, eliminating extraction of oil in LA’s urban neighborhoods, meeting the health-based air standards established by the Clean Air Act, public participation in environmental decision-making, reducing childhood lead poisoning, defending against destructive freeway siting, stopping inappropriate siting of sources of air pollution, land use policies and their impact on community health, reducing health impacts of air toxics from mobile and stationary sources, Superfund clean up, the California Environmental Quality Act, and air permit development and compliance.

    Angela holds both a degree in philosophy and a law degree from the University of Southern California. She is a member of the California state bar. She’s the proud mother of two children, a decent archer, and a lover of good stories told well.

  • mark! Lopez, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice 

    mark! Lopez (He/Him/His) comes from a family with a long history of activism. He was raised in the Madres del Este de Los Angeles Santa Isabel (Mothers of East LA Santa Isabel – MELASI), an organization co-founded by his grandparents, Juana Beatriz Gutierrez and Ricardo Gutierrez. This set his trajectory as a community activist. He engaged in a wide array of student activism at UC Santa Cruz where he earned his B.A. in Environmental Studies, and taught university courses at UC Santa Cruz, Cal State Northridge, and UCLA Extension. mark! earned his M.A. from the Chican@ Studies Department at Cal State Northridge, where he completed his Masters thesis titled The Fire: Decolonizing “Environmental Justice.” mark! joined East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice as a member three years before joining the staff. After serving as Lead Organizer for East Yard Communities and Co-Director with EYCEJ Co-Founder Angelo Logan, mark! served as the Executive Director for over 6 years. He is now serving as Eastside Community Organizer & Special Projects Coordinator. He organizes in the area where he was born, raised and continues to live. mark! is the 2017 North American Recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

  • Adrian Martinez, Earthjustice

    Based in Los Angeles, CA, Adrian works on clean air, clean energy and environmental justice issues. Adrian grew up in North Carolina and moved west for law school. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Adrian worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council as a smog and environmental justice attorney. Adrian also teaches Environmental Justice Law at UCLA School of Law.  

  • Dr. Cecilia Martinez, White House Council on Environmental Quality

    Dr. Cecilia Martinez is the Senior Director for Environmental Justice (EJ) at the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ). In this role, she will be facilitating the coordination of the whole-of-government EJ agenda of the Biden administration. Previously she was the Executive Director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.  Dr. Martinez also previously held positions as Associate Research Professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of Delaware.  She has led a variety of projects to address sustainable development at the local, state and federal level. Her work focuses on the development of energy and environmental strategies that promote equitable and sustainable policies. She received her B.S. from Stanford University, and MPA from New Mexico State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Delaware’s College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy.

  • Monte Mills, Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana

    Monte Mills is an Associate Professor and Director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. He teaches a variety of courses, including Federal Indian Law; Race, Racism, and American Law; and Employment Law, along with other classes focused on Indian and tribal law-related topics and works with clinical students on a range of legal matters in the Indian Law Clinic. His research and writing focuses on the intersection of Federal Indian Law, Tribal sovereignty, and natural resources as well as race and racism in the law and legal education. Recently, along with Prof. Hillary Hoffmann (Vermont Law School), Monte authored A Third Way: Decolonizing the Laws of Indigenous Cultural Protection, which was published by Cambridge University Press in July 2020. Monte's written work has also appeared inEnvironmental Law, High Country News, the American Indian Law Journal, the Public Land and Resources Law Review, and The Conversation, among other forums. 

    Prior to joining the faculty at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana, Monte was the Director of the Legal Department for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado, an in-house counsel department that he helped organize and implement in 2005 following completion of a unique two-year in-house attorney training program. As Director of the Tribe's Legal Department, Monte represented and counseled the Tribe on a broad array of issues, including litigation in tribal, state and federal courts, legislative matters before the Colorado General Assembly and the United States Congress, and internal tribal matters such as contracting, code-drafting, and gaming issues. 

  • Suma Peesapati, California Environmental Protection Agency 

    Suma Peesapati was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 to serve as Assistant General Counsel for Enforcement at the California Environmental Protection Agency. She has more than twenty years of experience practicing law in the private, nonprofit and public sectors, specializing in environmental law. 

    Prior to her appointment, Suma was a Deputy Attorney General with the California Attorney General’s Bureau of Environmental Justice where she focused on environmental enforcement in low-income communities and communities of color. In 2017, she founded Peesapati Law, a plaintiff’s environmental law firm in San Diego. From 2015 to 2017, she was a visiting assistant professor and an attorney at the University of California, Irvine’s Environmental Law Clinic, where she introduced a state law focus to the curriculum and clinic’s docket. Earlier in her career she practiced law in the San Francisco Bay Area as a staff attorney with Earthjustice, as an associate attorney with Adams Broadwell Joseph and Cardozo, and as a staff attorney and an Equal Justice Works Fellow with Communities for a Better Environment. 

    Suma holds a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Berkeley and a law degree from the University of California, Hastings School of Law. Peesapati is an advisor to the Executive Committee of the California Lawyers Association’s Environmental Law Section and an Adjunct Professor at UC Davis Law. 

  • Marissa Ramirez, Natural Resources Defense Council

    Marissa Ramirez is the Senior Community Climate Strategy Manager for the People and Communities Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She believes that meaningful change happens locally. Since coming to NRDC in 2010, Marissa has worked with neighbors and local leaders primarily in underserved communities of color on revitalizing communities by providing best practices and tools for a more equitable and sustainable future. She is a co-author of "4-Steps to a Climate Savvy Community," which is designed for communities to find solutions to climate, health, and racial equity issues where they live.  She is also author and co-author of “Green Neighborhoods: Advancing Strategies that Create Strong, Just, and Resilient Communities” and “The Sustainable Square Mile Handbook: Cultivate Your Green Village with Community-Based Principles and Practices.” She has led new research to uncover the links between climate change, displacement, and gentrification in U.S cities. 

    Marissa helps communities obtain the knowledge and power to meaningfully adapt to climate change and collectively design solutions to advance local priorities. She knows building communities that are green and provide opportunities for everyone involve bringing people together from different fields and perspectives. Forming these intersecting and innovative ideas is what inspires her daily work to bring positive, impactful, and lasting change for communities. Her work has helped advance policies and investments for green and affordable homes that prepare us for climate change. 

    Prior to coming to NRDC, Marissa was a science researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine focused on developing novel cancer therapies.  Marissa has a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she focused on urban environmental economics.  She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Yale University.  Marissa continues to bring both her passion for human and environmental health to her professional work in communities. 

  • Keshia Sexton, Mothers Out Front 

    Keshia Sexton is the Deputy Director of Organizing at Mothers Out Front. She describes herself as an “accidental climate justice” advocate and leader. Ms. Sexton is passionate about racial and social justice, and on her path to build a movement across race and class, she found her way in the climate justice space. While organizing in the environmental space, she came to understand the climate inequities and climate crisis. She is committed to this work because it is imperative that we are fighting for both racial and climate justice to ensure that all children have a liveable climate. 

  • Lauren van Schilfgaarde, UCLA School of Law 

    Lauren van Schilfgaarde (Cochiti Pueblo) is the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Tribal Legal Development Clinic Director at UCLA School of Law. van Schilfgaarde supervises live-client projects concerning tribal governance and justice systems, ethics, cultural resource protection, voting, child welfare, and more. She received her undergraduate degree at Colorado College and her law degree from UCLA School of Law. 

    van Schilfgaarde previously served as the Tribal Law Specialist at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute (TLPI) in West Hollywood, CA. At TLPI, van Schilfgaarde coordinated training and technical assistance to tribal courts, focusing primarily on Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts, restorative justice, tribal court infrastructure, and federal Indian law. At TLPI, van Schilfgaarde worked with over eighty tribal nations on various legal infrastructure projects. van Schilfgaarde served as a law clerk for the Native American Rights Fund and Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. She was a Public Interest Fellow at American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. 

    van Schilfgaarde currently serves as a board member for the National Native American Bar Association, as Vice-Chair for the Native American Concerns Committee of the American Bar Association, as a Commissioner for the Lawyers Network Commission of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and as a Board Member of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Child Well-being Program. 

  • Geneva E.B. Thompson, Yurok Tribe 

    Geneva E.B. Thompson (she/her/hers) is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Associate General Counsel for the Yurok Tribe. She practices environmental and cultural resource law and represents the Yurok Tribe in tribal, state, and federal forums. Thompson graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, with specializations in Critical Race Studies and Public Interest Law and Policy. Thompson also published multiple articles in the UCLA Law Review and the Indigenous Peoples Journal of Law, Culture, and Resistance.  

    Previously, Thompson served as Staff Attorney for the Wishtoyo Foundation and President of the California Indian Law Association. During law school she clerked with the Department of Justice Indian Resource Section, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. Currently, Thompson serves as a Delegate for the ABA Young Lawyers Division, Co-Chair of the State Attorneys General & Department of Justice Issues Committee within the ABA’s State & Local Government Law Section, and Chair of the National Native American Bar Association Young Lawyers Committee. 

    Thompson has recently been appointed by Governor Newsom as Assistant Secretary of Tribal Affairs with the California Natural Resources Agency and starts her new position in May. 

  • Rebecca Tsosie, James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona

    Rebecca Tsosie is a Regents Professor at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. Professor Tsosie, who is of Yaqui descent, is a faculty member for the Indigenous Peoples’ Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, and she is widely known for her work in the fields of Federal Indian law and indigenous peoples’ human rights. Prior to joining the UA faculty, Professor Tsosie was a Regents' Professor and Vice Provost for Inclusion and Community Engagement at Arizona State University. Professor Tsosie was the first faculty Executive Director for ASU’s Indian Legal Program and served in that position for 15 years. Professor Tsosie has published widely on sovereignty, self-determination, cultural pluralism, environmental policy and cultural rights. She teaches in the areas of Federal Indian Law, Property, Constitutional Law, Critical Race Theory, and Cultural Resources Law. Professor Tsosie is a member of the Arizona Bar Association and the California Bar Association. Professor Tsosie serves as a Supreme Court Justice for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and as an Associate Judge on the San Carlos Tribal Court of Appeals. She received her B.A. and J.D. degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

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