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How Lee Clark is fighting for change in Phillipsburg
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How Lee Clark is fighting for change in Phillipsburg

When Lee Clark recently became the first African American ever elected to the town council in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, it was another addition to an impressive resume that has included working in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It also put him in a better position to fight to improve life for Phillipsburg’s residents. “To really bring out change, running for office can really be the next step for young organizers looking to be a positive force in their community,” said Clark, who also serves as the program manager for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program.

Clark has already done his share of environmental activism, having already managed the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters and Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania’s bi-state volunteer ladder of engagement program within the Delaware River Watershed. And as the field director for the former group’s Green in ‘17 campaign, he played a crucial role in raising awareness about critical issues such as clean energy, open space preservation, and environmental justice.

What did he learn from talking to diverse groups of people about their perspectives of the environment? The first thing was, as Clark described, “The environment is not a partisan issue.”

“It’s something that both Republicans and Democrats alike can agree on,” Clark explained. “The parties may disagree on how we get there, but climate change, clean water, clean air, open space are things that all parties can agree to.”

He also discovered the emotional attachment many citizens have to the environment during his research of environmental issues across New Jersey.

“The power of personal stories can truly influence and change bills into law,” Clark said. “And if we truly want to see change, we’re going to have to bring together a diverse movement of racial diversity, ethnic diversity, gender diversity, sexual diversity, and even political diversity to make that change.”

The River That Inspired Him

lee clark outreach

One of the issues in the forefront of Clark’s mind is the Delaware River, Phillipsburg’s biggest natural resource — especially protecting the town from stormwater pollution, which produces floods that greatly affect its downtown. “Downtown is the area where most of our low income and our neighborhoods of color lie. And a lot of it can go into the Delaware River, where it can affect the health of the river itself.”

That river has long been a critical part of Clark’s life. “I grew up along river banks and formed a deep appreciation for clean and healthy waters. The Delaware River is special to me because I share such a close relationship with it,” he said.

“I have no doubt that my earlier interactions with the Delaware River as a child made me more inclined to pursue a career in environmental advocacy and policy.”

Part of his environmental advocacy includes fighting the town council’s plan to place a warehouse along the river in a neighborhood largely populated by people of color and lower-income residents. A lawsuit has been filed to stop its construction despite its backers claiming the warehouse would bring a large number of jobs to Phillipsburg.

“I’m avidly against it, and the majority of the town folks actually have been against it,” he said about the building that would result in a huge amount of emissions, adding that trying to preserve open space in the rather urbanized Phillipsburg is a priority.

As is updating the town’s water infrastructure. “A lot of (it) is out of date,” he said about water infrastructure that dates back to the 1800s. “We can still find clay piping underneath the streets, much of it still crumbling.”

That outdated water infrastructure, he stated, leads to an increase in flooding in Phillipsburg’s downtown, causing a higher than average level of stormwater pollution that goes into the town’s streets. “This is a huge health issue for people who have to endure this,” he added. “It’s not going to be a cheap solution. But it is a means we’ll have to start investing in in order to provide a better quality of life for the next generation to come.”

But anyone doubting Clark’s ability to conquer those challenges should look at his accomplishments, one of the most significant was working on the passage of the Cumulative Impacts Bill in 2020. It requires the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to deny permits for, among other things, power plants, landfills and incinerators in certain minority and impoverished neighborhoods if the projects pose additional health and environmental risks to those communities. 

“It gave the (environmental justice) movement teeth,” he said of the bill which he described as the strongest of its kind in the nation.

“I was proud to give testimony to the Assembly and Senate on the importance of this bill,” Clark stated, adding he went on the ground to explain to people throughout the state it would lead to benefits such as cleaner air in their communities. 

His work is far from over — especially in regards to motivating people to act in their communities. So what would he like to do next in his career? 

“I just hope to do some good,” Clark responded when asked the question while adding that one of his major goals is to help progress initiatives to combat climate. “I know that sounds kinda corny. But honestly, if me working in any of my jobs can help inspire someone younger to go the same path, I think I would have had a good day.” 

“For me, passing on the torch would be my biggest goal in my career — to get to a level where I can help more people of color, more people who look like me get inspired about entering into community organizing and public office.”


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Rashaad Jorden grew up in the Philadelphia area — the New Jersey suburbs, to be exact — but has taught English in Japan and France in addition to getting a Master's degree from Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom. He also has run several road races in Philadelphia, completing the Broad Street Run numerous times. View all posts by Rashaad Jorden

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