Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Summer Lee is the first black woman elected to represent the Pittsburgh region in the state legislature. And she wants to set the record straight on the confluence of factors eating her constituents alive.
This article is published in collaboration with Topic and its new documentary series Braddock, PA, about residents fighting to bring their polluted steel town back from the brink. Watch the complete series here.
Summer Lee had just finished canvassing her first house in the first days of her campaign to serve as a Pennsylvania state legislator for District 34, when she was met on the sidewalk by a police officer who stopped and questioned her about what she was doing in the neighborhood. This would not be Lee’s last encounter with law enforcement on the campaign trail. Another day, she was driving some of her campaign staff on a tour through the neighboring municipalities of Braddock and North Braddock, where she grew up, when they noticed a police car following them. When the cop pulled them over, he asked if they were lost. And another time, she was stopped by police in Wilkins Township—where her opponent Paul Costa once served as president of the board of commissioners—who questioned her about whether her canvassing activities were legal.
It sounds just like the kind of dirty political move a well-connected politician would pull off to intimidate his rival, especially when the rival is a five-foot-two black woman knocking on doors in predominantly white communities. But Lee simply chalked it up to neighbors looking suspiciously at “black girls wandering through their neighborhood,” something many residents of the whiter parts of the 34th District aren’t used to. Lee was brought up in North Braddock and Rankin, two of just four cities—including Braddock, where her campaign headquarters is located, and the borough of Homestead, site of the famous Homestead Strike of 1892—in a district in which black residents make up at least 40 percent or more of the population. She’s not supposed to be running through the streets of Wilkins Township, where the population is more than 80 percent white. She’s not supposed to be running for this office in a district that’s over 70 percent white.
Lee ran, though, because she knew that the police in many of the small municipalities of this district are a problem—both in the neighborhoods and in the schools. Prior to running, she advocated to abolish police from the Woodland Hills School District, which covers Braddock, after several reports of officers physically and verbally abusing students, some of which made national headlines. She and others in her community feel it is dangerous to have police in schools during the era of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Dajerria Becton. Lee also believes policing schools is a dangerous idea in an environment where poverty rates are among the highest in the state.
The schools are located in an environment where air pollution from nearby steel and coke processing plants have compromised the health of residents, causing crisis-level asthma rates among the students of the Woodland Hills School District. Though health issues may seem separate from those around policing, when it comes to saving the lives of the black children in this district, Lee sees no difference.
“How do we make changes in this district?” Lee lets the question hang in air. “You gotta talk about [economic] opportunity, and increasing wages, and pollution. You gotta talk about all this stuff as one thing.” Her challenge now is to persuade establishment politicians to also see these issues as “one thing,” when they’ve been barely responsive to them even as stand-alone issues.
Lee won her primary election on May 15, 2018, racking up more than twice the votes of the incumbent Costa, who has held the seat since 1998, making her the first black woman ever elected to a House seat in western Pennsylvania—and, at 30 years old, one of the youngest to do so. And she did it as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in a region where traditional Democratic Party politics have strong roots. (She us running unopposed in the November general election.)
But just over a month after her victory, on June 19, 17-year-old Antwon Rose II was shot and killed by police officer Michael Rosfeld in East Pittsburgh, a suburban municipality that neighbors Braddock. The cop shot the unarmed African American teen as he fled from the car he and two other men were pulled over in, after they were suspected of being involved in a shooting in North Braddock. The killing triggered massive protests immediately after the shooting that captured the nation’s attention—protests that were still happening throughout the Pittsburgh region at the end of July. Lee’s hope is that young African Americans like Rose will grow up with the opportunity to run for public office, to have more people who think and look like her making decisions about the future of the place she grew up. But in the face of poverty, pollution, and reckless policing, she’ll first have to come up with policies to help keep them alive.
The link between police violence and pollution
“My district is hot,” says Lee as she sips iced tea in front of the 61B Cafe in Regent Square, her unofficial office until she’s sworn in, about a mile up the road from Braddock. It was a humid July day, with the kind of heat that can make breathing especially difficult for the asthmatic––high temperatures cause ozone levels to rise, leaving excessive amounts of pollution in the air––much of it from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works complex that regularly coats the area with smog. Which may explain why you won’t find many people casually sipping tea down the road in Braddock. But the heat Lee is referring to is the tense relationship between police and communities in her district. Protests continued through July, despite District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. having filed murder charges against police officer Rosfeld the week prior. And the protests wouldn’t cease for days to come.
Even as Lee marched with the protesters, she’s maintained that while police have been a threat, they are only part of a “cyclical nature of racism and structural inequality” that endangers black youth—“no different than education [inequity], which is no different than poverty, which is no different than the environmental injustice that we have in our communities,” she tells me.
The link between police violence and air pollution may not seem like an obvious one, but Summer Lee is far from the first to make the connection. In 2016, University of California, Davis, professors Julie Sze and Lindsey Dillon published a paper showing that many incidents of police violence toward African Americans happen in places where pollution is thickest. Among them are the cases of Alton Sterling, who was killed in 2016 by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is near “Cancer Alley,” and Freddie Gray, who suffered from lead poisoning from his neighborhood’s houses, and was killed by Baltimore police in 2015.
“For many people, the lived experience of police violence and toxic exposure—these different forms of physical vulnerability both live together,” Dillon told CityLab in 2016. “We have to think of them together instead of thinking of them separately.”
Before Lee jumped into politics, she was hitting the streets of the Pittsburgh region organizing around economic-justice issues, including a short stint working with Fight for $15, a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help pull people who work in low-wage jobs, like fast-food workers, out of poverty. That campaign fizzled out in less than a month, however, as Lee and her fellow organizers were met with tremendous resistance, not only from fast-food restaurant managers and franchise owners, but from the workers themselves (which is not uncommon).
“I talked to workers who were actually homeless and were trying to convince them that they deserved not to be homeless,” says Lee. “But this is what capitalism is: Somebody has to be poor. Somebody has to be on the bottom of the food chain, and they believed that it was them who deserved to be poor. Which is a really sad thing because all of these people are worthy. Every single one of them are worthy of so much more.”
When not organizing on the front lines for wage justice, Lee was working on her inside game as a legal advocate, obtaining a degree from Howard University School of Law, where she specialized in civil rights. She was part of the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic team that, in 2014, drafted an amicus brief for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was about disparate impact: specifically, the federal government’s long-running practice of concentrating low-income housing subsidies in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. From the section of the brief that Lee worked on:
Residential segregation contributes to health disparities, particularly for blacks, who are most likely to live in isolated neighborhoods. Low-income black communities are often used as dumping grounds for all manner of municipal pollution that no affluent neighborhood would want or tolerate. Air quality in many of these neighborhoods has become dangerously poor, affecting the health of their impoverished residents who lack the opportunity to relocate. ...While black communities suffer greater rates of asthma and obesity, they also have far less access to health care facilities than white communities. There is also a rising trend of hospital closures in urban, minority communities, leaving urgent care out of reach for many.
Though the passage was describing conditions in Washington, D.C., Lee immediately recognized that it also perfectly described her hometown of Braddock. The city’s population, which is just over 2,100 people, is two-thirds African American, and the poverty rate is nearly three times that of the state’s. Braddock is also located in one of the most polluted counties in the country; asthma rates in schools near the mills are astronomical, especially for black students. On top of that, the one hospital that Braddock had closed in 2010. Perhaps most directly, Braddock is a landmark in housing-desegregation case law. In 1988, Cheryl Sanders, a tenant of the Talbot Towers housing projects in Braddock, sued local housing authorities over plans to replace the towers with more public-housing units crowded into that same location, an impoverished area right by the steel mills. Sanders’s lawsuit argued that these plans would only reinforce concentrated poverty and segregation in Braddock. In 1994, the county housing authority signed a consent decree, known as the “Sanders Consent Decree,” agreeing not to build public housing at the former Talbot Towers site, and also to redistribute low-income housing throughout the county so that it wasn’t bundled in the poorest neighborhoods.
For the Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project case, the Supreme Court continued the Sanders legacy by ruling that focusing low-income-housing funding in segregated neighborhoods leads to negative economic and health impacts for African Americans—the disparate impact finding—and that this violates the Fair Housing Act. It should be noted that disparate impact findings also apply in federal environmental policy. When government agencies permit pollution-heavy facilities in predominantly poor or black and Latino neighborhoods, it constitutes a Title VI Civil Rights Act violation from the Environmental Protection Agency (or it’s supposed to anyway).
“We literally have this steel mill that has been killing us,” says Lee about Braddock. “Our air quality is the worst in the country, and because of the funding schemes for housing and education, we're stuck in this cycle. We can't get out of this area that is killing us. So that's how I stumbled into environmental justice.”
Like others in the Braddock area, Lee became an environmentalist out of necessity, with a focus on how these myriad factors bear down hardest on the black children of the place she grew up: segregation, smog, poverty, educational inequities, and problems with the police.
“We know that when you are young you are more vulnerable and lead poisoning is irreversible,” says Lee. “So those kids are funneling through the public school systems that are underfunded, and they have special needs now that they possibly have lead poisoning and asthma—all these different things that are impacting their health that are going unnoticed and undiagnosed. How do you now create upward mobility for these communities from that?”
“These are our seats. We just aren't in them right now.”
Lee learned how to tackle this question as an activist and an advocate. Now she must learn how to answer it as a politician—not only as a black female politician in a sea of white male peers, but also as one whose policy proposals swing further left than most of the local Democratic delegation. Lee is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, an ultraprogressive party that is pushing for new laws that would, among other things, provide free health care and college tuition for everyone. Another DSA member, Sara Innamorato, also won her campaign for state House representative, for Pennsylvania’s 21st District, on the same day as Lee, defeating the five-term incumbent Dom Costa, the cousin of Lee’s opponent. Last year, the DSA also helped Mikhail Pappas win his campaign for magisterial district judge, by knocking off yet another member of the Costa family, Ron Costa Sr., who had held that seat for 24 years. There are still two other Costas working in politics in the Pittsburgh region. When it comes to Greater Pittsburgh politics, it’s not just an ol’ boys’ club—it’s literally a family.
But DSA is chipping away at that by helping candidates like Lee, who aren’t afraid to buck the system. As a freshman minority member in the assembly, there won’t be much “radical” policy that Lee can move forward. But she can at least get the conversations started, with Innamorato by her side, while the DSA works to get more Lees and Innamoratos at the table. For now, Lee’s prescriptions for how to cure the pollution, the poverty, and the policing in her district are nothing extremist. For instance, she’d like to have a statewide moratorium on fracking, but is willing instead to try to pass laws that would demand a severance tax from companies for drilling and fracking.
As for policing, Lee has already been active in working with other local elected officials, such as state Reps. Ed Gainey and Jake Wheatley, to create a statewide police officer database that would track officers’ misconduct complaints and whether they’ve been fired from another force. They’re also working on legislation for uniform training standards for every municipality’s police department, a countywide civilian oversight committee, and residency requirements that require police to live in the municipalities they serve. However, doing any of this—including the environmental regulations—would require buy-in from the mayors and council members of all those small municipalities that make up Lee’s district, which has about 60,000 people, many of whom live in cities of less than 5,000 people. This is no small task given that many of those small municipality leaders, and their constituents, enjoy having their own police forces, and have legacy family ties to the mills.
“I’ve talked to officials [in neighboring districts], and all these places have never had black police officers and don’t have black candidates,” says Lee. “That first time I got pulled over by a police officer—that police officer lived in a completely different area, faraway. He had no actual ties to the community outside of working in it. So he doesn't have to know these kids.”
As Lee discusses her policy proposals outside of the 61B Cafe, an African-American man, maybe in his mid-20s, walks up to her, seemingly unbothered by the heat. He’s elated to run into Lee again after meeting her briefly at a fundraiser a few months back. He congratulates her for winning her election and tells her he’s been following her videos on Facebook, the ones where she’s giving speeches to crowds during the Antwon Rose protests.
“Everything you say is on point, keep it up,” he tells her. “Keep spearheading it. Keep getting the youth involved.”
He’s going to run for office very soon, he says, as soon as he “gets some of his personal stuff together,” but she inspired him to go for it.
“Let's do it!” she tells him. “If I can do it, we can take our communities back. These are our seats. We just aren't in them right now.”
Lee gives him her card and tells him to contact her when he’s ready to make that leap. This was the main goal of her campaign, she says, to inspire more people like her to run, to help people realize that they don’t have to be a white male with a politically famous last name to make decisions about the future of places like Braddock. She says she doesn’t otherwise enjoy being the “integration experiment”—something she says she’s endured since being the only black woman in her classes and organizations as an undergrad student at Penn State, where she majored in journalism. But for Braddock, she’s willing to make the sacrifice.
“The alternative is to say black people can't be in these spaces, and black women in particular,” says Lee. “I'll go into a toxic space that despises my very existence, my audacity to be black and be a woman and also to live in a district that is not predominantly black—‘How dare you come into our space where we have historically been and where you have not historically been, interrupting what we have?’ It catapults me into a hostile environment, right? The plan is to get more of us. If I can win this district, what district can't we win? Why can't black folk run? Why can't women run?”