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Amplifying Community Voices for Environmental Justice

April 05, 2022

Valerie Baron L’12, LPS’13 works alongside communities most affected by the agriculture industry, helping to protect and preserve their rights.

To Valerie Baron L’12, LPS’13, environmentalism, community health, and social justice are deeply interrelated concepts.

“Environmental justice is the idea that everybody should have access to a safe and healthy environment,” said Baron. “Environmental injustice is the reality that we live in, where not all racial groups, not all economic groups, and not all people have access to that, because of systemic injustice and broken systems in our society.”

Throughout her career, Baron has strived to center communities’ needs in her advocacy and policy work. After spending several years as the Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)’s Animal Agriculture project, Baron recently assumed a new position as the National Policy Director for the Healthy People and Thriving Communities Program.

Learning About Environmental Justice

Baron found her way to environmental justice advocacy by following her passion to help communities protect their rights to health and safety. Prior to attending law school, Baron worked on the Committee on Energy and Commerce on Capitol Hill, where she staffed a bipartisan bill on lead safety. Once she learned about the dangerous ways lead can impact people’s lives, she became engrossed in learning about environmental contaminants more broadly and what can be done to help communities protect themselves from harm.

Entering law school, Baron knew she wanted to work on environmental health issues, though she wasn’t sure exactly what kind. During an internship with the Environmental Integrity Project the summer after her 1L year, her first assignment was to research environmental justice implications of industrial animal agriculture. Once she started researching it, Baron “really didn’t look back.”

“From that internship forward, it’s an issue that was always been on my mind,” she said. “I remember reading about the ways that living near industrial animal agriculture changed the experience of living in a community, and that made a huge impression on me. It influenced the decisions people made about voting or connecting with their neighbors. In rural communities, where the population is low, having one of these facilities nearby can change the fabric of the community. I always knew industrial animal agriculture was not great for the animals or the environment, but it was that connection to community health and racial justice that compelled me to work to lift up the community voices challenging these practices.”

Baron described her previous role leading NRDC’s Animal Agriculture work as a partnership with community members in eastern North Carolina. According to Baron, local organizers, who are primarily Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), have been fighting for years to address the health harms resulting from industrial farming in their area.

In her role, Baron supported the community members’ work and assisted them in collaborating on legal strategies that would result in long-term solutions. A major aspect of this advocacy work involved pushing for more stringent health standards for hog farms, which create a host of problems for eastern North Carolina communities.

“Communities of color, particularly BIPOC communities, really have disproportionate burdens that they bear from the pollution from hog facilities,” Baron explained. “A lot of people think, ‘What’s so bad about a farm?’ But none of these facilities are what a typical person thinks about when they close their eyes and envision a farm. We’re not talking about a couple of pigs or cows in a pasture or chickens running around. We’re talking about huge industrial facilities where animals may never see daylight.”

Baron explained that industrial hog farmers tend to collect animal waste in enormous “football-field sized dustbowls,” which, in addition to emitting strong odors, also allow animal bodily fluids to seep into the area’s groundwater. Further, the disposal process many facilities use involves piping these fluids across a distance, then spraying them into the air. These practices can have exceedingly harmful health effects for communities who live nearby these operations.

“It’s not just a bad smell. Some of the communities that we’ve partnered with have done research and published papers alongside academic researchers — they did the work together — showing that there is a correlation between when people smell these odors that are really, really horrifying and when there are dangerous substances in the air,” Baron said. “These facilities are actually really dangerous. They emit into the air pollutants that can scar your lungs and cause health problems… . Communities have been organizing for a long time to fight this, and we’re there to support them.”

Leading the Fight for Large-Scale Change

In her current role, Baron frequently works closely with state governments, which are highly instrumental in environmental governance. Additionally, she is focused on leveraging what she calls a “window of opportunity” within the current federal administration, which has signaled a strong prioritization of both environmental and racial justice.

Baron notes that protective regulation is of particular importance within this field, as litigation can often have the unintentional effect of solving the immediate problem for one plaintiff, but “closing the courthouse door” for those who may face similar issues in the future.

“One of the issues that we run into is that this industry — industrial animal agriculture — is extremely powerful. Even when community members win, there is always a risk that the courthouse door gets closed for the next group,” Baron said. “Historically, this industry has been really successful in working across party lines to increase their viability. There’s definitely a window of opportunity now more generally speaking when it comes to these issues, but they’re always tricky.”

Baron, who earned a master’s degree in Environmental Studies simultaneously to earning her law degree, noted that her Penn education has aided her in career path in a multitude of ways; namely, she reflected on the Law School’s interdisciplinary focus, client-centered training, and expansive network. In particular, the imperative of centering client needs was a theme that reappeared across a number of her experiences, from her initial Toll Public Interest Scholar interview to her work with the Environmental Law Project, and it continues to stretch into the policy work she leads today.

“I remember when Arlene [Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean for Equity & Justice and Chief Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Officer] interviewed me for a Toll Scholarship. I remember being asked, ‘who are the populations that you want to serve?’ That’s one thing that public interest law education at Penn always impresses upon you: who are the clients, who is the population that you’re trying to serve? What are their wants, what are their needs?” Baron said. “Really putting them first is a thing that I don’t think every training as an attorney really gives you, and especially going into a more policy-oriented field, that’s something that I really draw on often.”

Watch Baron discuss her commitment to providing protection from factory farm pollution:

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