A New York Climate Justice Activist with Roots in the Blue Ridge Mountains

WE ACT’s director of environmental health and education, Taylor Morton, who found their path to environmental justice work through a childhood spent in nature, wants to help the next generation get outside without fear.
Taylor Morton, director of environmental health and education for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, in Edinburgh, Scotland

Courtesy of Taylor Morton

As a youngster, Taylor Morton was proud of the alligator man. Fellow classmates loved it when he showed up for career day, bringing a rescued reptile that they could pet. On the weekends, Morton and their brother Hunter would sometimes accompany him to count geese in the lake, survey wildlife, and rescue baby bears in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The alligator man (nicknamed by Morton’s classmates) was Morton’s father, Richard, a wildlife biologist who worked for South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for 26 years. From a young age, Morton realized that Richard stood out in his field. “No one who looked like us had this kind of career,” they say. During youth hunts in South Carolina—state-hosted events where children could hunt with their parents—Morton recalls being the only Black family in attendance and the discomfort that sometimes followed.

Morton (left) with their father and younger brother during one of the youth hunts they would go on growing up in South Carolina

Courtesy of Taylor Morton

“My dad was good at shielding us from any type of unwanted attention,” Morton adds. “We have met some people who are less friendly to us because of our race, but at the same time, everyone knew my dad and that he worked for the DNR, and so we also held a unique position in our community.”

Now the director of environmental health and education for the northern Manhattan–based community advocacy organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Morton is working to carve out more paths for young people of color in fields like their dad’s and their own.

“I want to help others have the experiences I had when I was younger. For folks to be able to go outside without fear and to have the resources to get involved in recreational activities,” Morton says. At WE ACT, where Morton has worked since 2016, climate action is a major focus, particularly because the impacts of climate change—extreme heat, raging storms, and more intense fires and floods—are disproportionately felt by low-income communities of color, like those in the northern Manhattan neighborhoods WE ACT serves. Through events like the EJ Expo, an online science fair for a high school in the Washington Heights neighborhood, for which they gave a keynote address last fall, Morton helps to raise awareness of the facts of environmental injustice among New York City public school students.

Morton’s work at WE ACT also includes advocating for more climate change curricula to be added statewide. Currently the organization is keeping a close eye on three bills in the New York State Senate that would incorporate a climate change curriculum in public schools across grades K–12. If these bills pass, students will learn research and communication skills centered on climate and environmental justice—essential tools for young activists to use in holding elected officials accountable for curbing pollution and building climate resilience.

WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and low-income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.

Courtesy of Taylor Morton

Morton has been encouraged by the determination of a younger generation of climate activists to advocate for themselves. For example, in five years of working with the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in northern Manhattan, Morton has advised a group of students who are concerned about the impact of vehicle emissions from the cars and trucks racing by on the roadways that surround their school and many others in Washington Heights and the Inwood neighborhood. To address this pollution issue, the students have created the Green Corridor Project, calling for trees to be planted along a designated route to mitigate some of the exhaust. The teens are raising money and applying for grants to finance the project.

“They’ve fleshed out their plan with some urban planners,” Morton says. “They’re thinking seriously about the social and political dynamics and the environmental issues in their community, and it’s really inspirational.”

It was in college that Morton first grew aware of the forces of environmental racism that disproportionately burden people of color with higher exposure to air pollution and water pollution and deny them equal access to green spaces and healthy neighborhoods. At Atlanta’s Spelman, the country’s oldest historically Black liberal arts college for women, Morton studied the barriers to engaging with nature for Black communities. These ranged from concerns about the possibility of being followed or overpoliced to the systemic racism in laws such as the “sundown towns,” which made it so that for many Black Americans could be arrested for being outdoors after hours.

“Then there’s the history of sharecropping and slavery—all that work is outdoors. Some [Black people] see working outdoors as going backwards and reliving that painful past,” Morton says.

“And there are still dangers that don’t really go away. When we go hunting and fishing, we are conscious of the fact that we are Black and we have guns. We know the risks that that carries for us.” 

The coursework at Spelman helped Morton understand environmental education beyond the type of biology work that their father did. They went on to earn a master of science degree in environmental policy and sustainability management from the New School and a master of science in education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney and New York City environment director at NRDC, has gotten to know Morton’s work through his position on the board of WE ACT. “People oftentimes may think that the environment is ‘out there,’” he says, “but Taylor helps people understand it’s about the air we breathe, the water we drink. That’s the environment. Making this connection to show young people what they can do to benefit their own communities has a direct, positive impact on the climate and the planet. Taylor is a shining star.”

From top: Damage to a wall in Shaly Ramirez's bathroom in her New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartment at Johnson Houses in East Harlem; Shaly and Juan Ramirez in their apartment, where they have dealt with extensive damage, including leaking pipes in the bathroom ceiling and under the bathroom sink, as well as mold spots and rust stains on the walls and peeling paint on the floor.

Demetrius Freeman for NRDC

In addition to working directly with New York City students, Morton has played a central role in WE ACT’s mission to defend the right to a healthy home for the neighborhood’s NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) residents. The tenants are among the city’s most vulnerable communities: low-income people, people of color, and the elderly. They have been battling lead contamination, pervasive mold, and other results of neglect of their apartments that have led to chronic health problems for many. At the same time, these communities have found themselves on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, with studies showing that the virus disproportionately impacts Black, Latino, and Indigenous people.

Morton now manages a campaign around environmental health issues and public housing. They say it has been easy to tie WE ACT’s work on public housing to public health, particularly during the pandemic. “People with preexisting conditions are more vulnerable to COVID-19. When we think of preexisting conditions like asthma, they’re made worse with certain indoor conditions like mold, pests, and lead issues,” Morton says. What’s more, “if you’re in an apartment 24 hours a day now because of the coronavirus, it can be detrimental to your health.”

This past spring, NYCHA residents reported inadequate cleaning of common spaces in their buildings, lax enforcement of social distancing requirements, and spotty communication from public housing officials on how they were working to contain the virus. In response, WE ACT launched a campaign to ensure that these issues were addressed in Northern Manhattan’s NYCHA buildings and that residents received sufficient personal protective equipment. WE ACT also has posted a comprehensive resource guide for northern Manhattan residents to help them find free testing for COVID-19, emergency housing options, and information on eviction moratoriums.

Morton says the pandemic has underscored the links between wealth and health, which was magnified in upper Manhattan. “When the pandemic hit, who already had the resources?” they ask. “Who’s able to stay home? Who has the funds to buy what they need to stay safe? Who has access to health care?

To Morton, the answers to those questions come down to viewing resilience as a right. “Everyone has a right to a safe and healthy life,” they say. “As the climate changes, that equity piece is important. Resiliency comes in the form of who has resources and aid and how infrastructure can be updated. It’s about really making sure that communities have what they need to survive and thrive. Not just to make it out of the storm, but make it out of the storm and rebuild a better quality of life.”

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