BY: | DATE: Nov 30, 2022

Megan joins a cohort of 28 law students from across the nation in the two-year program for recent law graduates pursuing the practice of public interest law on a full-time basis


A headshot of Megan Carr ’23, posed outside before a tree

A headshot of Megan Carr ’23, 2023 Skadden Fellow

On her plans for her Skadden Fellowship:

I plan to combat community-identified environmental burdens using a new legal tool: Article 1, § 19 of the New York State Constitution. In November of 2021, New Yorkers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA). In New York, each person now has a right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment,” and it is one of only three states whose citizens have environmental rights like this. As every CUNY Law student is well aware, interpretation is everything when it comes to constitutional rights.

I’ll be working with the New York Lawyers for Public Interest (NYLPI), using their community lawyering model to utilize the ERA and challenge environmental burdens that are disproportionately experienced by New York’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income communities. My project will seek to ensure that the ERA’s meaning is defined by “environmental justice communities,” those most overburdened by environmental hazards and experiencing the first and worst of climate change. Through litigation, and providing training and resources for community advocates, my project will employ the ERA to combat environmental racism in its many forms.

On working with the New York Lawyers for Public Interest, which focuses on “justice through community power” and using “the resources of the private bar to turn rights on paper into real opportunities for New Yorkers“:

I can’t imagine doing this project anywhere other than NYLPI. I’ve had the privilege of interning there since May 2022 and have seen their steadfast commitment to community lawyering in practice. Even as an NYLPI intern, I am welcomed into conversations and able to listen as people talk about the most pressing environmental concerns in their communities. As a white person who does not experience the impacts of environmental racism, it’s a privilege to be included in these conversations and to be guided by them.

This project seeks to ensure that New York’s ERA is used to fight environmental injustices in the most overburdened and marginalized communities; in order to do that, the project must be guided by community-identified needs and priorities. NYLPI’s staff has spent decades cultivating relationships with community leaders and organizations, and NYLPI’s Environmental Justice team has become a trusted partner for many New Yorkers when it comes to utilizing the law and the resources of the private bar to combat environmental racism.

NYLPI’s Environmental Justice team advocates not only for just outcomes, but also for just, equitable, and democratic processes in order to achieve those outcomesGuided by the Jemez Principles for democratic organizing, the team uses legal, advocacy, and organizing tools in partnership with communities to fight for environmental justice. I believe this focus on process is vital, and sadly it is not a priority for enough environmental organizations. Inequitable and racist processes, where the people most affected are not in a position of leadership or given the opportunity for input, are at the root of so many environmental injustices in New York City and beyond. NYLPI’s commitment includes critical reflection on our own internal processes, from which I have already learned a lot and am excited to keep learning as I begin my legal career.

On what a successful Fellowship looks like:

Meeting community needs first

First and most importantly, I hope that through legal representation we can eliminate or halt a community-identified environmental burden — things that harm the environment and the people in it — and that it makes a genuine difference in people’s quality of life. A good example is power plants that burn fossil fuels, disproportionately placed in BIPOC communities, which release greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change and are proven to cause health complications. There’s no dispute that proximity to burning fossil fuels is harmful to human health; literal lives are being sacrificed. There are countless other examples of environmental burdens like this. I plan to use the law to eliminate an environmental burden that a community partner has identified as a priority.

Setting new, positive precedent

I also hope to use New York’s ERA to build a positive precedent. Successfully employing the ERA is key because if achieved, it could provide us with another legal tool in our environmental justice toolbox for years to come. As I write this, no precedent has been set using the ERA. There are a few pending cases, but we are still awaiting judicial interpretation of this new right. I want to elicit an expansive interpretation of the ERA so that it can have the greatest possible impact on environmental justice communities underserved by the law.

On adding to the collective impact of CUNY Law students and alumni leading and championing systems change:

Distributive justice 

When I think about systems change for environmental justice, I often think in terms of distributive justice. By that, I mean how burdens and benefits are distributed. Environmental burdens in New York exemplify distributive injustice, because the most environmentally burdened communities often receive the least benefits.

The experience of residents of Queensbridge Houses illustrates this. This New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complex, located near CUNY Law in Long Island City, is the largest public housing complex in North America, and the vast majority of residents are Black or Latine. The Queensbridge Houses are right across the street from the Ravenswood Generating Station, a colossal power plant that supplies about 20% of New York City’s power. In addition to its baseload capacity generated through the constant burning of fossil fuels, Ravenswood also has a peaker plant that runs only during periods of ‘peak’ demand. Peaker plants like this emit significant amounts of harmful pollutants when they start running. These plants exist to meet high energy needs, like those brutally hot summer days when everyone wants to run their air conditioner.

The distributive justice problem? While about 90% of NYC residents have some sort of air conditioning in their homes, fewer than half of NYCHA residents do. Many of the residents who are most impacted by the increase in harmful pollutants are also least likely to experience the environmental benefits that supposedly justify it.

Environmental abolitionism

But I don’t just want to redistribute burdens, I want to abolish them. There are revealing examples where an environmental burden does actually get placed in a whiter, wealthier community, and resources are used to make it far less burdensome. This shows us that many environmental burdens that have been deemed a necessary sacrifice are in fact not necessary at all. These burdens are not incidental results of systemic racism — they are yet another tool of systemic racism and another way to inflict violence.

I think systems change involves how we approach environmental injustices. They are often framed as passive rather than intentional harms, incidental instead of targeted. In the end, I hope to be part of a movement that reframes the issue, eliminates environmental burdens, and upon acknowledging the real reason behind so many of these burdens, secures reparations for the communities that have been harmed, and prioritizes those communities as part of a just transition.