“I always bring it back,” says Cecilia Martinez as she contemplates her preparedness for her new job as senior director for environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), an office of the US president that works across the government on energy and environmental policy. Her journey, she says, began in nature.
“I grew up in Taos, New Mexico, in northern New Mexico, which at the time was literally just a village,” says Martinez, who speaks of drawing strength from Indigenous elders. “You can’t be in a rural community and not have a very intimate relation with the environment. And I was very lucky to have a grandmother who took me to the place of her generational ancestors. She taught me about a bit of that world, which became a very important part of my life. I am near to this place. My family has been here for generations, and that was a critical part of my building knowledge.”
Growing up near the nuclear research complex in Los Alamos, Martinez says, also informed her trajectory. “It intrigued me how Los Alamos was a city wholly created for the purpose of advancing a technological solution to something, also knowing there were democratic issues associated with that work. It led me to try to figure out and understand those factors. To understand our democracy in light of technological ideas. That is our continual journey as a country and a planet—learning how to bring those things together, in alignment.”
▸ Hometown: Taos, New Mexico
▸ Education: BS, political science, Stanford University; PhD, energy and environmental planning, University of Delaware, College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy
▸ Professional highlights: Cofounder and executive director, Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy; cocoordinator of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform
▸ Academic posts: Associate professor, University of Delaware and Metropolitan State University; visiting professor, Macalester College
▸ Last books read: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles; American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
▸ Recreational interests: Hiking and bike riding
As cofounder and, until this year, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy (CEED), Martinez has demonstrated a keenness for alignment, developing productive connections in the fraught arenas of energy and environmental policy. Associates speak of her as a skillful mediator—a talent showcased at a summit she coconvened in 2018 between environmental organizations and community advocates. The summit produced a roster of recommendations called the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform that places environmental justice at the center of climate policy.
Several Democratic candidates running for US president last year took notice of the recommendations the summit had put forward in 2019. And the Biden-Harris campaign incorporated many of them as it assembled an “all-of-government” climate agenda. The administration now describes an approach linking job creation, green technology development, and infrastructure enhancement to an overarching goal of “rooting out the systemic racism in our laws, policies, institutions, and hearts.”
Having become increasingly involved last year with meetings between candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and environmental justice groups, Martinez now finds herself in a position to make things happen.
She says the job opportunity at the CEQ evolved from her work with the climate platform summit, which forged a détente between environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and the Sierra Club and environmental justice advocates, who say the mainstream environmental movement has marginalized the communities most affected by pollution.
Federal policy concerns emerged as the summit participants drafted recommendations, according to Martinez. “And then, for whatever reason, we were asked by then-candidate Biden and his team to join a couple of efforts they had put together, including the creation of listening sessions with environmental justice community members from around the country.”
Those sessions laid the groundwork for Biden’s environmental justice agenda. “I was asked to join the transition team at the CEQ and later asked if I would consider this position,” Martinez says.
Taking the job meant leaving CEED, a nongovernmental organization, and going into government—a huge leap. But Martinez saw the benefit of moving with the climate platform’s program. “I thought this was the best place for the next step of the work.”
Much else had been moving on the environmental justice front in the year and a half since the summit reached its concord. The late spring and summer of 2020 brought nationwide demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people by police. An initial cry for law enforcement reform quickly expanded into a broader protest against systemic racism in the US and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The disproportionate environmental burden borne by Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities gained increased attention.
While systemic racism is hardly breaking news, Martinez says the confluence of events during a pandemic that also disproportionately affected communities made sick by pollution illuminated the interconnectivity of social, racial, and economic injustice. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform summit connected with an increasing realization of what has lately been termed intersectional environmentalism.
“What I am seeing is really more thoughtful and in-depth attention to the intersectionalities of the questions around justice,” Martinez says. There is a growing recognition, she says, of the connection among economic, social, and environmental inequity. “It’s always been there, but I think it’s become more visible.”
The climate platform’s recommendations—which emphasize reducing the cumulative effects of pollution on affected communities by investing in housing, clean energy, and transportation—are reflected throughout the administration’s agenda. Martinez points to the Justice40 Initiative, a Biden administration plan that aims to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. The work will require Martinez to coordinate efforts across multiple government agencies.
While the task may appear overwhelming, the administration has provided a support system in the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), a body of 26 environmental justice leaders and researchers who began working together last year.
On May 13, the council published recommendations, including the establishment of a grant program that incentivizes solar projects in rural areas and government investment in transportation hubs serving marginalized communities. “The fact that they were able to produce recommendations in a matter of 2 or 3 months is just amazing and shows we are moving on the right path,” Martinez says.
Many members of the WHEJAC have worked with Martinez and CEED for years on environmental justice. Several, including Peggy Shepard, who cochairs the WHEJAC, were involved with the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform project.
“I’ve worked with Cecilia for 10 or 15 years through a variety of coalitions,” says Shepard, cofounder and executive director of We Act for Environmental Justice, a New York City–based advocacy group that works with communities in northern Manhattan and is also active in federal policy. Shepard points to Martinez’s academic background and her skill as a mediator as strengths she will need to draw on while working in the federal government.
“Different agencies have different agendas and cultures,” Shepard says. “It’s complicated. The EPA alone has 13,000 employees or more in offices around the country. It has a distinct organizational culture. I’m sure she had to think long and hard on this move.”
But Martinez will be transferring a key management asset to her job in the federal government. “She has a temperament that is well suited to conflict resolution,” Shepard says. “She has compassion and commitment, but she also has a cool, even temperament that allows discourse to be at odds. And she’s able to move through that. Those are wonderful skills to have in government.”
Robert Bullard, another member of the WHEJAC, agrees. “We have strong leaders in our movement,” he says, “and many are women of color. But you can sense Cecilia’s spirituality. You can feel it. She wants to calm things down in a way where people can talk to each other, disagree with respect. That is a quality she has that has made for success over the years. It’s the quality of an ambassador.”
Bullard, cochair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and widely recognized as the father of environmental justice, acknowledges Martinez’s strong grounding in environmental justice. “She is a national leader that people respect,” he says. “She is able to do the research and policy work but also stay focused on how we can empower and assist communities. She was a perfect choice” for the post at the CEQ.
Aligning government agencies with the Biden administration’s goals for environmental justice will not be easy. But leaders are optimistic, given the movement’s current momentum. “Everything that has happened with the Biden administration has been unique,” Shepard says. “I don’t think the environmental justice leadership has ever been invited to be involved in a campaign or meet with transition-team members.”
Martinez herself is enthusiastic, noting that the public’s understanding of the interconnected nature of social, economic, and environmental justice has risen over the past year. “I think we’ve turned the corner in terms of making this a priority issue,” Martinez says. “We have a lot of work to do, but I think that at least now we are working on an actual solution as opposed to having to convince people that there are these intersectional areas.”