A History-Making Millennial Politician Explains What Air Pollution and Police Violence Have in Common

In November, 30-year-old Summer Lee is expected to become the first Black woman to represent the Pittsburgh region at the state capital.

In May she won a landslide victory against incumbent Paul Costa, who has represented Pennsylvania’s District 34 for nearly 20 years and is a member of a multi-generational political family that’s deeply entrenched in Pittsburgh’s Democratic party.

As a result of this disruption and history making, Lee, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has been profiled alongside a number of other millennial women shaking up the national political landscape, including Sara Innamorato, the newly elected representative of Pennsylvania’s District 21 (also in the Pittsburgh region, where she defeated another member of the Costa family), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently beat one of the top Democrats in Congress in a race to represent New York’s 14th District.

I recently sat down with Lee at a quiet coffee shop in East Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood (despite the fact that Lee dislikes the taste of coffee). Over an iced mocha, I asked her why she thinks young female candidates like herself, Innamorato, and Ocasio-Cortez have been so successful, and what their wins mean for the future of the country.

“We all ran very openly on democratic socialist platforms, and we all embrace that ideology,” Lee said, “which I think is something people are really ready for. But I think even more than that, what connects us is that we all ran grassroots, people-powered, people-centered campaigns with our community members at the center.”

She added, “We were all going up against strong Democratic incumbents, who I believe each miscalculated—who each had lost track of the trends in their communities and what folks on the ground in these communities really cared about.”

Injustice and Pollution are Interconnected

She said established politicians are missing an understanding that the most critical issues facing most Americans are linked—even if they may seem unrelated on the surface.

In recent weeks, Lee has been heavily involved with protests and the movement to demand justice for Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old boy who was shot three times in the back by a white police officer while running away unarmed in East Pittsburgh on June 19. Rose grew up in the East Pittsburgh neighborhood of Rankin, as did Lee. Rankin is among the poorest communities in the region, and in the last school year alone, the local high school lost four students to gun violence.

East Pittsburgh is also home to some of the region’s worst industrial polluters.

“You can’t talk about one of these issues without addressing all of them,” Lee said. “These communities are insular and are starved for resources, with education systems that are struggling, and with limited access to healthy food and healthcare. And the opportunities people have in these communities are so limited as to force some folks to go in a direction that they might not have wanted to. Meanwhile we’re also over-policing these areas.”

“Anywhere you see communities like that,” she added, “you also see environmental hazards.”

Lee noted that US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Mill in neighboring Braddock, which is part of her district, is one of the biggest emitters of air pollution in the region. She’s also well aware that more than 30 percent of kids in Antwon Rose’s school district have asthma—compared with the national average of eight percent. (Environmental Health News explored the link between air pollution and the asthma epidemic in Pittsburgh’s poor neighborhoods in the recent four-part series, Breathless.)

Last year U.S. Steel also announced plans to put a fracking well on a portion of the land owned by the mill.

“There are studies showing that folks who live within a two mile radius of fracking are more likely to have kids who suffer from low birth weights,” Lee said. “If your child has low birth weight, they’re more likely to have worse lifetime outcomes than children who grew up in a more healthy environment. This impacts kids for life.”

Lee also acknowledged that environmental health impacts can last for generations. “Their kids’ kids are then also more likely to grow up in a community where they’ll have poor educational opportunities, poor water, bad air quality. And the cycle goes on.”

Bringing Her Convictions to Harrisburg

The message that these issues are all connected has helped Lee reach people who historically have been too disillusioned with politics to bother voting. Her district saw a nearly 54 percent increase in voter turnout from previous primary races in May, according to her campaign data, whereas voter turnout stayed about the same for Allegheny County as a whole.

“Conventional wisdom says go talk to the voters who are sure to vote, the ‘super voters,'” Lee said. “But we said ‘no,’ instead we’re gonna talk to the people who have felt disconnected from politics. We’re gonna talk to the people who are actually more impacted by these policies than the folks who do vote every time, but have never had someone come and say ‘Hey, this is how this system works. This is what’s going on, and this is how we can see some more power in our community.’ So we went to those people and we brought them out.”

Lee, like Innamorato, has no Republican challenger in November, so she has a head start before she actually heads to Harrisburg following the general election. She said she’s grateful for the extra time to build relationships, since she’s heading into a Republican-majority House.

“I will still have all the same convictions and priorities in November, but I’m going in with the understanding that my tactics have to be nuanced and multifaceted to get what we want,” Lee said. “You might find different allies for different causes, and maybe even make allegiances across the table on a particular issue for a particular reason. I want to be able to navigate that.”

“But,” she added, “wherever I go and in whatever capacity I serve, I’ll stay focused on the issues that matter most to my community. Issues like economic justice, educational equity, criminal justice reform, Medicare for all, and environmental justice—they’re more than just talking points for me.”

“I truly believe that when you look at poor communities and communities of color in particular, we have systemic issues, we have cyclical issues. They’re all connected, and if you want to address those issues in our community, you can’t do it without talking about them all at the same time.”