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Melinda Downing, manager of the DOE EJ Program, speaks at the 2019 National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program.
Melinda Downing, manager of the DOE EJ Program, speaks at the 2019 National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program.

Melinda Downing has professionally walked the halls of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for years, leaving a proud record of achievement and advancement of justice and equality in federal programs and policies.  

During her career, Downing has held various positions and duties, including conception, development, and oversight of the Center for Environmental Management Information in the 1990s. The center served as a citizen call-in resource for the DOE Office of Environmental Management (EM) and was the first of its kind. It offered citizens an opportunity to receive answers to EM-related questions, request documents, and visit an on-site library.  

At this same time there was another citizen movement emerging called environmental justice (EJ). The EJ movement arose from an increased awareness of the disproportionately high impacts of environmental pollution on economically and politically disadvantaged communities. Citizens were becoming aware of issues such as social, economic, and political marginalization of low-income and minority populations. EJ was elevated with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” (EO 12898) in 1994. EO 12898 directed federal agencies to develop strategies to address the disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental effects of their programs on low-income and minority populations. 

From left to right, Denise Freeman (LM communications liaison); Melinda Downing (EJ program manager); Peter O’Konski (LM deputy director); and Ingrid Colbert (LM Finance, Audits, and Contracts Services).
From left to right, Denise Freeman (LM communications liaison); Melinda Downing (EJ program manager); Peter O’Konski (LM deputy director); and Ingrid Colbert (LM Finance, Audits, and Contracts Services).

This new opportunity was an awakening and inspiration for Downing. The EJ movement brought together three facets of her background: 1) the values of giving back and working hard that her parents stressed to their children, 2) the experiences of growing up in Tennessee as a black child who attended a recently desegregated high school, and 3) empathy for those who experience injustice. In EJ, she found her calling and a new career direction that ultimately opened and addressed the awareness of injustice for DOE. 

She serves as the first and only EJ program manager for DOE. Although the program is under the umbrella of the Office of Legacy Management (LM), it is a DOE-wide initiative. Under her leadership, the program supports policies that provide benefits to adversely affected communities. It is Downing’s belief that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or income, have the right to a clean and healthy environment. Her EJ philosophy seeks three outcomes: 

  • Fair and equal treatment for all. 
  • Equitable distribution of environmental burdens. 
  • Meaningful involvement and participation in decision-making processes. 

Using her understanding of EJ issues and the evolution of solutions, she has elevated the EJ Program to one of prominence in DOE and in the country. She has created near-term program objectives that include building capacity in affected communities; shifting discourses that centralize the voices of those most impacted by EJ; and strengthening relationships between citizens, environmental and community organizations, educational institutions, and governmental agencies.

Students and community members attending the 2019 Teaching Radiation, Energy, and Technology Workshop.
Students and community members attending the 2019 Teaching Radiation, Energy, and Technology Workshop. 

Over her more than 40 years of federal service, Downing has received numerous accolades and awards in recognition of her EJ achievements and her dedication as a public servant. Most notably, she was named the DOE Woman of the Year and received an honorary doctorate from Allen University.  

However, Downing’s most enduring legacy may be the support and training she has provided to students, educators, and aspiring community leaders through the conferences, workshops, and training institutes she has led and supported through the years, including the National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program; the Community Leaders’ Institutes; the Teaching Radiation, Energy, and Technology Workshop; the Mentors for Environmental Scholars Program; and the Community Capacity Building Through Technology workshops. 

She believes her success should be measured through the people who come together to address EJ, their involvement in EJ initiatives, and the gains made to eradicate injustice. 

Few individuals are lucky enough to work in a field with complete passion and involvement. Melinda Downing not only has had this opportunity, but she has had the empathy, understanding, ability, and most of all the courage to move the program forward. As a result of her efforts, DOE maintains one of the most progressive and respected EJ programs in the country. 

Learn more about the DOE EJ Program