Log Lunch Speaker Sharon Lewis Shares A Story on Environmental Justice and "NIMBY" Politics

Pictured: Log Lunch speaker Sharon Lewis smiles at the camera.

For the first Log Lunch after spring break on April 8, the Williams community gathered to hear from Sharon Lewis, Executive Director of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice (CCEJ). In addition to leading the CCEJ, Sharon chairs the CT Zero Waste Coalition and serves on the Board of the Climate Justice Alliance, the Rivers Alliance, and a number of environmental advocacy groups organized by the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Pictured: Lewis presents to the audience.

A graduate of nearby Mount Holyoke College, Lewis worked for the reinsurance and insurance industry in her hometown of Hartford for two decades. Through her efforts representing insurance interests during major environmental catastrophes, Sharon became increasingly aware of the disparate treatment of people of color. The 1978 Love Canal tragedy – in which over 20,000 tons of carcinogenic chemicals were released into a canal by Niagara Falls, leading to inexplicably high rates of miscarriages, birth defects, and illnesses in the New York neighborhood – galvanized Lewis, leading her to shift her career path and work directly to achieve environmental justice in low income and Black, Indigenous, and person of color (BIPOC) majority communities.

Pictured: Lewis chats with students at the end of her talk.

Lewis began her talk by telling the audience that policymaking around pollution and waste is very often dictated by the desire of white homeowners to keep pollution out of their communities; this impulse is described colloquially in urban planning as NIMBY, or “not in my back yard.” She described that race, not income, largely dictates the placement of pollutants and Superfund sites in the United States. Seeking to answer why “people of color [are] disproportionately impacted where they live, work, play, and pray,” Lewis underscored the human impact of pollution, naming the range of poor health outcomes created by air and water pollution, from lead poisoning to asthma, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and more recently, Covid-19.

Drawing upon the brutal history of lynching and the subsequent “Great Migration,” Lewis explained how pollution formed a more insidious type of racism in seemingly progressive communities, from Indiana, to Detroit, to Los Angeles, to her own Hartford. Substandard, neglected housing became the norm for people of color in these communities, which not only exposed these individuals to toxins within their living space, but also increased the likelihood that they would be within close proximity to power plants, sewage treatment facilities, and contaminated groundwater.

Pictured: The Log Lunch menu is displayed on flip paper.

Lewis spoke about how, not unlike the opioid epidemic, environmental injustice largely only gains mainstream attention when white, higher-income folks become affected. Given this, she encouraged the Log Lunch audience to use our privilege to stop this pervasive injustice by making sure all people have a seat at the decision-making table in the context of town, county, regional, and state planning decisions and commissions.


Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.