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Our Stories: What’s Environmental Justice? Top 5 Things to Know

In middle school, Brian Yoon thought breathing car exhaust in class was normal. His school was in the same building as a parking garage. For two hours every morning, as drivers came and went, countless car engines burned gasoline next to children in classrooms.


“I still remember those mornings,” said the senior staff attorney in Energy and Environmental Law at Con Edison. “You’re sitting there breathing in this exhaust. Everyone had headaches. No one could concentrate. It was quite a revelation when I found out that not all schools shared space with cars. In East New York where I grew up, you physically suffer when you don’t have a separate building for a school.”


Clean energy gives us a chance to rethink our world. And environmental justice allows us to speak up, listen, and understand different experiences, perspectives, and ways to lift people up and elevate the quality of life for everyone equitably throughout our great city and state.


In New York, at least 35 percent of the benefits of clean energy are required to go to communities, like East New York, the state identifies as “disadvantaged.”

Con Edison employees play a big role here because:

  • Con Edison is the largest energy-delivery company in the state.
  • 60% of the state’s disadvantaged communities are in New York City.
  • 45% of Con Edison customers live in these communities.

“Environmental justice for me is literally about breathing,” Yoon said. “That’s as vital as it gets.”



Here are the top 5 things for you to know.

1. Employees from all over Con Edison are leading the way.

A diverse group of employees called the Environmental Justice Working Group is exploring what the issue means for the company and how we can move forward.

“What’s meaningful for me is we’re comprised of areas all around the company — all the operating areas and support organizations,” said Rossalyn K. Quaye, section manager, Steam Distribution Planning and Support, and cochair of the group. “We’re acting as consultants and being a resource for people to learn about environmental justice.”

Just like sustainability, we’re going to weave environmental justice into every part of our business, said Shaun Hoyte, section manager, Customer Clean Energy Programs, and a leading member of the group.

“When we say we’re going to help with environmental justice, people could think we’re just checking a box,” Hoyte said. “We’re building trust with the community, customers, and our colleagues.”

2. We’re changing how we plan and do our work.

“We’re thinking about, ‘How can we incorporate equity and environmental justice in our infrastructure planning work?’” said Kimberly Williams, director of Manhattan Regional and Community Affairs and a leading member of the group.

First, how do we know where disadvantaged communities are? We use our own geographic information system, which integrates the state’s map.

“Using the map, what do we want to do when we know we’re in a disadvantaged community?” Williams said. “The company has a capital projects playbook. Every major capital project goes through the process of this book. All groups involved in designing, planning, and constructing capital projects are involved at the beginning. We have procedures, for example, for construction near a government building or house of worship. We’re starting to look at environmental justice in that fashion.”

“It’s a cultural evolution,” she said, involving new procedures, criteria, and dollars needed. “We want to identify where we can put criteria in place to understand, ‘This is a situation where environmental justice and equity really need to be considered."

3. We’re digging deep with community and environmental groups.

“We’re embracing radical listening with both arms and the biggest hug we can,” Williams said.

What is that exactly?

“Radical listening is not just stakeholder engagement,” said Venetia Lannon, vice president of Environment, Health and Safety and an executive sponsor of the group. “It goes beyond that to really empower the communities that will host or benefit from energy projects and puts them in the driver’s seat. It’s almost like cocreation.”

It’s a powerful process.

“It’s not just our understanding of a problem,” Hoyte said. “It’s the community’s understanding of the same problem and us coming up with a solution together.”

Energy insecurity, for example, is a pressing issue for many families who may have to choose between having energy to keep warm or cool and buying food or medication.

“Environmental justice is also about energy security,” Lannon said. “Simply stated, ‘Is energy too expensive for people?’ The fact that the clean energy transition is going to inherently make energy more expensive puts equity in the spotlight — not just affordability, but equity.”

The group is working with Diana Hernandez, PhD, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, to better understand the issue.

“We want a factual understanding of, ‘How do we solve the problem?’ and ‘What’s the utility’s role?’” Lannon said.

4. We’re giving more to boost people who need it most.

Consistent with the company’s philanthropy, the group is creating new opportunities to invest in communities.

“One thing that’s concrete is the working group is teaming up with the Clean Energy Academy to develop a mentorship program, where employees can give young people a foot up in developing clean energy careers,” Lannon said.

5. We’re spreading the word.

Members of the group are speaking at employee events throughout the company and plan to hold a seminar for all employees later this year.

“This is not something where you have to go out and sell this to our employees,” said Yoon, cochair of the group. “Employees have personal experience in disadvantaged communities and a distinct understanding of the issues. It’s something we want to tap into. What I’ve been learning is, my story is not unique. We have so many employees across the company with experiences similar to mine. This is personal. We treat this as something that not only affects our customers but ourselves as well.”