MOUNT DORA — The Tri-City NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Committee organized a three-part series titled “Lake County’s Population Explosion” because they “recognized in the committee that expansion was having a major impact on Lake County,” according to Beverly G. Ward.
Ward led the online meetings as a committee member and a field secretary for Quaker Earthcare Witness. She has taught and done research at the University of South Florida, where she earned her doctorate in applied anthropology.
“We want to get feedback from the public about their concerns working within the mission of the (national) ECJ Committee,” stated Ward.
The national NAACP website states that “environmental injustices, particularly climate change, have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income communities in the United States and around the world.”
According to Jane Hepting, chair of the ECJ Committee, “We polled local NAACP members to learn about their environmental concerns” concerning a study carried out at the beginning of 2021. Many respondents voiced worries about the quality of the water and the population increase.
The first forum was an introduction to the issues raised by Lake County’s rapid growth as one of Florida’s fastest-growing counties.
On November 4, 2021, the first session’s participants expressed a desire to continue the discussions. Panelists from local government and the planning industry participated in the following two forums, which were held in February and August of 2022, respectively.
Ward claimed that “we brought the community to the elected officials.” Government representatives emphasized we need to hear more from the public in the second meeting, according to Hepting.
The third forum, which drew more than 50 attendees, also featured inquiries created by the organization’s Youth Council. When polled, the priorities of young people were jobs and accessibility for bicycling and walking.
One of the council’s inquiries was, “What are we doing for a greener Lake County?” The Health Committee collaborated with the forum organizers.
As Ward said, “Our (ECJ) group is a cross-fertilization committee because other things won’t operate without a nice atmosphere.”
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“Cancer and respiratory illnesses are caused by where you live,” said Martha Taylor, who has been elected president of the Tri-City NAACP for almost four years.
The committee is also working on many other things, like jobs, transportation to work, the quality of the air and water, housing, and being ready for disasters.
Taylor said, “We will take on issues that affect a community that doesn’t always have a say.” “We know how things work in government, but not everyone does.”
Taylor said, “It all comes down to relationships.” “We’re making connections with the government, elected officials, and communities.”
Taylor also said, “We need to make sure they’re listening and that both sides are having a real conversation.”
Taylor said, “If you use federal money, you should think about low-income areas.”
She used the Justice40 Initiative as an example of a federal order that helps poor communities the most. The U.S. Department of Transportation started the program “to fill gaps in transportation infrastructure and public services by working toward the goal that at least 40% of the benefits of federal investments go to disadvantaged communities through many of our grants, programs, and initiatives.”
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Michael Woods, the executive director of the Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization and a two-time panelist at the forums, said, “The forums showed me that there are other resources out there that I can use in my public work.”
The MPO makes it easier for people in the urbanized parts of the two neighboring counties to work together to make decisions about regional transportation issues. Through its planning process, it gets millions of dollars each year from the federal government for transportation. The two counties and 19 cities in the area can also use the MPO’s studies and plans when they apply for grants on their own.
Woods uses an overlay map made by the Justice40 program to make plans for the next five and twenty years. Five of Florida’s 1,482 poor census tracts are in Sumter County, and 16 are in Lake County.
For example, the Leesburg tract is considered “disadvantaged” because it meets four of the federal government’s criteria. On the list are categories like affordable and sustainable housing, reducing and fixing pollution from the past, health burdens, and training and developing the workforce.
The MPO thinks that new federal programs, like the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, will give it more money for transportation. Things that were talked about in the forums, like making trails longer, are already at the top of the MPO plans.
About 87% of federal transportation money is given out based on how many people live in a certain area, and the remaining 13% is up to the government. The 34 grant programs that are being given out at the moment are more time-sensitive five-year plans.
Key parts of grant applications are comments from the public and letters of support from organizations in the area. Woods said that it’s important to get groups like the NAACP involved in the process because “equity and planning are big parts of the infrastructure.”
If the board of directors agrees, the ECJ committee would like to hold a second online forum in February 2023 to talk about priorities for a five-year plan. “Actionable to us means that we can do something about it. We’re not a service organization, but we can give you a place to start,” said Ward. “We can give a voice to those who don’t usually get to be heard.”
Woods said, “I’m going to keep taking part.” “For me, the NAACP is a good resource.
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