Mary Dean speaks at the announcement of Wichita State's Heartland Environmental Justice Center.
Mary Dean, president of Black Women Empowered in Wichita, Inc., and Kansas Justice Advocate, Inc., speaks out an event about the new Heartland Environmental Justice Center on July 12. Dean talked about the lack of representation of and discussion with the Black community. (Nithin Reddy Nagapur/The Sunflower)

Mary Dean, president of Black Women Empowered in Wichita, Inc., and Kansas Justice Advocate, Inc., spoke out at an event at Wichita State for the new Heartland Environmental Justice Center. Dean said, “I couldn’t sit here any longer and listen to this.”

“I’m just tired of hearing the same old thing that large groups or organizations always try to bring to other communities, talking about training and what they’re going to do (for) diversity and inclusion and all that, but they don’t mention Black people,” Dean said.

The Heartland Environmental Justice Center, a new technical assistance center, aims to “promote environmental and energy justice in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and adjoining Indigenous nations.” Along with 16 others, WSU’s Environmental Finance Center (EFC) was one of the locations selected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove environmental justice barriers.

Throughout several presentations about the center and its partners, many mentioned serving indigenous and Hispanic communities. Dean raised concerns about the lack of representation or recognition of Black people’s struggles in relation to environmental factors.

“What about Black people?” Dean said. “We’ve always been the ones that have been dumped out and looked over and ignored when it comes to our issues.”

Dean said she wished that organizations and agencies like the new center would speak with the people they aim to help, instead of talking “at” them. The advocate also noted water contamination and other environmental issues in northeast Wichita that she said the city and county have known about for “decades.”

“They do not connect with the average person,” Dean said. “They pick and choose … certain people in the community. The things that are chosen, they do not represent the entire Black community. They have their own agenda.”

In response to Dean’s concerns, Jeff Severin, program manager for the EFC, said that the center will have a compensated accountability board made up of impacted community members. He also noted that the event only had white individuals presenting.

“We work at a predominately white institution,” Severin said. “We do hope to change that as we are hiring these new positions and … encouraging people of color and indigenous folks to apply for these positions because they are what we need to be part of this team.”

Tonya Bronleewe, EFC director, said the first goal and job of the new center is to listen to the community, and in regard to Dean’s concerns, Bronleewe said the center will reach out.

“(Dean’s) concerns are valid, and we want to hear from everyone,” Bronleewe said. “We’re coming in with open hearts and open minds.”

The WSU Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center will receive at least $10 million over the next five years, announced in April by the EPA. The center at Wichita State is in the beginning stage, meaning most work done so far has been hiring and planning.

Meg McCollister, a regional administrator at an EPA branch in the Midwest, said that the 17 different centers will focus on providing technical assistance.

“This includes help with writing grant proposals, navigating federal systems, meeting facilitation, and interpretation services for limited English-speaking participants,” McCollister said.

McCollister said the $10 million funding was fueled by President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 , which includes legislation to reduce America’s carbon emissions.

“This grant announcement delivers on the Biden administration’s Justice 40 initiative to ensure 40% of the benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities,” McCollister said. “We want these communities to thrive, and that means to lead healthy lives, flourish and prosper.”

The assistance center at Wichita State will not be housed under a new physical office, instead focusing on virtual work.

“We’re in the communities,” Bronleewe said. “It’s going to be a pretty nimble organization, and we want to show up to the communities where we’re working, we don’t want to make them have to come to us.”

Those with questions or interested in partnership opportunities can reach out to The event can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

Written by Mia Hennen, this story was originally published by The Sunflower. It is republished here under partnership agreement with The Wichita Journalism Collaborative.

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