WE ACT is proud to have Kerene Tayloe join the DC office staff as a Federal Policy Associate!
Kerene is a graduate of Florida A&M University College of Law. While in law school, she founded the Environmental Law Society, petition for more environmental law courses, and worked to institute FAMU's first environmental justice symposium. She was also selected as a Diversity Fellow with the American Bar Association Section on Environment, Energy and Resources. Most recently she worked tirelessly as an Election Rights Fellow with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, training over 100 attorneys and law students on state and federal election law and advocating for all citizens right to vote. Kerene is a strong advocate for civil rights, understanding that environmental justice is a direct extension of the civil rights movement.
Sarah Lerman-Sinkoff, WE ACT’s Communication and Policy Intern, got a chance to talk with her about her EJ story, dedication to a career in social justice, and the time she dressed up as Clair Huxtable for Halloween.
S: So why environmental justice work?
K: I've always been interested in social action and civil rights. Sometimes environmental work is seen as something tree huggers do, but especially in environmental justice is about our lives and the quality of our lives and the access to everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink. I have two brothers both asthmatic and those kinds of health issues are related to our environment.
S: How did you get started?
K: While in law school at Florida A&M College of Law, I was the president and founder of the Environmental Law Society. I saw that is a great opportunity to get law students involved in environmental issues, especially with FAMU being founded to speak to diverse committees. I felt that making us aware of environmental issues and justice issues was important so I kind of used that as a soapbox to push to issues and to engage with different people from the community who were lawyers in the area.
Also, one of my professors, Robert Abrams, is an environmental law scholar and he helped me get an internship at the EPA. I met a number of really great influential environmental justice folks at the EPA and in nonprofits. Through those relationships, I established the first environmental justice symposium at Florida A&M.
S: Was there a moment where civil rights issues and environment issues came together for you?
K: It's always been something I've paid attention to. I went to Fisk University for undergrad. Alums from the University were instrumental in the student sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement. Also growing up in the suburb of Chicago, I really saw the importance of mass transportation. My suburb Evanston is really liberal so we were really exposed to diversity, and being really conscious about what's going on in our neighborhoods, that as far back as first grade we were signing Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. My friends and I joke now how we still know all the words by heart. Going to law school to make the rich even richer was never attractive to me. It was always about how I could use my education, my passion, my zeal for others to benefit the lives of others.
S: Why law school?
K: The story is actually so funny. I grew up watching the Cosby show and Clair Huxtable was always somebody I really admired: she had a great family, and had a great career, and she cared about her community. When I flew back from being sworn into the New York bar, I was watching the “Clair’s Two” where she stubbed her toe, and I cried. I was like “This is why! I wanted to be Clair Huxtable!” Her character and Freddy from a Different World, who was a big activists on campus who later became a lawyer, really spoke to me. Two Halloweens ago I dressed up as Clair, decked out in a 80s jumpsuit, and wore the same brown bag over my foot with the bedazzled sock that she had on in the episode
S: What are you working on with WE ACT currently?
K: Well, after about a week and a half here, I'm trying to get my teeth into this Clean Power Plan, and in the re-granting process for the six organizations we are going to be supporting with funds. Jalonne and I are also brainstorming ways that other HBCUs can become more active and present in the environmental justice space, and utilizing the communities and networks that I already have. It's really busy time right now: a lot is a lot going on around climate change, and it’s a great opportunity to learn and to grow Work that allows me to advocate for other people is what gets me up in the morning; I'm really excited to be with WE ACT to do that.
S: Is there an accomplishment that you are particularly proud of prior to joining WE ACT?
K: As an Election Rights Fellow with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, I helped newly naturalized citizens in Atlanta vote for the first time. They registered to vote at their naturalization ceremony but their forms hadn't been processed properly, so they weren't showing up on voter rolls. We found out it had been close to 300 people who had similar problems, and I worked with the attorneys in our office, and with the State Department to make sure that these people could exercise their right to vote.
My family is all from the Caribbean, and I was born in Canada. As the product of immigrant family, ensuring that all citizens have the same access to the polls is something that I am really proud of. Sometimes in the Beltway we become so focused on the policy or on politics of an issue, we might overlook what happens in peoples everyday lives to have experiences like that: to walk through the process with someone, educate them, advocate for their needs, and within the span of a couple of months resolve an issue, that was a really proud moment for me
S: You know it’s a similar thing that sold me on EJ work. When I had first gotten to New York I emailed Ogonnaya and volunteered for the Healthy Homes Conference. I remember sitting in one of the breakout groups about LEED certification and indoor air quality, and someone raised their hand and was like “My home isn’t like that!” and the presenter said, “Oh yes let me give you information to fix that.” People could really connect one to one in that way to meet each others’ needs. You’re a great storyteller and hearing peoples’ stories around this work is really special.
K: Thank you!
S: Any other fun facts or hobbies?
K: Well, I really like to run. Running outside is a great opportunity to see how communities can just change within a couple of blocks. You can be somewhere with a great grocery store and parks, and then you keep running a couple more blocks, and there's clear examples of blight and unfair access to the same kind of resources. So even in my desires to be a fit person, I can see how communities change and how things are not as fair as we’d like them to be. I ran a half marathon here in DC and I'll be up in Brooklyn in October for another one. It’s another way I am inspired to care about others, doing something as simple as going outside.