For Montclair Local

Melissa Miles had been feeling particularly anxious about climate change for the last few years.

And the best way to address that anxiety, she told attendees of the Northeast Earth Coalition’s Acting Locally for a More Sustainable World conference on Feb. 12, was to get involved with local efforts to combat the problem.

Miles — an environmental and climate justice advocate who began her career as a community organizer in Newark, and who is now the executive director of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance — was one of four featured speakers at the event, billed as one of the largest gatherings of environmental activists in New Jersey.

Until the pandemic, the event — now in its seventh year — had been held at the Montclair Public Library. But the coalition, founded and led by Montclair resident Jose German-Gomez, moved things online beginning in 2020. German-Gomez said in addition to attendees who took part directly on Zoom this year, the event had a sizable audience through livestreams on social media. 

Miles, now a Summit resident, noted climate change — like many environmental issues — poses a disproportionate threat to Black and brown communities, where infrastructure is often the most vulnerable to its effects.

“College may be a moot point for kids in my community if they can’t get to school because of flooding,” she said. 

Communities such as Newark, for many years, have been recipients of recycling and waste products from surrounding cities and towns, she said. The city is also home to several kinds of manufacturing, as well as one of the largest ports on the East Coast.

Miles said her own family used to live in a neighborhood that had a plastic bag factory nearby.

The New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance has advocated for legislation to lessen the effects of pollution on vulnerable communities, including the federal Environmental Justice Act, a measure sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker that would require agencies to address and mitigate disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards on communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities. It would also expand the types of legal actions available to individuals seeking compensation for discriminatory federal practices. 

Under the act, a permit couldn’t be issued or renewed under the Clean Air or Clean Water Act if there isn’t a reasonable certainty it won’t cause harm.

The alliance also advocated for Newark’s 2016 ordinance requiring the tracking of air pollution, its sources and the neighborhoods and demographics that are most affected. 

Getting involved in local efforts, including advocacy and education programs, to combat climate change helped Miles feel less anxious, she said. She said it’s also more effective than waiting for larger change to take place, because it allows people to share resources and ideas.

“It’s where creativity for solutions happens,” she said. She urged audience members to find out more about environmental issues affecting their own communities and to get involved however they could. 

During her own presentation, Amy Tuininga, director of the PSE&G Institute for Sustainability Studies at Montclair State University, said the institute’s summer internship matches college students with nonprofits, businesses and other groups. The students are asked to come up with ideas and solutions to increase sustainability.

To date, Tuininga said, there have been 270 undergraduate students on 54 “green teams,” representing 57 schools, including Rutgers University, Rider University, William Paterson University and Texas A&M University.

Projects from 2021 included collecting data on community garden use and access for the Newark Community Food System; working with the City of Newark to determine where new shade trees need to be planted, and working with NJ Transit to analyze the battery usage on electric buses. 

Montclair State University is also in the process of expanding its community garden program by building additional garden plots. In the program’s first year in 2018, it produced and donated 600 pounds of produce. 

This year’s event additionally featured talks by author, economist and historian Gar Alperovitz and by Jose Aguto of the Catholic Climate Change Covenant. Smaller presentations were made by representatives of groups including Montclair Climate Action, the Montclair Environmental Commission, Montclair Community Farms, the Purple Dragon Co-op and the New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition. 

The Northeast Earth Coalition anticipated posting videos from the sessions to its YouTube channel this week (search “Northeast Earth Coalition”) and linking to them from its website,

The group will hold its annual Earth Day celebration on April 16 and will present the annual Montclair Eco-Fair, an event featuring displays about pollinator gardens, community gardens and volunteer opportunities, in partnership with St. James Episcopal Church. 

The coalition is also in the process of building new community gardens and farm-to-table endeavors in Passaic, Elizabeth and Montclair.