By Arielle King, Publisher
On Feb. 1, 2021, Associate Dean for Environmental Programs Jennifer Rushlow notified the Vermont Law School community via email that Marianne Engelman Lado would be leaving her position as founding Director of the Environmental Justice Clinic to join the Biden Administration as Deputy General Counsel for Environmental Initiatives at the Environmental Protection Agency. Rushlow also announced that Lado’s role at the Environmental Justice (EJ) Clinic would be filled by Amy Laura Cahn.
Lado brought a host of experience and expertise to the Environmental Justice Clinic, having previously worked at organizations like Earthjustice, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Lado was the founding director of the school’s EJ Clinic, which opened at Vermont Law School (VLS) in 2019. The EJ clinic works in partnership with low-income communities and communities of color to “address racial disparities and ensure that residents can fully participate in decisions affecting heir health and welfare.”
While at VLS, Lado split her time between the EJ Clinic while continuing to teach at the Yale School of Public Health, commuting from South Royalton to New Haven during the week. This school year, as an extension of this connection, a joint clinical course between VLS and Yale’s Center for Climate Change and Health, the Climate Justice Practicum was offered in the fall semester for students interested in exploring the intersection of climate change, public health, civil rights, and environmental justice.
Environmental justice education has grown at VLS over the past few years. Cahn shared with The Forum some ways she looks forward to contributing to that growth during her tenure. She comes to VLS from the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-based environmental nonprofit, where most of her work focused on using civil rights law to fight environmental injustices. She told The Forum staff that she looks forward to working directly with students, and she is especially “moved by the clinic docket” because the intersection of civil rights and environmental justice “feels like home” to her.
Cahn first became interested in advocating for environmental justice when she lived in New Orleans from 1993-1999. New Orleans is part of a 85-mile stretch of predominately Black River Parishes along the Mississippi River known as “Cancer Alley” due to the more than 150 plants and refineries that pollute the air, water, and soil. She attended many meetings where she witnessed community members attempt to push back against yet another pollution-emitting facility planning construction in their neighborhood. At the time, the state of Louisiana had a law that prevented law clinics from providing legal assistance to community members fighting environmental injustice of this sort.
As the new director, Cahn hopes that by the end of their time as clinicians, students will understand the importance of community-based lawyering; the impact environmental racism has had on the formation of current laws, policies, and practices; the depth and breadth of contributions community members provide to advocacy; and the importance of building trust within communities. She also looks forward to connecting with the robust network of VLS alumni who are doing important environmental and climate justice work across the nation. As Vermont Law School continues to prioritize centering environmental justice in all environmental discourse, Cahn is excited to be a part of that institutional shift. In addition to her work at VLS, Cahn will continue teaching a course at Tufts University this semester focused on climate policy.
The EJ clinic is one of several environmental justice opportunities at VLS. Many VLS students sought more opportunities to engage in conversation that acknowledged the disparate treatment of communities of color in environmental law-making and enforcement and analyzed legal remedies utilized to lessen this harm. In March of 2017, the school’s annual Solutions Conference focused entirely on environmental justice, indicating a desire of the student body to learn more about this unique, but absolutely essential part of environmental discourse. The conference featured experts, environmental justice community members, and advocates, including Lado.
Following the racial justice reckoning this summer brought by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, many environmental organizations, companies, and schools are trying to find ways to integrate environmental justice practices into the work that they do—recognizing that prioritizing social justice and civil rights ensures that all people have equal access to a clean and healthy environment.
VLS is steadily emerging as a leader in helping cultivate environmental advocates who will be able to help their future workplaces do just that. Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, explains that environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.
The school’s Environmental Justice Law Society (EJLS) was formed and approved as an official student group by the Student Bar Association in 2018. The six founders were a mix of JD and Masters students passionate about environmental justice, who wanted to advance environmental justice through “education, advocacy, and knowledge of the law.” The group held presentations on campus to educate their fellow students and the greater Vermont community about environmental justice and began partnering with other institutions to create environmental justice conferences. This year, the virtual conference, titled “Community Visions for Environmental Justice Organizing,” is open to the public and requires pre-registration. The conference will take place on three consecutive Saturdays: Feb. 27, Mar. 6, and Mar. 13.
Arielle King is a founding member of the Environmental Justice Law Society and has been a clinician in the Environmental Justice Clinic.