Peggy Shepard knows that advocacy brings results. Serving as executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), she has seen first-hand what can happen when you try to improve things environmentally in northern Manhattan.
Founded in 1988, WE ACT is not only the state’s first environmental justice organization run by people of color, but it has also been key in making sure that residents living in northern Manhattan are breathing clean air, getting fresh water and receiving safe living conditions.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Trenton, N.J., Shepard came to New York to pursue a career in journalism. After working as the first Black reporter for the Indianapolis News, she worked at Time-Life, Redbook, Essence and Black Enterprise in editorial positions. However, after leaving Black Enterprise, she desired something else.
“I wanted to do something with a little more substance,” she said. “I thought I would do serious articles, but magazines at the time were not ready to do serious articles.”
With that, she entered politics as a speechwriter and later became the Manhattan public relations director for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. She also worked with New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Bill Lynch. Shepard eventually was elected to the position of Democratic District leader, serving alongside Chuck Sutton, nephew to the late Percy Sutton.
Her stint in politics allowed her to travel the state and make solid contacts. She even ran for state Assembly and City Council. However, Shepard also saw inequality among the communities in New York she visited.
Said Shepard, “I got to meet a lot of people around the state and see the differences between certain resources people had in other communities than they had in Harlem. I saw what activism did for the community, and I realized Harlem did not have that same level of activism.”
The first issue Shepard took on was the North River Waste Treatment Plant in 1986 in Harlem, which is now Riverbank State Park. Odors and emissions from the plant were making residents sick. After filing a lawsuit and winning the case, the $1 million settlement was used to start WE ACT.
In another lawsuit filed in 1988, Shepard led the fight against the MTA over the building of a bus depot. Cancer-causing emissions and harmful air pollution, along with the MTA not getting environmental consulting on the project, contributed to a victory that halted the project.
One of her most recent victories is the building of the new Harlem Piers in 2010. The city wanted to build a hotel in the space, but thanks to advocacy from residents and Shepard’s push, the city backed down and built a much-needed public waterfront space in Harlem.
Today, WE ACT operates as a nonprofit organization with a staff of 14 people not only advocating for better conditions in Harlem, but also educating communities on what they can do to save the environment, like recycling and being aware of various environmental issues.
“I feel great, and a lot of people ask me what keeps me going. It’s the activism,” she said. “This isn’t a job, it’s social justice. We need community residents to be active and concerned about issues in the community, to come together and do something about them.”
For more information about WE ACT, visit www.weact.org.