Jalonne White-Newsome. (Courtesy of the Council on Environmental Quality office)

In elementary school, Jalonne White-Newsome collected air and water samples for science fair projects to measure the impact of pollution on nature. 

These days, the 45-year-old Detroit native is overseeing environmental justice at the White House. 

White-Newsome was appointed this year as the Council on Environmental Quality’s senior director for environmental justice. As the second person to ever hold the title, she advises on policy and coordinates efforts of the Biden Administration to advance environmental causes across the country. 

Among her projects, White-Newsome is working on Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, a plan to direct 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments to marginalized communities  overburdened by pollution. Investment could include transit programs, affordable housing and water infrastructure. 

In her first few months at the White House, White-Newsome said she developed an understanding of the Justice40 Initiative, an effort that rolled out before she took office. 

President Joe Biden created the initiative in one of his first executive orders and named Cecilia Martinez to lead the program as the country’s first senior director for the Council on Environmental Quality. Martinez held the position for less than a year before stepping down in January without much progress on the initiative.     

Several months later, White-Newsome was tapped to continue the administration’s efforts to advance environmental justice. 

“When you talk about the policies that sometimes perpetuate environmental racism and environmental injustice, it really boils down to where the resources flow or where they don’t flow,” White-Newsome told BridgeDetoit. “And this initiative – to really get federal agencies to think differently, and target 40% of the benefits of all the resources that come through to these communities – is so critical.” 

Now, with a few months at the White House under her belt, White-Newsome said some major developments will be rolling out in the coming months. 

In a few weeks, she said, an environmental justice screening tool is expected to be released that will identify where federal investment should go. Using indicators like proximity to traffic and asthma rates, the tool maps out disadvantaged census tracts. A beta version was released in February, and, for Detroit, almost all census tracts were flagged as disadvantaged. 

But the draft version was met with criticism for excluding “race” as one of the indicators. Since then, the White House has received thousands of comments on how to improve the tool – some of the most common were critiques of the administration’s exclusion of race as a factor.  

Race has been found to have a strong correlation with environmental injustice. Three decades ago, researchers found that race was the top variable in where commercial hazardous waste facilities were located. Since then, similar studies have concluded that people of color are disproportionately exposed to all sources of air pollution, face more than double the rate of food insecurity, live in neighborhoods that experience worse extreme heat, and that they suffer from other disproportionate impacts. 

White-Newsome told BridgeDetroit that there’s no plan at this time to add race as an indicator for the screening tool.

Initial studies, she said, have found that the tool “actually captures more census tracts, and characterizes them as disadvantaged, than other tools that are out there.” While it’s known that  race is an “underlying driving force” in many disparities across the country, “with this tool we are not missing a beat,” she said. 

White-Newsome is also working on a first-of-its-kind scorecard for governmental agencies to report out how they’re doing on environmental justice. The scorecard would assess how well agencies are reducing burden and harm to communities, centering justice in decision-making, and delivering benefits to communities, according to the White House’s website. When released, it will be publicly available online. 

Her office has spent the last month developing a plan to give marginalized communities the tools they need to access Justice40 Initiative money, like a “Grants 101” class, White-Newsome said. Funding from the Justice40 Initiative will be given out to disadvantaged communities through grants. Not knowing how to connect with agencies or to apply for grants, she said, could be the “biggest barrier.” 

White-Nesome said agency partners will soon begin hosting webinars and other engagements to provide step by step instructions on how to access the funding. 

“These are just a couple of ways that the changes that we need to see on the ground will manifest itself,” she said.  

White-Newsome came into her role in May, after years of environmental advocacy and leadership in Detroit and elsewhere. 

Building on her grade-school interest in the environment, White-Newsome took an internship in high school with Dow Chemical Corporation in Midland, where, she said, she began to question why some communities were more polluted than others and took note of hazardous spills that often happened in marginalized communities, over others. 

Returning to Detroit after the internship with “eyes wide open,” White-Newsome said she began to recognize the correlation between the polluted places where her family members lived and worked, and the associated health issues. 

“It became very obvious, very quickly that low-income communities, communities of color, were suffering more than others,” she said.  

White-Newsome, a 1995 graduate of Detroit Renaissance High School, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwest University, a master’s from Southern Methodist University in environmental engineering, and a PhD in environmental health sciences from the University of Michigan. 

At UM, White-Newsome researched heat exposure for vulnerable residents in Detroit. 

“Her publications from that work, and other work around climate change, health and environmental justice, have been important contributions to the field,” said Marie O’Neill, a professor of environmental health and epidemiology at UM’s School of Public Health. “Her career and character are marked by her commitment to justice and her consistent focus on studying and acting on what matters to communities.”

As a former senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation, White-Newsome led work addressing the intersection of climate change and public health. She’s been a lecturer at George Washington University and Kettering University, and a consultant at the University of Michigan and Brown. Most recently, she founded Empowering a Green Environment and Economy, LLC, a Detroit-based consulting firm providing solutions related to climate change. 

“Jalonne’s commitment to environmental justice runs deep,” said Lois DeBacker, environment program managing director at the Kresge Foundation. “She firmly believes that the people who are most affected by environmental problems must be involved in developing solutions.” 

While at Kresge, DeBacker said White-Newsome was an early champion of supporting climate change, urban water management, and equity work. 

“It was leading edge, as few at the time were explicitly integrating racial justice considerations into efforts to address urban flooding problems exacerbated by climate change,” DeBacker said. The results of her support of climate change work “set a strong foundation” for environmental initiatives at Kresge, DeBacker said. 

White-Newsome splits her time between Detroit and D.C., and has plans to do outreach in Detroit soon. On Sept. 28, she will be the keynote speaker at the Sustainable Detroit Forum at Wayne State University. 

Newsome said the Biden Administration’s emphasis on environmental justice is not like anything that she has seen before. 

“My hope will continue to be that this emphasis from the federal level will begin to again shape how our state and local agencies act and react,” she said,” and hopefully be more proactive in really integrating environmental justice into how they make their decisions.” 

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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