ITHACA, N.Y.—A series of local environmental activists and elected officials spoke to a supportive crowd Wednesday evening, touting the importance of political environmental activism and urging those in attendance to make their voices heard at the ballot box this year.

The primary matter of discussion was Proposal 2, which would add the Environmental Rights Amendment to the New York Constitution. The main thrust of the Environmental Rights Amendment is to add “clean water, clean air and a healthful environment” to the state’s Constitution, making them a more iron-clad goal for the state to pursue.

Speakers included New York State Assemblywoman Anna Kelles, Christa Nuñez, of The Learning Farm, Peter Iwanowicz, the executive director of Environmental Advocates NY (the group that led the event’s organizer), Tompkins County Legislature Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Siobhan Hull of Sunrise Ithaca, Gas Free Seneca’s Yvonne Taylor, City of Ithaca Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres and Lisa Marshall of Mothers Out Front.

The first speaker was Iwanowicz, who credited people in the Southern Tier of New York with pushing environmental change, both at a policy level and lower on the political ladder.

“They would always look at us as staff and say, ‘Don’t we have a right to clean air and clean water?'” Iwanowicz said to begin. “And, of course, the answer is, as humans and people, yes, we do have that right. But until we vote in this election day, we don’t have that legal right. So, not yet is the answer. But we will change that, together on Nov. 2.”

Kelles followed, emphasizing the far-reaching implications of having actual language in the state’s Constitution guaranteeing access to a clean environment. While laws can have some impact, Kelles said, they are subject to the whims and power shifts of the state legislature and leadership.

“When it goes into the Constitution, that means it cannot so easily be changed, it is part of our founding document as a state,” she said. “We would then have to come to the people again to change that. This is an opportunity for the people themselves to put into our founding document what they want to be permanently established as the structure and foundation of our state.”

More speakers emphasized similar points. McBean-Clairborne, referencing her upbringing in Guyana and the clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as examples of environmental racism, which could (hopefully) be mitigated by having Constitutionally-protected environmental rights.

According to speakers, the measure would further allow the state to regulate polluters and those corporations and practices that pose a threat to a clean environmental future—one that New York is attempting to reach through the sweeping Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed in 2019.

“The honor system is not working,” Hull said.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com