Profiles in the fight for environmental justice: Jeremy Orr

Jeremy Orr was working on a paper mill cleanup project as a community activist and organizer when he realized two things: that a person’s environment dictates their physical wellbeing and health, and that a lack of representation in decisions on the environment affecting Black and brown people was pervasive.

When Jeremy Orr was in college, he worked at a community center that mostly served African-American and Latinx community members. The center, located in Lansing, was the only resource and safe haven for many of its visitors. 

During his time there, Orr realized that the people running the center, making budgeting decisions, and creating the programs weren’t representative of the people that relied on the community center. 

Jeremy Orr. Photo by Joe Parnell.

Again, he was struck by a lack of representation when he was working on the cleanup of an old paper mill. 

“A year later, I’m back in this space where everyone that’s making decisions for this community is predominantly middle-aged white men, from the federal level to state level to city level,” he said. “There were no people who looked like me or were from the community I was from.”

Orr was working on the paper mill project as a community activist and organizer. He realized two things: that a person’s environment dictates their physical wellbeing and health, and that a lack of representation in decisions affecting Black and brown people was pervasive. 

His experience at the paper mill led him to his career in environmental law. But growing up in Detroit, he recalled, “I didn’t have some affinity for the environment,” he said.

Orr lived on the “deep west side.” He wasn’t near the water and didn’t have much in the way of green space around him. 

“By the time I was in middle school, all the parks in my neighborhood were defunct,” he said. “The city stopped taking care of them.” 

When he wasn’t at home, he was at his grandparents’ house, where he could see the Marathon Oil refinery from their backyard. 

His grandparents would complain about the smells, the noises, and how sometimes their water looked or smelled funny, but they didn’t connect that to injustice. It wasn’t until later, when Orr got involved with advocacy work, that he said he realized, “the way I grew up in and of itself was an environmental injustice that was perpetrated by the city makers in our city.” 

He became a lawyer “to come back and be an advocate for my community and other overburdened communities.” 

Orr works at the Natural Resources Defense Council, based out of Chicago. He lives in Detroit and works on water issues affecting Illinois and Michigan. Recently, his work has focused on establishing regulations for seven PFAS contaminants. 

For much of 2020, Orr worked on “rapid response” advocacy to keep the water on for the thousands of Detroiters at risk of being shut off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Orr works closely with the People’s Water Board, a coalition of three dozen organizations, to fight for water access and affordability in Detroit. 

This summer, Orr attended the Black Lives Matter protests as a legal observer and still provides legal aid to the National Lawyers Guild movement. 

“As an organizer, he’s right there at the protests,” Conan Smith, chief executive officer of the Michigan Environmental Council, told Planet Detroit. Orr’s unique combination of lawyering and organizing has been “transformational” for the environmental justice field, not just for southeast Michigan, but statewide, Smith added.

Orr said he draws inspiration and support from Mustafa Ali, the senior advisor for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency from 1990-2016, and co-founder of the Office of Environmental Justice at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

He first met Ali after getting a call from him while working on the Flint water crisis during his time at the Wayne State Law clinic. Ali found his number, reached out, and asked what the community needed. 

“He was the first person I heard from,” Orr says. Orr asked to meet him and his staff, and two days later, Ali and his entire team flew in from all over the country to meet with Orr and others working on the case. The gesture and chance to meet with them all in person was deeply meaningful to Ali and Orr. 

“He has the ability to share narratives that people get, which is one of those special gifts that are so critical in being able to work with the community,” Ali said. “Folks trust him because they feel his authenticity.” Describing a “youthful exuberance” that Orr brings to his work, Ali says he’s also someone who will stick with an issue over time and return to it to ensure real change. 

“Everyone can learn the law,” Ali said. “But to be able to translate that into the stories that people get- it’s a gift.” 

Orr’s work with the Northern Oakland County Branch NAACP on lead in drinking water has included everything from hosting town halls on water justice, educating the community on water sampling and testing, and direct advocacy with officials. In 2019, Orr and others successfully defended the Lead and Copper Rule for Michigan, leading to Michigan adopting the country’s most stringent lead rules. 

He’s also worked on air pollution, helping communities push back on permitting renewal requests from Marathon Petroleum Corporation. 

“The Marathon hearings in Southwest Detroit have been some of the most significant, tense experiences I’ve been a part of as an organizer and attorney, to see hundreds of people show up whose air has been polluted for decades now, whose children have asthma, and grandparents have respiratory diseases,” he said. 

Orr himself now serves as a member of the United States’ Environmental Justice Advisory Council, fighting back against the Trump Administration’s EPA’s environmental rollbacks.

Those rollbacks “put EJ communities at even higher risk of pollution, contamination, and devastating public health impacts,”  he said. “The things that we face in Detroit that so many advocates and activists have been fighting for decades are impacting us everywhere.”

Orr said some might be surprised to learn that he went to Michigan State on a football scholarship in the early 2000s and ran track. “That’s a big part of who I am, even now,” Orr said. “Most people don’t equate college football to environmental law,” he said. But he said those values and experiences of teamwork, dedication, and perseverance have stuck with him in the environmental work he does.

Jesse Miller, a football teammate of Orr’s at Michigan State, remembers Orr’s deep care and concern for everyone and a desire to help where needed. “He’s got a passion for his city,” Miller said. 

It isn’t uncommon to find Orr working until six, attending a protest at seven, and staying out till eleven. Whether it’s environmental issues, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, or police brutality, he’s there. 

“People are finally waking up to the fact that these issues are systemic,” Orr told Planet Detroit. “The more you can better see it isn’t happening in a silo, the better you can collaborate and create solutions, big solutions, to these problems.”

This piece was produced with the partnership and support of the Detroit Equity Action Lab Race and Justice Media Collaboration at Wayne State University to support Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) journalists freelance journalists from marginalized communities.


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