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Get to know Rusty Polsgrove




 

What is your name, pronouns, and role at Arise?

 

My name is Rusty Polsgrove. I use they/them pronouns. My role at Arise is to be the Environmental Justice Organizer.


How did you become involved with Arise?

 

It's kind of a crazy story. But it was like two and a half-ish years ago now. I was enrolled as a student at UMass studying electrical engineering. I was taking a service-learning course, where all of these different engineering students worked with community organizations to help them further their causes. And that was how I met Tatiana Cheeks, the president of the board. She is also a part of our mold committee at Arise. She had brought the mold project to my class to receive help from engineering and science students. I decided to work on that project throughout that class. I really enjoyed it. And one of the last few days of class, Tatiana came in and she said, “Does anybody need a job? We need to hire somebody for this environmental justice stuff.” And I did, I had two jobs at the time, actually. But I was looking for different employment. I had just gotten engaged to my husband, my now husband, and we got married in July. But I needed to make more money to be able to sponsor him to come over here. And so, I ironically got into nonprofit work to make more money than I was already making. Before this, I worked at Make It Springfield in downtown Springfield, a wonderful community arts organization, which I love and plug anytime that I can. So that was how I got involved at Arise. I submitted my resume, and I showed up to Juneteenth. I introduced myself to everybody. I was like, “Hey, I'm Rusty. You might have seen my resume come across your desk recently. I'd love to introduce myself and talk about what's going on.” And the rest was history.

 

Is there anything specific that motivated you to work in environmental justice?


I think environmental justice is such an interesting lens into the ways that we are failing our communities because I think health and the health of a community are so tightly tied to the earth and their physical environment.

Before having this job, and I think this is maybe even true now. There is nothing specific that calls me to environmental justice. I worked for the Boy Scouts, and I love nature. I believe in conservancy and all of those things. But more than that, I care about the future. I care about the way our society is built. I think environmental justice is such an interesting lens into the ways that we are failing our communities because I think health and the health of a community are so tightly tied to the earth and their physical environment. And so because I care about the future, and I care about people, I care about the Earth.

 

This has really been my philosophy throughout my work is that I think, typically, especially in Western Mass, when we talk about environmental justice, we are usually talking about conservancy: saving the bees, the trees, all of that kind of stuff. And I don't think that's the most effective way to talk about environmental justice. I think that for me, I think for a lot of young people, and I especially think for people in urban environments, conservation is not what matters to us about the environment. What matters to us is our communities and the people we're involved with. I live in Springfield. I don't really see trees that often unless I go to Forest Park. I'm not really ever in a green space. I don't feel I'm connecting with nature on a daily basis. But I connect with my neighbors. I connect with the guy who owns my corner store. And so because I care about those people and their health and all of our collective well-being, that's why I care about the environment. I care about our air and our water. And so, by extension, I care about the bees and the trees and the bunnies. But that’s not my focal point.

 

What are the challenges and issues that the community is facing and that you're trying to address through your role?

 

I definitely see a lot of challenges. To paint it with broad strokes: we are under threat of capitalism. That is what's driving our development; our development is what's ruining our environment. Until we remove the capitalist motivations of our development and infrastructure development, we will continue to have all of the problems that we find ourselves fighting on a daily basis. That feels especially true to me right now, in light of the work I'm doing with the state commission on energy infrastructure siting and permitting, as well as at the EJ table. We've got two bills about siting and air quality. And the stuff that's in our bills, if you read it, none of it feels like a really crazy ask. But it's going through the process of editing these things and trying to get them through the state house in the Senate, as well as working with some of these commercial bodies on the siting commission. What really is becoming apparent to me is that until we can remove the capitalist incentives behind the why of these projects, there simply will not be the equity and the safety and the health that we need and the outcomes of these projects.

 

You mentioned two bills that you're working on right now. What are they?

 

Right now, no amount of mold, no matter how much you have, is considered hazardous under the sanitary code or just generally in state law.

I work on them with the Massachusetts EJ table. They are essentially a coalition of EJ groups all across the state with all different functions who come together and talk about this stuff. The two bills, which I can't quote, like House Bill 2131, are one of them. It's a whole bunch of numbers. But our air quality bill is targeting both indoor and outdoor air quality for residential and commercial buildings, specifically schools. And we're asking for HEPA filtration, filtration of very small particles, the type of pollution that will come out of cars, and other particulates that might be in the air. We are asking for annual mold inspections on tenant housing units. We are asking for the certification that 10 square feet; think about how big 10 square feet is. All right, a lot of people's dining room tables are 10 square feet. It would certify that as a hazardous amount of mold. Right now, no amount of mold, no matter how much you have, is considered hazardous under the sanitary code or just generally in state law. And we're asking for more air quality monitoring in EJ neighborhoods and a bunch of other things around that. And so that’s one of my biggest priorities right now. Because the work that I do with the mold committee is very focused on public health. And I think that public health is an environmental issue. Mold is an epidemic. I guarantee you that every house and every wood-framed building in the Northeast has some kind of mold. It's just whether or not you have mold in a way that will make you sick. So that's a big policy change we're asking for right now.


The siting bill for the EJ table I'm actually a little bit less familiar with, ironically. But essentially, what it's asking for is we are trying to change the way that community feedback functions in the system of development. Right now, when you give community feedback, say, the pipeline project that we're working on. Eversource wants to build this pipeline. We don't think it's a great idea for a wide range of reasons. And so, they did community engagement in their process. And the only regulation around community engagement for infrastructure development like this is that they do it. There's no standard. In the end, the state and the developer, neither of them, have to take community input into their final decision. They just have to listen. So we're experiencing a lot of tokenization, especially because what tends to happen to Springfield, and this was true about biomass, was when they wanted to build the biomass plant, they asked a couple of different towns around the region before they asked us. They tried to do Chicopee. Chicopee said, no, we don't want that garbage. I believe they asked Deerfield. Deerfield said they didn't want that garbage, and they thought you know what? If we do it in Springfield, nobody will fight back. And that was not the case.

 

Can you tell me more about the successes? There's no biomass plant. Right?

 

I actually was not involved in the biomass fight at all that was happening in the 2010s. I was in middle and high school, personally. But from what I understand, the way that the biomass plant was defeated, was there was state legislature coming up about what projects could qualify as green energy infrastructure to receive state funding. Biomass plants were on the chopping block because they are not a green technology; people think they're green because they get rid of trash. But if you get rid of trash by burning it, you're not really solving any problems. So while that was happening, I believe that the strategy was, well, if we can lobby on the state level to get biomass knocked off of this funding list, and we can stall Columbia gas long enough for this funding thing to take effect, they'll lose their money. And so that was part of the strategy.


The other piece of it was they received permits to build. But the permits they received, you had to start construction within two years of receiving it, or else you had to go through the process again. And so while the decision came down, I want to say, 2015 or 2016 or so, you will have to fact-check me because I don't know. But the decision came down that they were no longer on the green energy funding list. So they got stalled. And then recently, their appeal to start construction was denied. And so biomass, only now in 2023, is really dead. And there are still appeals processes that they can go through. If they really, really wanted to, Eversource could come back with a vengeance and try and do this thing again. But I think that they have probably pivoted their plans. And so that, of course, was a huge win. I think there was a lot of solidarity throughout the community in the region. I know that SC JC and Arise were definitely driving factors. Jesse Letterman was involved. I know he was there. I've seen the photos. So that was definitely a historic win for us. And I think SC JC is still around. We're working on the pipeline stuff together. I think that the win on biomass is kind of what propelled SC JC to keep doing this work.

 

I think one of my highlights for sure is the Live Well Health Coalition putting together a proposal for Community Choice Aggregation in the city of Springfield.

Now wins that I've experienced while I've actually been here. I think one of my highlights for sure is the Live Well Health Coalition putting together a proposal for Community Choice Aggregation in the city of Springfield. Community Choice Aggregation is basically this idea that me, as a customer, or Springfield, the city, as a customer of Eversource, we pay them to produce our electricity, and we pay them to deliver our electricity through their power lines. But you don't actually have to buy energy from Eversource. You can buy energy from another supplier and keep Eversource as your delivery system, as your delivery infrastructure. Community Choice Aggregation is basically where your city hires an aggregator to find renewable energy sources. Find enough of them if one isn't enough, find maybe a couple to supply energy to your city. And through doing that, not only does the entire city, everybody in the city, now has access like not now but I'm saying once it goes through, everybody in the city will have access to renewable energy regardless of if you're a renter or a homeowner, whatever you're doing, you have the ability to have renewable energy.


Of the 40 municipalities in the states that have done Community Choice Aggregation, all of them have either seen stagnating energy prices or lowered energy prices. So it's this really, really awesome thing. And it passed unanimously through the city council last December. It's kind of a little bit stalled on the mayor's desk, as most things I feel in the entire world are. Not only was this a victory to get unanimously through the city council, that's obviously very exciting. The reason this is such a victory to me is that the process that we've been going through with the Live Well Health Coalition has been, from the very start, 100% based on our resident advocates and community input.


When you can give people the resources they need to participate, the results are just outstanding. They speak for themselves. We went to the convening of all the other people who got this grant and like not to toot our own horn, but we're kicking butt.

Everything that we do, as the core team, as the partners, comes straight back to our resident advocates, and so they have guided the entire process. And so not only have I learned so much from them, I feel I have a new understanding of what is valuable to people about environmental justice, especially here in Springfield. But it was such a generative process that, through doing this, I saw all of our resident advocates gain so much skill and confidence in representing their ideas and speaking to policymakers and local officials; I like the growth that I have been able to really witness. I hope that I've helped. But just what I've seen from them has taught me so much. And it really has made me double down on the belief that people power is what gets things done.


What was so great to me about this project is that we are allowed to stipend them, so we actually pay them for their time. Which seems so silly, but it's so revolutionary, because I feel I often hear people saying, “Oh, well, people in Springfield don't care about the environment. People in Springfield, they don't get involved, they don't care.” And it's like a lot of people make the choice every day to either worry about how they're going to get food on the table and fill their gas tank, or they're going to worry about what's happening to the bees and the trees and the environment. And that first thing is way more important in the immediate future than the bees, than the trees, and the air. And when you can give people the resources they need to participate, the results are just outstanding. They speak for themselves. We went to the convening of all the other people who got this grant and like not to toot our own horn, but we're kicking butt.

 

Is there a specific situation you can look back and think, “Wow, my role really had an influence on this or an impact?

 

I think that will always just be one of the most satisfying things about my job, the connection that I'm able to have with people and to be able to be somebody who's maybe one of the only nice and respectful people interacting with them that day.

We're a small office. I'm nosy as heck. So I've always gotten involved in what everybody else is doing. And so the things that have really made me feel I'm making a difference, and the things that I like to make sure get into my organizer diet is really the face-to-face stuff that we do. I love the petition signing. I love tabling. We did this throughout the summer, where we did barbecues in the different parks to just kind of feed people, especially while school was out. Giving out the cold weather care kits. We did Thanksgiving, and we handed out a bunch of food. Community service and organizing are not about me, but obviously, nothing makes a person feel better than being able to give somebody else something that they need. I think that will always just be one of the most satisfying things about my job, the connection that I'm able to have with people and to be able to be somebody who's maybe one of the only nice and respectful people interacting with them that day.

 

Do you have other partners, co-conspirators, or partnerships in this work?

 

I have a lot of partners and co-conspirators, for sure. Obviously, SC JC is still around. I work with them very closely on all this Eversource stuff as well as communicating between them and the EJ table and the siting and permitting commission. Samantha Hamilton of PHI, Beatrice Dewberry of Way Finders, and Catherine Ratte of PVPC have been incredibly influential on me. And I'm in the early years of my career. The EJ tables, specifically the Conservation Law Foundation, those guys are really, really great. They've been incredibly instrumental in forming the work that we do in Springfield. Definitely the entire EJ table. Mary Claire Kelly, who I believe is with Green Roots but is leaving soon, they have been very, very helpful. I'm not saying Arise has never done environmental justice stuff on a policy level for the state before, I'm not saying that. But in the last year of my role, I've kind of seen the need for us to expand into that arena. And so, everybody on the EJ table has been so, so helpful in helping me understand how to do this policy stuff and how to engage in it in a way that's not going to disenfranchise the communities that I'm representing. And so that I've been really, really thankful for.

 

Is there anything that you have learned about in your work that you believe everyone should know about?

 

When we are providing assistance or resources, we are not the type of people to say you need to prove that you need this assistance. If you're asking for the assistance, that's nine times out of 10 good enough proof for us that you need that kind of assistance.

One of my favorite things about Arise, something I maybe hadn't been exposed to before but now that I know about it, I'm trying to apply to all aspects of my life, is, that when we are providing assistance or resources, we are not the type of people to say you need to prove that you need this assistance. If you're asking for the assistance, that's nine times out of 10 good enough proof for us that you need that kind of assistance. Tatiana, Tanisha, Johnie, and Liz, I want to thank them specifically, have really helped me understand this concept. You should not have to lose your sense of dignity to receive the help that you need. And I feel that is so true. And I feel that when we as an organization can minimize the emotional effects of the type of turbulence and trauma that a lot of our clients and people that we advocate for are going through if we can at least not add to that and not say, prove to me that you're starving, prove to me that you don't have… I really love that about us. I think that's something I really admire. And it's something that I think about all the time because it's just true. We should not be contributing to that trauma. And if somebody's asking for a certain kind of help, it's probably because they need it. And I'm not the guy to judge whether or not you need $20 to pay for something because I don't have your checkbook. I'm not looking at your bank account. I don't know your life. And I just think that's so important.

 

How can the community support your work? How can people reach you? How can they help?

 

The best way to get in touch with me: shoot me an email or send me a text. I’m best at writing. I'm often in places where I cannot answer my phone, and if you call the office and I'm not there, make sure you get sent to my voicemail, and my voicemail will give you my cell phone number. And then you can just call me on my cell phone because I’m never sitting by my phone. But that's the best way to get involved. Also, if you go onto our website and submit a Contact Form to us on our website, 90% of them get forwarded to my email. So you can also get in contact with me through that because most of them come through my email anyhow. I think the best way to get involved right now is for people to come work with the mold committee. Any amount of commitment that you can do, maybe you'll come out and do petition signing and door knocking with us. Maybe that's not your thing. Maybe you're an internet dude. We need help formatting some different stuff. We're working on this booklet. If you want to do some internet work with us. We have a ton of opportunities. There's also some space to help out with our soup kitchen on Thursdays and Fridays. If somebody out there, you think you have a skill? Let us know because we probably need that skill.

 

What is the most rewarding aspect of this work? What keeps you going?

 

I just think that I have so much love for the people who make up my community personally. And also just, within physical proximity. I just really have a lot of love and respect for the people who make up the world around me. I think I lead a really good life, and a lot of that is because of the people that I run into every day. And even if it's just the cashier at the grocery store, I feel that very deeply. And I think additionally, if the environmental work that we're talking about does not get done, we're all going to die really slow, painful deaths, adjudicated by bureaucracy, and that is scary to me. And so, to deal with the fear and the anxiety, which is your body telling you to do something. And so this is my doing something. If I didn't do this, I think I would feel worse about it.

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