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Jeremy Orr on Promoting Environmental Justice

By Steve Thorpe
sthorpe@legalnews.com

Jeremy Orr has been hired as the new environmental justice coordinator with Wayne State University Law School's Transnational Environmental Law Clinic, where he will also serve as coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. The new three-year position is made possible through a $450,000 grant the clinic received last summer from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. Orr had been working as executive director of the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council and spent nearly three years as the lead community organizer with the Gamaliel Foundation affiliate in Kalamazoo. He holds a master's degree in criminal justice with a focus on conservation criminology and a bachelor's degree in public health. He is pursuing his law degree, focusing his studies on environmental and natural resources law.

Thorpe: You're going to be juggling a couple of jobs. Describe the two positions and their responsibilities for us, especially the "environmental justice" component.

Orr: It will certainly be quite the balancing act. In my role with the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic, I will be working alongside clinic director Nick Schroeck, student clinicians and staff attorneys at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to advocate for communities and clients who are facing environmental injustices related to air quality, water, land use and the like.

In my role with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, I will be providing organizational support and coordination for the coalition and its members while working toward the goal of establishing Michigan's first Air Quality Advisory Committee.

Although each position has its own unique responsibilities, both roles maintain the purpose of promoting environmental justice, community health and improved air quality throughout the region and state.

Thorpe: You're originally a Detroiter. You know that there are no resorts on Zug Island and that pet coke is not a product promotion. Did that help you get up to speed more quickly?

Orr: Even as a native Detroiter I, like many people, still hear both of those nicknames and think to myself, "Boy, by name alone those sound like a couple of fun, harmless things." Then I quickly remember that pet coke is short for petroleum coke, which threatens the health and well-being of Detroit residents and our river, and that Zug Island has spent more than a century polluting the air that is breathed in by our cities' most vulnerable populations.

During my time in Kalamazoo and Lansing, I made sure to stay abreast regarding the environmental concerns of Detroit, so I am able to return home and take on this role with full knowledge of the various issues that we face. With the particular aforementioned environmental injustices in mind, among many others, I was eager to return home and get involved in the various battles for environmental equity.

Thorpe: Environmental law is definitely a macro/micro endeavor, including global issues and what's happening in individual neighborhoods. How do you tie it all together?

Orr: Inherently, the two go hand-in-hand. The global issues appear to be far removed from the local issues that we face on a daily basis. With that, we often overlook the fact that it is the collective impact of the micro/neighborhood environmental issues that, when accumulated and viewed in totality, makeup the macro/global issues. The disconnect I see most often in this field is that practitioners and professionals are not able to effectively articulate this connection, thus failing to communicate the issues in a way that is understandable and actionable for the effected communities that we seek to serve. My hope is to tie the two together by effectively communicating that intersection in a way that communities can comprehend and act on with their best interest in mind.

Thorpe: You're going to be creating an advisory committee on local air quality. What's involved in that?

Orr: A lot of stuff that I am tasked with figuring out! It will require a ton a legal and scientific research, plenty of community and stakeholder engagement and, most importantly, lots of time. Through our initial research we identified a few states and local governments around the country that have successfully undertaken this endeavor, so we will study and learn best practices from those advisory committees.

From there, we will select a committee model that best fits our state and region and seek to engage the greater community in helping us create this committee and populate it with the people best fit the represent the interests of our community.

Thorpe: Your legal career is just beginning. How do you see it unfolding?

Orr: Because it is so early, I can see my legal career unfolding in many ways. Whether I remain in higher education, return to the nonprofit sector or pursue public service in a political capacity, my heart's desire is that my legal career unfolds to effect meaningful change in a way that positively impacts the lives of the people that I am fortunate enough to serve and advocate for.

Published: Thu, Jan 28, 2016

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