Chemists in the Real World:
DIRECTOR OF FEDERAL POLICY,
WEST HARLEM ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION, INC.
B.S., CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, WITH CONCENTRATIONS
IN JOURNALISM AND ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES,
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, EVANSTON, IL
M.S., ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING,
SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY, DALLAS, TX
PH.D., ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SCIENCES,
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, ANN ARBOR
West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT for Environmental Justice) is a 27-year-old community-based organization
based in Northern Manhattan (NY). When WE ACT obtained
funding three years ago to open a branch office in Washington,
DC, they hired Jalonne White-Newsome as director of federal
policy. This office is a two-person operation, which includes
White-Newsome and her recently hired assistant (and often, several interns as well).
WE ACT works to help low-income groups and people of color
participate effectively in environmental policy-making processes.
The group organizes and mobilizes citizens to campaign for policies that support healthy communities — a movement often
referred to as “environmental justice”.
Q: What is your major responsibility in your
White-Newsome: To ensure that federal environmental policies — in Congress as well as the Administration — are protective
of low-income people and communities of color. I help elevate
the perspective of people who are often left out of the policy-making process.
Q: How did you find your first chemistry-related
job after you graduated from college?
White-Newsome: After I received my bachelor’s degree, I decided
against going immediately to graduate school because I wanted
to work. At a National Society of Black Engineers Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA, I attended a career fair, which led to a job
as a project engineer at U.S. Gypsum (USG). At first, I intended to
work at USG for 30 years and then retire, but after a few years,
my interest in all things environmental drove me to return to
graduate school. USG needed someone with environmental
expertise, so they agreed to pay for some of my expenses.
Q: Describe the career path that led you from
chemical engineering to your current position.
White-Newsome: Company layoffs at USG put me back into the
job market after I earned my master’s degree, but I immediately
landed another job in nearby Fort Worth as a process engineer,
where I was responsible for supervising several production lines
and chemical processes in a production plant. This job gave me
experience in managing people and working as a union steward.
Eventually, I moved to Maryland to work with the state’s Depart-
ment of the Environment, where my job entailed encouraging
various state agencies to use alternative-fuel vehicles. Traveling
to the state capital, I learned to lobby the legislature and advo-
cate for policies. I also learned how the state agencies worked
and how to influence their decisions.
I married and returned to my hometown of Detroit, MI, to work
as an environmental manager at a startup company that made car
engines. After I became interested in working in public and environmental health, I completed the Ph.D. program in Environmental
Health Sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Public
Health. I accepted a postdoc position at the Union of Concerned
Scientists, which brought me to Washington, DC, to work on documenting the effects of climate change on health. After my postdoc,
I began my current position at WE ACT.
Q: Please describe your typical day on the job.
White-Newsome: Every day is different. Some days, I will be
responding to our funders, or something will happen on Capitol
Hill, and we need to respond quickly. Other times, one of our
community groups might need a short briefing paper on a particular issue.
Q: Typically, how many days each month do you
spend away from your workplace on travel?
White-Newsome: I spend 6–10 days a month on travel. People
invite me to speak at conferences and coalition gatherings. I
meet all kinds of people from different backgrounds. I help coordinate sessions at EPA conferences. When I can, I take time to
tour communities and neighborhoods wherever I am, to see the
challenges they are facing.