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Gov. Evers visits Indian Community School in Franklin, announces Office of Environmental Justice

Jason Dropik, Head of School at the Indian Community School in Franklin speaks during Friday's news conference.
Courtesy of Indian Community School
Jason Dropik, head of school at the Indian Community School in Franklin, speaks during Friday's news conference.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers announced Friday the creation of a state Office of Environmental Justice in the Department of Administration.

Evers signed an executive order creating the post during a ceremony at the Indian Community School in Franklin.

The Evers Administration says, "The Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) will facilitate collaboration across state agencies to promote environmentally just policies and prevent disparate outcomes in communities across the state." The office will also engage "with farmers and rural communities, communities of color, Tribal Nations, state and local partners, and low-income populations, among other key stakeholders."

A state panel that Evers set up in 2019 to look at climate change recommended creating an Office of Environmental Justice. Evers included language backing the office in his last state budget proposal. But Republicans who control the state Legislature stripped the wording from the budget.

"And while it was unfortunately removed from the final budget, I'm glad to say, we're doing it anyway," Evers said Friday, to applause and cheers from students and others attending the ceremony.

Evers later told the news media that the OEJ will not be a cabinet position, but that a leader of the office will attend meetings of Evers' cabinet. "For sure they'll be in the room. For sure they will not only be in the room but outreaching all across the state, because climate change and the impact of climate change is a statewide issue. Obviously, the more difficult the circumstance, the more we have to reach out," Evers said.

Evers says he also hopes OEJ will help bring state government together, "instead of having one agency or two agencies taking the lead, we're able to utilize our entire brainpower of our agency and my cabinet."

With Evers being at the Indian Community School, WUWM asked him to describe an environmental problem having a disproportionate impact among Native Americans. 

He replied that tribes living along Lake Superior and other waterways have seen greater flooding problems in recent years. Evers said some tribes have created more wetlands to reduce flooding. "But in addition, we need to help them make sure that their infrastructure is sound, and we can help them keep it that way," Evers said.

The governor's office adds, "The Office of Environmental Justice will be supported by a director of environmental justice, who will be charged with overseeing the Office’s operations and environmental justice work. It will also be supported by a chief resilience officer, who will be charged with leading the administration’s efforts to integrate resilience planning across state agency programs and assisting local government and Tribal Nation leaders in implementing climate resilience programs and projects in their communities to protect people and properties. Additionally, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will be bringing on an environmental justice policy advisor to work in partnership with the Office of Environmental Justice."

Jason Dropik is head of school at the Indian Community School, and a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. He says the governor's announcement is a step in the right direction.

"As both a tribal member and someone who grew up in an urban American Indian population, we just know that often those perspectives are left out," Dropik told WUWM.

Dropik says he's pleased his students got to hear Evers' announcement, saying that future generations are often affected by current environmental matters.

Evers says he hopes the Office of Environmental Justice is a permanent state position. But several Republicans running against Evers in the November election could eliminate the job as early as next year if Evers loses.

GOP gubernatorial candidates include Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Ramthun and Kevin Nicholson. Pipeline construction executive Tim Michels is reportedly considering a bid. Proposals for pipelines carrying gasoline, natural gas and oil have been controversial in several Native communities.

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