The city's eight-year-old environmental justice coalition may be heading for a purge. Two of the 15 members of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance have already left its ranks. And next month, its leaders will be considering whether or not to toss out one of the founding groups, the high-profile West Harlem Environmental Action.
On the surface, NYCEJA's blowup centers on the perennial issue of money: specifically, how much of it to give to its executive director. But all parties agree that there was a deeper division afoot in the dysfunctional board of directors: between the founding members, which are all environmental groups, and newer community groups without that specific focus.
This episode began when the board was drawing up a contract for executive director Leslie Lowe. West Harlem Environmental Action started raising questions with the alliance's funders about Lowe's pay. When WEACT head Peggy Shepard wouldn't retract her complaint, the board suspended her group. That's when South Bronx Clean Air Coalition and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Watchperson Project resigned.
“The misrepresentation of my contract was what the board was upset about,” Lowe said. “WEACT took an action that the board strongly condemned and refused to issue a retraction.”
But for her part, Shepard says that the 8-year-old association has wandered from its mission. During the last few years, as NYCEJA grew into a strong, outspoken organization, Shepard and others became concerned that it was becoming less of a technical assistance group than a player in its own right. At the same time, the alliance broadened its membership beyond environmental groups.
“Frankly, we would have resigned from that group anyway, because we didn't like where it was going,” Shepard admitted.
The remaining 13 members will decide whether to make the suspension permanent at the annual meeting in November.
“The nature of social movements, if they are successful, is that they grow and they splinter,” said Eddie Bautista, a former NYCEJA board member. “The question is do they splinter and go on, or do they become a festering abscess?”