The ceremony to announce the official opening of the Heartland Environmental Justice Center at Wichita State University was billed as a celebration.

And it certainly had a celebratory air, with coffee and snacks and bite-sized muffins. Guest presenters promised “long underserved and overburdened communities” that help is on the way to provide them with the resources they need to navigate the federal grants process and gain access to historic funding opportunities to make life better.

But Black Wichita activist Mary Dean wasn’t much in the mood to celebrate.

After hearing more than half a dozen presenters talk about the justice in store for rural communities, indigenous communities and underserved communities in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and nine tribal nations, she took the floor to ask if anybody among the celebrants was going to mention the elephant in the room – the groundwater pollution plume from the 29th and Grove contamination site and the Black community that has borne the brunt of suffering for it.

“When’s it going to be our turn to get noticed?” she asked. “You’re talking about listening sessions and training and navigation. We have already had listening sessions. We are ready to see something get done.”

A smattering of applause greeted Dean’s remarks and grew in volume when Millair Neighborhood Association President Aujanae Bennett rose to speak more quietly but with equal frustration.

Demanding accountability

“I’m going to hold you accountable,” she said to Jeff Severin, who heads the Center at WSU.

“I want you to hold us accountable,” Severin promised. “In fact one of our first organizational efforts is going to be the establishment of an accountability board. And we’re going to be looking for people to serve on that board. We want people who know the community and the problems.”

Meg McCollister , Administrator for Region 7 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, spoke briefly about the role the agency will play in serving communities throughout the region.

Quoting Maya Angelou, McCollister said the goal of the program is to advance environmental justice in America’s heartland, remove the barriers to funding for projects in underserved communities and make sure they “don’t just survive, but thrive.”

The Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center, which will go by the acronym EJ TCTAC (pronounced EJ Tic-Tack), was made possible by a $10 million grant over five years to hire staff and get the center up and running. WSU is one of 17 EJ TCTACs in the U.S. that will receive a total of $177 million to help advance environmental justice and remove barriers to improve accessibility  for communities with environmental justice concerns.

Start-up will take some time

Severin said it will take at least a couple of months for community members to see much change as the Center gets staffing in place to begin serious engagement.

“Our first move is going to be to hire four people that will provide communications and marketing help and technical assistance to help communities develop clean energy and address pollution and other environmental justice concerns,” Severin said.

But he said, the intent is to involve communities at a grassroots level, ensuring that the needs that too often go unnoticed will be addressed.

McCollister said that there is opportunity for a historic level of funding through the federal grants process to flow into underserved areas with the Biden-Harris administration’s Justice40 Initiative that aims to ensure that 40% of the benefits of federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

The 17 EJ TCTACs will serve as navigators to help communities obtain the grants to address generational disinvestment , legacy pollution, infrastructure challenges and  build a clean energy economy that will lower energy costs, strengthen energy security and meet climate goals.

Partners in the Justice Center efforts include Wichita State University, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Climate and Energy Project, Community Engineering Corps, Environmental Protection Network, Environment Protection Agency, Iowa Environmental Council, Kansas Rural Center, Kansas State University Engineering Extension and Metropolitan Congregations United.