top of page
Queen Shabazz.jpg


Queen Zakia Shabazz is the CEO of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative (VEJC), an organization that aims to increase economic opportunities and obtain clean air and water for communities of color, low income communities, and communities overburdened with pollution in Virginia. She is a former elementary school teacher and fierce advocate for the protection of children from lead poisoning.

Getting Started

When asked where she is from, Queen replies with “I am from Earth.” To be a bit more specific, she was born in South Carolina, but her mother left for Brooklyn when Queen was a child. Growing up in Brooklyn, Queen began to learn the power of community organizing, though she didn’t learn that term until much later. She witnessed a mother in her neighborhood preach against the drug deals and heroin houses that had been set up in the area. The mother’s dedication came from the loss of her only daughter to drugs, and eventually she managed to get enough people together to shut down several of the drug dealers in the neighborhood. Queen got first hand experience with community organizing when she was between the ages of 12-14, when their apartment building was threatening a rent increase and a reduction in services. Queen helped go from tenant to tenant, collecting complaints and concerns. These shared goals ended up culminating in a successful rent strike and the tenants receiving the services they required. In 1996, Queen’s son was poisoned with lead; however, due to her earlier experiences, she knew that she could make a difference. She refused to be a victim and began talking to other mothers whose children had gotten lead poisoning. Together they established United Parents Against Lead (UPAL). They quickly learned that there was little to no information available to families and communities exposed to lead. They started working with health departments in Virginia, trying to get information into the hands of people who needed it. These connections to the health department were also important when UPAL tried to get laws in place to prevent lead poisoning in children. “One thing that sticks out is when I first went to talk about getting laws on the books to protect children. One senator said, ‘well, has anyone died from it?’ as if it wasn’t an issue. We were able to find cases where children had died from severe lead poisoning, but we had to go through a lot of hospital records to find data on deaths and then we also had to show there was a way to prevent it.” After leading UPAL for several years, Queen decided to pursue a teaching degree, which had always been her childhood dream. She began teaching 1st grade at a Richmond elementary school. After some time, she became concerned with erratic behavior exhibited by some of the students. She received permission to have the school’s drinking water sent out for testing and the results showed that the water was significantly contaminated with lead. Queen wanted to alert parents to the issue, but the school superintendent was scared of the controversy it would create. Unable to silence her conscience, Queen informed the community of the issue and was subsequently fired from her position in 2018. This was despite numerous community members coming to speak on her behalf at the school board meetings ahead of her termination. After being forced out of her teaching position, Queen was hired by VEJC. The company was founded in 2015 to coordinate actions between four Virginia-based environmental groups. When Queen took over leadership in 2018 there were 18 member organizations. Since then, the number has grown to 45. However, Queen is not done learning. She continues to take part in new experiences, including the EPA’s Environmental Justice Academy. She also advocates for adult literacy and continues to work towards educating others on the dangers of lead poisoning, both in and out of government.

The Work

Queen says that the most important part of her job is to amplify the voices of local communities. “We make sure it’s the community aspirations and not the desires of outside influences that drive the discussions,” she said. “We work on all types of issues at VEJC, including water line replacements when lead or other contaminants have been detected, sea level rise and flooding for coastal communities, and concerns around mountain-top removal for coal mining regions.” VEJC was created so that environmental groups could more effectively bring issues to the state legislature and push for policies that protect communities from the cumulative effects of pollution. A recent example of legislation that VEJC and Queen helped to draft is the Environmental Justice Act, which was passed by the Virginia legislature in April 2020 and went into effect in July 2020. The Act is an impressive step forward for environmental justice advocates, stating that it “is the policy of the Commonwealth to promote environmental justice and ensure that it is carried out throughout the Commonwealth, with a focus on environmental justice communities and fenceline communities” [VA. CODE ANN. §§ 2.2-234–2.2-235 (2020)]. The Act makes sure to define environmental justice to mean that all people must receive “fair treatment” and “meaningful involvement” when new environmental policies are developed. Fair treatment, according to the Act, means that no one group may share a disproportionately large burden of any negative consequences of new environmental decisions, while meaningful involvement means that not only should affected communities have the opportunity to be involved in decision making, but that policy makers must actively look to include them. Queen also works on specific issues that are of interest to the member organizations of VEJC. One prominent case was the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, proposed in 2014 by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. The pipeline would have run through 600 miles of Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia, while compressor stations for the pipeline were planned for several historically black and indigenous communities (Appalachian Voices). By coordinating with numerous organizations, encouraging community engagement, and writing researched recommendations to the state legislature that would put policies in place that would discourage new fossil fuel infrastructure, VEJC and all of its collaborators finally managed to get Duke and Dominion to give up on the pipeline in 2020. Unfortunately, the fight is far from over. The companies seized thousands of privately owned pieces of property for the pipeline under the umbrella of eminent domain. Despite the construction being abandoned, many of these landowners, a large number of whom are people of color, have not received any form of compensation for their seized property and have yet to have the land returned to them (NC Newsline; NRDC). And of course, there are always other projects that threaten communities. Queen and VEJC are working on building community opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is currently under construction in Virginia and North Carolina.

“Who better to tell your story than the one who has lived it? Lived experience puts a face to the problem. Suddenly it’s not just statistics, but living beings.”

Environmental Justice

“We need to get environmental justice communities recognized. In the past we’ve seen communities getting tossed to the side and getting divested, despite having the largest amount of negative impacts from pollution,” Queen said. “They aren’t given the privilege of saying not in my backyard.” That phrase, commonly abbreviated as NIMBY, refers to when high socio-economic neighborhoods manage to prevent an undesirable, polluting facility (ex. landfill, factory, etc.) from being built nearby. However, this form of opposition rarely prevents the facility from being approved, it simply moves it into an area with a less empowered community. The result of these decisions and the historical consequences of redlining means that black and brown communities experience disproportionate levels of pollution (EPA). “The goal is to get legislatures to recognize environmental justice communities and acknowledge the harm that is done to them by polluters,” Queen explains. “Even though a specific legislature might be sympathetic, there are so many issues. The key is repetition.” Queen commented that the issue of lead is still one that is close to her heart, given the impact it had on her son. Despite her decades of work, she noted that it wasn’t until the crisis in Flint, MI that they really started to gain traction with policy makers. Even then, their advances were because the public became more aware of the issue, rather than a shift in what she and others in UPAL had been saying. To that end UPAL, as a client of EarthJustice, was successful in suing the EPA to lower lead dust standards as announced during a NJ press conference (Earthjustice - see link below).


“Our foundation [UPAL] was founded by parents, like Mothers against Drunk Driving. Parents are their children’s first advocate. You know your child better than anyone else, so don’t take no for an answer. Keep saying what needs to be said. You’ll hear no or get a door slammed in your face, but keep trying, either to that person again, or to a different person,” Queen urges. “We have to be the voice for our children.” Queen also encourages people to have faith in their experiences and speak out about the issues facing their communities. “Who better to tell your story than the one who has lived it?” she asks. “Lived experience puts a face to the problem. Suddenly it’s not just statistics, but living beings.” Finally, Queen gives a call to action on climate change: “We need to tackle environmental justice with a sense of urgency. We are the first generation to experience the effects of climate change, and the last to be able to do anything about it. We need to get people to realize that this is real and this is urgent.”

Relevant Links

Sources Cited

bottom of page