Thomas Gillam-Shaffer is an Environmental Health Contractor and Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Andrews University. He is also Chair of the Portage Environmental Advisory Board in Kalamazoo Michigan. The eight-member board is tasked to advise the City Council on matters of environmental health and protection. In addition, the board regularly reaches out to the council on issues related to diversity and inclusion within their community. Thomas’ member spotlight story is a wonderful illustration of a city striving for equity and environmental justice within its existing structures. It also shows how diversity in leadership can make a real difference in which issues get attention and how decisions are made.
The Portage City Council has endeavored on behalf of diversity efforts under the leadership of the Hon. Mayor Patricia Randal. In her tenure, she has accomplished greater representation for women and minority communities in positions of local leadership. The city council has 38% female representation and 12.5% people of color. There are three women and five men on the Environmental Advisory Board. Kalamazoo County overall has an 80.00% white and 11.1% Black or African American populace. Therefore, the local boards and councils accurately represent their constituents. Additionally, the current city manager has installed a dedicated diversity officer within the city administration. The diversity officer has a broadly empowered mandate for change and improvement on diversity and inclusion.
The Portage Environmental Advisory Board has regularly reached out to a receptive city council and manager on diversity issues. When local governance received requests for an environmental-related climate crisis resolution more results followed. The advisory board was instrumental in moving the city’s posture on the climate crisis to one focused on solutions. Governance was responsive to a vocal, minority lead environmental advisory board that truly and unapologetically held the ideas of environmental justice at their core. There was a tremendous, heartfelt, and firsthand effort to present the daily socio-economic walk of groups that don't traditionally get to participate in environmental policy discussions. What's more, over the past year there have been continued discussions to promote inter-governmental dialogue with the county’s urban core districts. This was to purposefully consider the voices of minority citizens on issues like potential aerial mosquito treatment chemical exposures.
In addition to advising on environmental issues, the board engages in extracurricular activities to support fundraising goals and several environmentally focused community events. These have included legislative breakfasts, Michigan Perfluoralkyls (PFAS) emergency response, and a host of timely environmental issues. The city of Portage regularly hosts mixers at city hall, and the advisory boards' members always receive special invitations to attend and openly discuss the inner workings of governance. Very often there is an exchange of ideas on environmental policy between the board and the city.
The city of Portage promotes an open, responsive, diverse, and collegial atmosphere in recent years. From the beginning phases of filling board vacancies, the council demonstrated a listening attitude and eager community engagement to intentionally represent women and people of color. There was a demonstrated recognition that there could be a benefit from including diverse voices in this traditionally and predominately white suburban enclave. The result has been a city where diverse voices are heard and responded to.
This story is part of a limited series highlighting members who are working on diversity efforts within EH. If you, or a NEHA member you know, are interested in being a part of this blog series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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