An Ally in the Fight for Safe, Affordable Drinking Water for All

Detroit native Jeremy Orr combines his personal experience and community organizing roots with his legal expertise to help communities of color in Michigan and Illinois dismantle environmental racism.

Jeremy Orr in front of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Orr

Jeremy Orr didn’t grow up swimming, paddling, or hiking, despite his proximity to the Great Lakes, the Detroit River, and the lush border of Canada. The parks in his Detroit neighborhood were unkempt and unusable, he recalls. Instead, he spent much of his childhood playing in the shadow of oil refineries, steel mills, and dozens of other industrial polluters at his grandparents’ house in Michigan’s most toxic zip code.

“In my experience, the city wasn't cultivated as a space that was welcoming for people from communities of color,” he says. ”There was no space to enjoy the environment.”

But soon after he graduated from Michigan State University in 2009, Orr found himself on the frontlines of an environmental fight. As an organizer for ISAAC, an interfaith advocacy organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and as part of a community-based coalition called Clean Up Not Cover Up, he helped residents push for the cleanup of the Allied Paper Superfund site along the Kalamazoo River. The heavily polluted site, contaminated by PCBs, was fouling the watershed for a predominantly low-income, Black, and brown community. However, he recalls, “during that process, it became evident to me that there weren’t any decision makers at the table who looked like me or like the community that was impacted.” Orr also remembers a certain deliberate use of legal jargon and technical language from officials who seemed intent on keeping community members from understanding what was being decided.

“The experience highlighted not only the importance of representation in the environmental space for me, but also the importance of being informed and being able to communicate in a way that people can understand, digest, and be able to engage in a meaningful way.” In 2019, six years after he left Kalamazoo, the group secured a $245 million cleanup. “As an organizer, the goal is to train and build community leaders and work that continue long after you are gone—and that happened there,” he says.

Orr set his mind on charting his own path as an environmentalist. He returned to Michigan State for law school then took jobs both on the legal side as an environmental justice coordinator for Transnational Environmental Law Clinic and, later, on the organizing side for Interfaith Worker Justice and the Peoples Climate Movement. When the opportunity to join NRDC arose in early 2019, he couldn’t imagine a better-suited position.

“I’d really been trying to find this balance of practicing law but still being in relationship with the community, still advocating, and still using my organizing skills,” he says. “It struck me as a perfect way to be able to use my legal advocacy on the ground, working hand in hand with communities.”

Almost two years into his staff attorney position for NRDC’s Safe Water Initiative, focusing primarily on Flint, Chicago, and other places in Michigan and Illinois, he feels he’s succeeded in striking that lawyer-organizer balance. In Michigan, for example, he’s served as a community liaison in Flint, answering questions and translating the legal jargon surrounding the settlement that required the city to replace its lead services lines. He has provided litigation support in NRDC and local partner Great Lakes Environmental Center’s intervention to uphold the state’s Lead and Copper Rule. And on the regulatory side, Orr sat on an environmental review committee that oversaw the rulemaking process that led to Michigan’s strong PFAS regulations this summer to protect public water systems.

More recently, his focus has turned to Illinois. Guided by the Chicago-based Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), Orr’s team at NRDC offered financial, resource, and technical support for water distribution and other emergency COVID-19 responses to help residents dealing with water shutoffs due to unpaid bills. Though the city’s mayor issued a moratorium on water shutoffs during the pandemic, thousands of already disconnected homes, many in the Black and brown communities hardest hit by COVID-19, remained without water.

Chicago Department of Water Management crews installing a new water main pipe at Fletcher and Richmond streets in Chicago
Credit: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Thanks to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the partnership between LVEJO and NRDC has recently developed into a two-year joint initiative to address water access and water affordability issues in Illinois. The efforts will continue to focus on COVID-19 response, pushing the city and state to issue or extend water shutoff moratoriums while expanding low-income utility assistance programs for people who can’t pay their bills. The groups are also advocating for decision makers to implement a rate restructuring for water and to ensure the removal of lead service lines from the city of Chicago (for which Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently unveiled a plan) and the entire state of Illinois. Additionally, they are working to identify a new source of state-level funding to go toward lead service replacement and other critical infrastructure projects related to clean drinking water.

“We're in alignment that any city action should be prioritizing the communities that are the most impacted, and that these communities should have a voice in the process,” says LVEJO policy director Juliana Pino of the partnership. “Jeremy’s willingness to really dig in, roll his sleeves up, and collaborate with people at any sort of level of seniority, and really just respect the expertise of his partners and colleagues no matter how much tenure he has, is something that speaks to his character and deserves recognition. If more people worked in the way that Jeremy does, we would have a more inclusive, meaningful collaboration in the environmental movement focused on environmental justice issues.”

Orr’s investment in helping the residents of Little Village and other frontline communities is also personal. He himself is a resident of the Art Center neighborhood, located at the intersection of two major highways and in the shadows of Poletown’s Detroit Renewable Power, one of the largest trash incinerators in the country. “I can see it from my window,” he says of the waste facility, which finally shut down operations in March 2019. “Even now, [environmental injustice] is my lived experience—the trash incinerator and all the pollution and detriment that it’s caused to this community for decades, one I've lived in for quite some time now myself.”

Orr also advocates for fellow Black communities fighting against environmental racism through his role with the NAACP. Involved with the organization since he was a child, he became the Environmental and Climate Justice chair for its Michigan State Conference in 2015. The work—helping local NAACP chapters identify and set local priorities for their environmental justice initiatives, providing technical and policy assistance when needed, and coordinating those local and state priorities with regional and national NAACP environmental and climate justice efforts—blends Orr’s passion for civil rights and social justice work with his environmental expertise.

His work with the organization sometimes takes place inside town hall meetings, where—as his NAACP colleague Kimathi Boothe notes—“people are anxious about lead levels and the effects of toxins in their water.” Boothe admires how Orr has navigated these meetings with professionalism and grace. “He was really able to bring in a calm energy to the room that mitigated a lot of anxiety,” he says.

He notes that he views Orr as a member of the community first and foremost, and a lawyer second. Boothe, an electrical engineer, also appreciates the connection he shares with Orr: “As a young African American male, I find it very encouraging and very edifying to be in various struggles with somebody like Jeremy. When we're talking about justice and equality and liberation, it’s very fortifying to be with somebody who identifies with the struggles and the experiences, someone who you can not only relate to, but also brainstorm and formulate strategies with and truly make advancements in the work that you're trying to do.”

Orr at the Die-In Protest against police brutality
Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Orr

Orr likewise finds inspiration from the young activists with whom he surrounds himself. During this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, he worked as a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild to monitor and report any unconstitutional infringement on the protestors’ right to gather and express their views. Simultaneously, as an attorney, he provided legal defense for protestors who got arrested during the events.

In a similar moment of racial reckoning in 2018, Orr recalls the pride he felt when representing a Black college student who had gotten arrested during a protest in Lansing, Michigan. The demonstration occurred in response to the white supremacist, alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s arrival in the city to give a talk following the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Orr served, pro bono, as the student’s defense attorney and successfully fought to get the two misdemeanor charges against the student thrown out.

During closing statements at the hearing, he remembers expressing to the judge that while his client had learned a lesson about proper law enforcement interactions, he wouldn’t apologize for standing up to white supremacy. It was something we should all be proud of him for doing, he said—and the judge agreed. “It was a great opportunity to be able to get that handled and protect his future,” Orr recalls. “And also to be able to protect the rights of people who are passionate about our country going in a better direction.”

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