Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
[Editor: I’m currently working on a campaign for fare-free and equitable public transit for the City of Worcester, Massachusetts. So I was very encouraged to learn that Stacy Abrams has been a pivotal leader for transit equity in Georgia. This interview with Abrams by Grist Magazine delves into her environmental advocacy as well as her civil rights work.]
Stacey Abrams helped Georgia go blue. Now she wants it to go green.
Though best known for her voting rights work, Stacey Abrams is a fierce climate advocate. The former Georgia state representative and gubernatorial candidate has worked on environmental issues since her college days in the ’90s, when she interned with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and wrote her senior thesis on environmental justice. Before attending graduate school, she even worked for the then–brand new Office of Environmental Justice in the Clinton administration’s EPA.
At the time, Abrams told Grist, there was a sense in the national dialogue that tackling climate change was important, but not urgent. “I think we have now hit this inflection point where people recognize that climate action is both urgent and important,” she said.
When Abrams entered politics in 2006, she fought for policies that treated issues like income inequality, transportation, and environmental justice as interconnected. One of her biggest achievements as minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives was working with Republicans to pass the 2015 Transportation Funding Act, which created a permanent funding stream for infrastructure improvements and included the biggest cash injection into public transportation in state history.
These days, in addition to leading her voting rights organization Fair Fight, Abrams also runs the Southern Economic Advancement Project, or SEAP, which produces policy research to advance economic security, health care access, and environmental justice for Southerners. The nonprofit’s first report, released last year, outlines the South’s unique vulnerabilities to climate change and offers a policy roadmap to reduce emissions in the region.
Grist recently spoke with Abrams about her career fighting for transportation equity and climate justice — and why voting rights are part of that same fight. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q. You worked to pass one of the biggest funding packages for public transportation in Georgia state history, the Transportation Funding Act. Why was that such an important issue for you at the time?
A. I’ve always looked at the intersection of issues, whether it’s transportation and income inequality or the concerns of environmental injustice and how transportation decisions affect the ability of communities to survive or fight back. For me, the goal wasn’t simply expanding access to roads, but really thinking about, what does transportation need to look like now? And what does it need to look like next? That’s why the bill included opportunities for local counties to expand their transit footprints, and not simply rely on traditional roads and highways as a transportation option.
The larger conversation, though, dovetailed with other work that I’d done in the legislature, including trying to renew a tax credit for electrical vehicles, encouraging electric fleet legislation, and really doing our best to think about the intersection of these issues.
Q. What was the legacy of that legislation? Did it have the effect that you had intended?
A. Yes. It continues to elevate transportation as a conversation, but also it creates investment. Going back to the income inequality side — number one, it creates jobs. It creates jobs not only for those who are doing the infrastructure work, but also for those small businesses that support those workers. And it increases the likelihood of a transit corridor that allows businesses to grow and communities to become a vibrant part of any economic engine.
And we have seen that play out. I think it’s been a very strong success, but always there’s more to be done. A troubling pattern remains that transit still lags behind in the places where transit has the highest import and the highest impact.
Q. What are the most pressing policy needs today when it comes to how the new Biden administration addresses transportation?
A. I do hope that there is an intense focus on incentivizing transit, much in the way that we saw transit incentivized in the 1970s, which led to the creation of MARTA [the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Atlanta’s public transit operator]. It’s one of the places where the South has lagged behind the most dramatically.
Number two is solving the challenge of rural access. The state of Georgia is the single largest landmass state east of the Mississippi. That means that while we have these metropolitan regions that have a pretty deep density of transportation options, if you live in rural Georgia, if you live in the rural South, you are often cut off from opportunity, from access — and that means from health care, from banking, from jobs. It is not a feasible nor, I think, desirable solution to move everyone into towns and cities. And therefore, because so much of the South and so much of America is rural, we need to be very thoughtful about how transportation is an economic and public health infrastructure challenge, and it needs to be front and center.
I think the third is how we speak about climate change and the intersection between transportation and climate. The South is facing an increased likelihood of hyper-disasters — of these megastorms and these extreme weather events that often require not just evacuation, but often destroy what you’re coming back to. Transportation is a big part of that.
If you have a very limited radius of evacuation options because you don’t have a car, because there is no public transit, you can only go as far as your legs can carry you or a friend will take you. And so we have to start thinking about transportation as a critical part of emergency management, in a way that we don’t as a nation right now. I would love to see that given much more attention.
Q. Can you tell me a little about your work on climate change today and what you’re hoping to accomplish with SEAP?
A. We made climate action our very first major subject matter that we tackled because we understand that the intersection of climate action and our mission — which is improving both racial equality and income inequality, creating economic advancement — cannot be separate conversations. So our first one was looking at decarbonization policies for the South. We’re in a partnership with Lancet [the peer-reviewed medical journal] to talk about the intersection of health and climate action.
SEAP understands that there is not sufficient information being both promulgated from the South, and distributed within the South, to help policymakers, organizations, and individuals really become activated around these issues and demand change. And that’s our mission — to provide the kind of detailed, thoughtful research that understands who we are and where we are, but also envisions where we can go and perceives the environment as a central part of that conversation.
Q. How does the work you’re doing on voting rights connect to climate action?
A. It was part of how these elections were decided. I served on the Climate Power advisory board. I worked with a number of organizations that are focused on climate action, and those were conversations that were had with voters — not just voters who identify as environmental activists, but voters who had to flee hurricanes in the late fall, voters who were still waiting for their FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] investment.
I think that the more we connect the dots, the more people see that there is a through line — that if these things are disconnected, here’s what happens, and if these things are integrated, here’s the better life that you have. Those are absolutely salient issues for voters. And fundamentally, it affects your ability to get to the polls.
Q. How do you feel, in general, about the prospects for tackling climate change today? Are you more optimistic than you have been in the past?
A. Oh, much more optimistic. Because we have an administration that has centered it in their conversations — because we have a transportation secretary, and an energy secretary, both of whom are very clear advocates for this level of engagement; because we have a HUD [Housing and Urban Development] secretary who understands how housing choices affect both transportation and climate action.
I think we have the most aware and active and activist Cabinet that we have seen in a very long time to address these issues. And when you add in, of course, Deb Haaland at the head of the Department of Interior, there are real opportunities for innovation, for thoughtfulness, and for understanding the complexity in how income inequality, race inequality, and transportation challenges all come together to affect all of these other pieces of how we live our lives.