Brandon Dawson knows people often perceive environmental issues as not being about them, or being about something that the average person may have to see first-hand, such as polar bears or a melting glacier.
A policy advocate for Sierra Club California based in Sacramento, Brandon seeks to change these perceptions, working to address the concerns of communities of color in particular, so that the movement will work for people like him and the communities he comes from.
“Growing up in Texas, I saw environmental pollution by oil refineries in Houston and how communities of color are harmed by industries that aren’t accountable to our needs,” says Brandon. “I saw the high prevalence of asthma among people of color because of the pollution in their neighborhoods.”
During college, Brandon got involved with a student environmental organization, noticing he was one of the only people of color involved, though the issues they worked on disproportionately affected communities of color. He became educated about environmental justice movements working at the intersection of race, equity, and the environment.
Brandon deepened his commitment to working on environmental issues, getting a law degree and working in Washington, DC, and most recently moving to California to become a state policy advocate with Sierra Club.
“California is the most progressive state in the country, not just on environmental issues, but social justice more generally,” says Brandon. “I wanted to learn about everything going on here, to advocate for environmental justice for communities of color across the state.”
At Sierra Club, Brandon puts the concerns of communities of color front and center. He partnered with the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and Clean Water Action on advocating for sustainable funding for safe and affordable drinking water for communities of color and low-income communities. In partnership with these organizations, he focused on working with communities who have historically experienced water pollution due to agricultural run-off, including harmful nitrates and other toxic pollutants in drinking water.
“This is important because a lot of times communities can’t even use the water from their sinks for drinking, showering, or simply brushing their teeth,” explains Brandon. “These communities have to use bottled water, which is expensive and creates yet one more environmental problem.”
With the support of Sierra Club and its network, Brandon was able to support the coalition’s tireless efforts over the past few years to help pass Senate Bill 200 in summer 2019. The legislation will create a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to ensure more than 1 million Californians access safe and affordable drinking water.
“A lot of the work we did was making sure affected communities were at the table,” says Brandon of the legislative victory.
Brandon also advocates for increased funding for parks in communities of color and low-income communities that often lack access to green spaces so they can enjoy nature and experience clean air.
“I want to make sure urban communities that don’t necessarily always see parks and forests are able to access and appreciate the value of the land that they grew up near and on,” Brandon said. “A lot of people view environmentalism as an older white generational issue, when the reality is, our communities also require clean water, clean air, and access to nature. There’s value in making sure younger people of color are dedicated to this cause.”
Brandon’s efforts include upholding the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which ensures all public and private projects abide by environmental standards and consider their environmental impact. He recently partnered with state and local environmental justice groups to stop legislation that would have weakened community participation in the application of CEQA environmental impact assessments.
“We have to equip communities with the most information possible so they will know exactly what’s going on in their neighborhoods and communities,” says Brandon, “since that will affect their environment and their overall health.”
Brandon says that while he understands the value of hope in motivating people to do this work, for him, the motivation is imagining the worst-case scenario, and doing everything he can to stop it.
“I understand we need optimism, and to have hope. But, for me, I work off of pessimism,” says Brandon. “I want to prevent some of the worst-case scenarios that activists and scientists have been predicting for our planet. We all need to come together to be proactive and build toward a healthy, vibrant world for our kids and for our future.”
Brandon Dawson is a policy advocate for Sierra Club California based in Sacramento.