Nonprofit seeks community thoughts on environmental justice

SEEKING INPUT: Kate Epsen, who serves as the chair of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy's new committee on environmental integrity, is seeking community input on environmental justice. Photo courtesy of Epsen

Kate Epsen can’t remember when she first came across Wilma Dykeman’s writing, but she was immediately drawn to the author’s interests in civil rights, environmental issues and social justice. 

“And I love that this writing was coming from the Appalachian region,” Epsen says of Dykeman, a Buncombe County native best known for her 1955 book, The French Broad.

So it was an easy jump for Epsen — who works as a project manager for a statewide clean energy workforce development program at Appalachian State University — to join the board of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy a year ago.  The nonprofit works to promote environmental and social justice through the written and spoken word. 

A native of Vermont, Epsen says Asheville instantly felt like home when she and her husband, Clay, moved here in 2021.

Today, Epsen is the chair of the nonprofit’s new committee on environmental integrity, for which she’s launched a program to ask residents how they define environmental justice. 

Xpress caught up with Epsen to discuss the initiative and how the community has responded.  

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Xpress: Where did you get the idea to ask people for their definition of environmental justice? 

Epsen: With every nonprofit, we think about engagement. … The legacy — it’s really not just about Wilma Dykeman — it’s about promoting the things she cared about. That’s why we’ve got these pillars of social justice and environmental justice and the spoken and written word. 

As the new chair, I was thinking, “OK, what’s a good way to promote these values and engage the community and just get to know the community better, get to know the people here and find out what they think.”

It’d be great to get all sorts of opinions on this term [environmental justice] from all the different walks of life in Asheville and see if we can come up with some common ground or some issues that we could work on as an organization and as a community.

And what’s the response been so far?

It’s been a little bit harder to get feedback than I would have expected. I think for some people it might be a hard question to answer because maybe it’s not their field or might not be as front of mind. But I’ve been getting responses. It’s been sort of a mix. 

How has the issue been experienced here?

There’s a lot of history in the South with the environmental justice movement. It has a specific definition about disproportionate burdens and pollution being placed on populations that are often people of color. It’s often somewhat localized, but I feel like it’s also growing in its definition and its concept. And in a global lens, the burdens of [climate change] are disproportionately felt by the countries and populations that … have relatively low carbon emissions.

I wanted to elicit people’s intuitive sense of what it means in their own personal lives, even if it didn’t fit within specifically that academic definition. Maybe it’s that they live in a food desert where it’s hard to access affordable and nutritious food, or maybe they live in a neighborhood that has very little green space and is really subjected to urban heat island effects or is more prone to flooding because of lack of investment in infrastructure — whatever it may be. So I didn’t want to presume anything going in. We’re still very much in the early phases. 

What do you expect to see in Asheville specifically?

I’m really interested to see what the responses continue to be for Asheville, where I think there’s slightly less industry here in terms of massive incinerators or lots of landfills. … I need to pose the question multiple ways as I continue to reach out to people. Ask them, “What does environmental justice look like? Or what does environmental injustice look like to you? What does it feel like? What does it smell like?”

When you get back people’s responses, how do you plan to use them? How do you plan to reflect those to the community?

I am going to archive them, and we’re going to put some on our website in the environmental integrity section. I would like to compile them in a publication. We definitely hope to have an event or two over time to share and get more responses — whether that be a panel, social event or a combination of the two.

Everybody has smartphones, so we can also make short videos. And if there’s an unresolved issue, [we can see if] there is some initiative that we can take on as an organization or as a community to see if we can address and remedy it.

What else should people know about this project or about the legacy that may not be obvious?

I think that what’s important about this project is we really hope to hear from everyone — all kinds of people. You may have never even heard the term “environmental justice.” I would love to hear what people who are brand-new to the topic think. It’s really not supposed to be relegated to the experts in any way. It’s really something for everyone to weigh in on. 

And then, in terms of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, I think just remembering that she was a person who was ahead of her time in terms of being an anti-racist, being a feminist and being an environmental advocate. That speaks to a lot of the values that Asheville holds to this day. She has a tremendous body of written work and spoken work that I think people would find very moving and inspiring and interesting to continue on. 


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.