Meet Elise Tolbert, the Environmental Health Scientist and Activist Bringing Together Community Advocacy and Environmental Justice
Inspire Clean Energy
Mar 22, 2021
8 min read
category: Sustainable Living
“We're in the midst of a revolution — and I think that it’s felt globally, it's felt nationally, and it's felt locally,” explained Elise Tolbert, environmental health scientist and the founder and CEO of Next Step Up, a nonprofit whose mission is to empower Alabaman students to pursue their dreams through access to tutoring and mentoring services.
Becoming an environmental activist
Tolbert founded Next Step Up in 2010 during her freshman year of college, but her journey into community activism and environmental justice started long before her tenure at Tuskegee University. Growing up exploring the woods and lake near her childhood home in Tuskegee, Alabama, Tolbert fell in love with the outdoors and the sense of balance that being in nature brought her. “I find that I [feel] a lot of peace being in nature, that I'm better able to connect with myself,” she said.
Throughout high school, Tolbert was always involved in various community service efforts, starting a number of initiatives herself in an effort to support and engage with the Tuskegee community. But like many of us, she wasn’t sure where this interest in community service might take her after high school, or whether she’d be able to make it into a career. It wasn't until her senior year of high school that her two passions — community service and environmentalism — would become intertwined.
“In my senior year, I attended a conference called the Annual Minority Health Symposium...targeted toward showing high school students and people of color different career opportunities in the medical and biomedical fields,” Tolbert said. During one of the sessions she attended, the speaker talked about the impact of corporate pollution on an area of Louisiana nicknamed Cancer Alley. This area has become an example of the dangers brought on by pollution, and how communities and individuals bear the brunt of the repercussions in the form of various health ailments and cancers.
“[The speaker] talked about her work in the government sector, working at the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], and helping to empower communities and fight against polluters. She framed it in the context of working in public health, and as a high school student, this was my first time hearing about public health. So, I thought, Well, this is community service that I can get paid for, to help people improve [their] health,” explained Tolbert. And this is the moment that first inspired her to look into a career in public health, particularly in environmental health and environmental sciences.
Finding the inspiration to become an environmentalist
This realization helped to pave Tolbert’s path into environmental activism. She enrolled in Tuskegee University’s Environmental Science program, and the more she learned about the environmental inequalities faced by communities around the US, particularly communities of color — from access to safe outdoor spaces to healthy food to clean, safe drinking water — the greater her call to act became. “I really wanted to be able to work to produce that type of justice and that type of healthy lifestyle for others,” she said.
Studying at the same college where George Washington Carver, a prominent Black agricultural scientist and inventor born into slavery in the 1860s, did his work and experiments laid the foundation for Tolbert’s own discovery of the “intersection of environmental science and human health.” She went on to intern with the Nature Conservancy, working to restore sensitive natural habitats, and received her Master’s of Public Health and Environmental Health from the University of Michigan.
“I knew as a people-person that I really wanted to interface more with other people and [communities],” said Tolbert, which is what led her down the path toward community-based environmental activism. She began working as a program manager at Tuskegee University’s water quality testing lab, which collects and tests water samples from untreated drinking water wells around Alabama to make sure that they meet standards for consumption and use.
“It was actually a dream job,” she said, “I [built] out an environmental justice component to the work at the lab, through which we started to take on the issues [being faced by] two communities in Alabama.” These communities—an unincorporated town outside of Tallassee, Alabama, originally founded by freed slaves, and Uniontown, Alabama—were facing a variety of environmental injustices involving everything from poor landfill and waste treatment facilities to improper disposal of byproducts from nearby industrial operations.
“What I started to realize when working this job and taking care of these issues...is that the path to justice is a lot longer and harder than [I thought]. I really thought that by going to the state environmental meetings, by getting more media attention, by bringing down lawyers from DC and New York, and by collecting air and water samples that we would be able to tell to them [that they] can't permit here anymore, or that there's an issue here that needs to be addressed,” Tolbert explained. But in practice, it’s not as straightforward as that. “It takes years of building community power and outside public opinion and pressuring [governments] just to improve the conditions in places where the conditions should be much better.”
However, this realization about the bureaucracy of environmental and community activism didn’t deter Tolbert’s passion or determination to advocate for communities locally and nationally—if anything she’s energized by these challenges. She now works on environmental and climate justice efforts not just in her home state of Alabama, but nationally as well. With the help of numerous environmental justice groups around the US, she has been working to develop a series of leadership forums bringing together “communities, environmental justice experts, policy experts, and…people who can speak authentically to these issues” in order to bring their perspectives and agendas into the national conversation. “I've really been trying to elevate Black voices and voices of color to our national dialogue as our country figures out its plan,” she explained.
Why environmental activism is important
“We have a really phenomenal opportunity to achieve measurable success in addressing the climate crisis, and we can do so specifically by putting the voices, concerns, and challenges of [marginalized] communities at the forefront of our collective efforts,” Tolbert said. As the US and the world continue to find new ways to address a variety of crises, from COVID-19 to climate change to racial injustice, it is essential that we continue to work to bring diverse voices into the conversation, locally and globally.
And Tolbert has been doing just this. “I've been looking at how to organize and empower the citizens in my city who have been politically disengaged to become more engaged in the political process such that we're able to create the city that we want it to be,” explained Tolbert, emphasizing that even if they don’t have all the health-promoting features in their community right now, it doesn’t mean they can’t have them in the future. It’s all about bringing people together through a shared call to action.
How to get involved in climate change activism
When it comes to activating people in one’s community, though, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For some, activism means starting a grassroots effort in their community, while for others it means working with already-established groups serving their area. But at the end of the day, each of these approaches has one thing in common: action. Elise explained how even “if someone doesn’t have a desire to start an initiative themselves, that they should do some research on ways to get involved in whatever it is they’re passionate about locally.”
At the end of the day, though, whether it’s through activism, working your dream job, or simply being an active member of your community, Elise reminds us that the most important thing you can do is be your most authentic self in whatever you do.
Why we need more inspirational environmentalists
“When I'm talking to younger students, if they're going into a new job or something, I tell them, The most important piece of advice I can give you…is to bring yourself and your lived experiences into this job. They hired you because of your unique personal and professional value. It's important not to assimilate, but to bring [your] lived experience to the table such that you help your organization or your company develop more robust plans that really meet the scale of the challenges that we face today,” explained Tolbert. And if her own community work and environmental activism is any indication, authenticity and passion will be what powers the sort of revolutionary social, governmental, and environmental change that will help us create a more sustainable future for all.
You can learn more about Elise’s work with Next Step Up or donate directly to the organization here.
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