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Meet Kandyce Perry, a woman on a mission for clean water and equal representation in the environmental sector.
Business

Meet Kandyce Perry, a woman on a mission for clean water and equal representation in the environmental sector.

What are the efforts to give people of color more of a seat at the table?

There are not a lot of people who look like Kandyce Perry working in the environmental sector. 

She’s always recognized the disparity but it was a conference in which she was the only Black woman leader in the room where it became apparent that there’s a lot more that needs to happen to make working in the field more equitable. 

So as the director of stormwater management for Trenton-based nonprofit New Jersey Future, a smart growth organization, Perry will tell you her work covers multiple facets. 

“Basically, the theory of change or thinking is that there could be a sustainable future for New Jersey,” Perry said. “Our role is to make sure people aren’t washing over the policy made and decided upon at the state level and at the local level, that would prevent getting to that that ultimate vision of having a safe future for all New Jerseyans.”

But the other part of her work is the advocacy role in spurring more engagement specifically from people of color and chipping away at the culture shock of working and advocating in such a white-dominated field. Perry has pushed this message in schools, community organizations and at national conferences. Recently, she sat down with Green Philly to explain what’s currently being done and all that’s still left to do. 

When it comes to stormwater infrastructure, what drives the work of you and your team? 

What we mainly try to do is remove barriers to green stormwater infrastructure in New Jersey and advocate for smarter regulations that encourage and incentivize green initiatives. At the same time, we’re also thinking about sustainable solutions to pay for water infrastructure upgrades. Green infrastructure is great and it has been implemented all across the country but without a dedicated funding source or funding mechanism to pay for it, it just becomes another great idea or what would be a nice thing to do. 

Kandyce Perry
Kandyce Perry, director of stormwater at New Jersey Future, a Trenton-based nonprofit says our environmental future is an issue that affects all. Those tasked with the work to improve it should come from all backgrounds. | Image courtesy: Kandyce Perry

How do you and your team convey this in a way that New Jersey residents can not only understand but get behind your efforts?

The trick is how to make what we do not sound so wonky or policy-focused. I suppose the best way to explain it is if you believe in a vision where everybody has access to their waterways, clean waterways that are free from debris and walking through streets that flood constantly. Part of that too comes from example, going into a neighborhood and telling people that their street floods a lot when it rains just letting them know that there are ways to prevent that with green infrastructure. It’s really about how we can all work together to collaborate on solutions that not only prevent flooding but create the kind of neighborhood that drives people to the town. 

So how would you tell an everyday New Jersey resident to get more involved in their environment, specifically in the case of stormwater management where it’s desperately needed?

Folks need to get involved with talking to their local government. Civic engagement is a really strong way to bring this topic to the top of the mind of local leadership – if it isn’t already. On our website, we have a green infrastructure municipal toolkit,[which is a] resource for community folks to have. They can develop talking points about why green infrastructure is a good idea or why stormwater utilities is a good idea to be able to pay for the green infrastructure in an equitable way

A lot of people in your position typically don’t tend to be people of color. With a great deal of the work New Jersey Future does going to the benefit of communities of color, do you think it’s equally as important for people to see a person of color doing the work?

It’s a question that I actually reflect on a lot, because I think as a Black woman, I can’t help but think about it. As I enter these spaces, more and more I can tell you that when it comes to Black women, I can say I rarely see myself. And so you can’t help but think and ask yourself, like, ‘why is that the case?’ For me, getting started, I think even from an elementary school level, I was definitely someone who saw the world in black and white, right and wrong. It confused me that people are tearing down the rainforest and if they continue to do so where are the animals going to live if they don’t have the trees? Trying to put that together as a young child I think I always knew that I wanted to do something about that. 

And then it just trickled from there. I became the president of my environmental club in high school and then went on to earn my degree at Spelman [College] in environmental science and then my master’s in environmental studies and policy from the University of Pennsylvania. 

As I enter these spaces, more and more I can tell you that when it comes to Black women, I can say I rarely see myself. And so you can’t help but think and ask yourself, like, ‘why is that the case?’

– Kandyce Perry, director of stormwater management, New Jersey Future

When did it become clear that you are a minority in your field, perhaps literally and figuratively?

I’ve been around Black people for most of my life. I’m born and raised in Detroit. I went to a historically Black college and live in Philadelphia, a predominantly Black city. But I entered into a professional setting that is very white, white-dominated environmental sector. It really does make you think that there’s nobody else that cares about the environment that looks like me. 

I’m in a conference and I’m excited to give a speech and then you look around and you’re like, wait, wait, where is everyone else? It’s jarring and it can be really exhausting and it can take you out of your game. But in that sense, I think I also found my purpose in that I’m not only here to be an environmental activist and advocate for the natural environment, but also for the people that inhabit the natural environment. And I think that that is often a disconnect – environmentalists typically see their role as saving the natural environment but don’t stop to think about the diversity of the people who live in it. 

What can be done to get more people of color to understand the importance of the environment and do urge them to be more involved? 

I think the most critical way to change some of the racial disparities in the sector that we’re seeing today is really targeting a diverse demographic of youth. I think the aftermath of all of the racial protests we saw in 2020 around Black Lives Matter, many institutions are recognizing the greater need for diversity, equity, inclusion and justice within the mission and the practices of their organization. 

One of the first steps in that awakening is the need to make our boards and our staff more diverse. But without the young leaders rising up to fill the call while creating pathways for those folks to be in positions to take on those leadership roles that’s like trying to jump across a canyon to get to the other side and there’s no bridge. 

Look, it doesn’t necessarily have to be working for the [Environmental Protection Agency] but explaining to young people that there are many career pathways – all it takes is a little imagination and a little bit of guidance and mentorship to get those people into the sector. Professional development training in schools and other youth-based programs, internships even as early as 14 or 15-years-old – especially ones where those involved are getting paid for their time – could be the difference in guiding them into what could be a potential future pathway for the good.

When you look to the future of your work (no pun intended) what more can you say needs to happen to spur more interest and ultimately engagement in your field?

Education. Not just in New Jersey but on a national level, there needs to be more education about our waterways and about our watershed. In terms of urban environments like Philadelphia, the work on what’s still to come and what’s desperately needed as we’re seeing the effects of climate change on our waterways. But this work also has to be collaborative. 

In Philadelphia, water infrastructure [in some parts] dates back to the 1800s; it’s no wonder why there are so many water main breaks. We’re seeing much of the same in New Jersey in cities like Newark. We’re talking about fixing a system that was designed for use in the 1800s, that’s still being used in [2021] and it’s going to cost billions of dollars to fix. To do this we need diverse faces of all backgrounds, shades and colors who can create real solutions.

At the end of the day, it’s not just the engineer who’s talking about pipe sizes and water flow and it’s not just the mayor and city council and the policymakers talking about audiences and bills and legislation. It is up to all of us as residents to understand the value of water and that it is so precious. Collectively, we have to put a greater value on it and protect it because we can’t live without it. 

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Kerith Gabriel
Kerith Gabriel started out as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News. He left sports to focus on issues that deeply affect Philadelphians but really, he just loves telling a good story, regardless of genre. When he’s not prowling for a story, you can most likely find him playing soccer at Penn Park, or doing the dad thing around town. Email him at kerith.a.gabriel@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter via @sprtswtr. View all posts by Kerith Gabriel

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