Administrator Michael Regan, Remarks for the Martin Luther King Day Event, As Prepared for Delivery
January 13, 2023
Good afternoon, everyone!
Pastor Harshaw and special guests joining me in today’s prayer, it’s wonderful to join you all today.
Thank you, Governor Cooper, for the introduction. As always, it’s great to see you.
I appreciate your leadership and our partnership over the years. When I was DEQ Secretary, you supported the creation of the state’s first-ever Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, and through the Andrea Harris Equity Task Force, you’re doubling down on North Carolina’s commitment to these critical issues.
I’m grateful that we share the same vision of a more just future and for all you do for the people of North Carolina.
To the elected officials and other public servants among us today, thank you for your hard work and dedication to bettering our communities.
I’d also like to congratulate Felicia Culbreath-Setzer, this year’s John Larkins Award winner. Felicia, you now join a long list of outstanding North Carolinians devoted to public service, and you should be proud of your work and contributions.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to honor my family who is joining us virtually.
I have to give a special shout out to my incredible wife Melvina and our amazing son Matthew. Thank you both for your unwavering support and for the sacrifices you’ve made on my behalf.
To my parents—two life-long public-servants, who grew up in the segregated south—thank you for representing the progress we’ve made as a society but also serving as a reminder that America’s painful past is not very distant.
I’m thankful that my parents demonstrated to me and my two siblings how rich and fulfilling a life of service can be. It’s safe to say that all their children – from my brother Zeb, who’s dedicated his career to strengthening reentry opportunities post incarceration, to my sister Chrystal, who leads education programming for the North Carolina Museum – we all have followed proudly in their footsteps.
The significance and symbolism of this moment isn’t lost on me. Here I stand in the pulpit of a southern Baptist Church, with the privilege of honoring a young Baptist minister who would become one of the most gifted and influential leaders in human history.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an acclaimed scholar, an exceptional orator, a prophetic visionary, and a courageous leader—but fundamentally, he was the ultimate public servant.
And so are all of you… because as state employees you have chosen – you have made a conscious decision – to devote yourselves to bettering our society.
Dr. King spent his life fighting for racial and economic justice. In doing so, he recognized that America, in all of her wisdom, had yet to live up to her highest ideals.
I often think about Dr. King’s evolution during his time on earth, and I find myself wondering how he might have continued to evolve if given the chance. Dr. King began to expand his vision of what it meant to achieve a truly just society before paying the ultimate price for his beliefs.
In his final act of resistance, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of sanitation workers protesting unsafe working conditions and low wages.
And although the environmental justice movement began nearly two decades after his death, the core values of the movement undeniably align with Dr. King’s teachings and actions.
Environmental justice is the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
So, it’s really two-fold. All people deserve clean air and clean water, AND they also have the right to be informed and make decisions about the policies and practices that directly impact their health and the safety and wellbeing of their children.
When Governor Cooper appointed me Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, I vowed to protect the health and safety of all our communities, especially those who’ve long suffered at the hands of indifference, neglect, and inaction.
Thanks to President Biden, as EPA Administrator, I’ve had the privilege of traveling all across the country to sit with everyday people in their churches, at their kitchen tables, and on their front porches… people for whom the future hasn’t always felt certain.
I visited Lowndes County, Alabama, and met with families who live with the ever-present threat of raw sewage entering their homes, spewing toxic waste into the same places where their children play, and creating conditions ripe for a resurgence of hookworm in their community.
I traveled to Puerto Rico and spoke to folks who reside dangerously close to a coal-fired power plant and live in constant worry about the air they breathe and the water they drink.
I visited Jackson, Mississippi – a capital city in America – whose residents have lived with boil water advisories for decades and who are experiencing the impacts of sorely neglected water infrastructure.
And I met a mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose life was turned upside down after her child was lead-poisoned from drinking the tap water in his own house and had to be repeatedly hospitalized.
Stories like these continue to exist in every corner of this country. In fact, approximately 2.1 million low-income households in America have children under the age of six living in homes with lead exposure hazards.
These inequities don’t just the harm the communities who experience them – they harm all of us. They hold back our nation from reaching her highest ideals, they hold back our economy, they hold back our children from becoming who they are meant to be, and they hold back the potential for a healthier, safer, and more just future.
It’s never been more clear that the fight for civil rights is inseparable from the fight for environmental, economic, health, and racial justice.
We simply cannot be for one without the other.
I’m so proud to work for an Administration that understands this viscerally.
And as public servants, you understand this viscerally – you feel it in your core – because you’re doing this work every single day.
Since day one, President Biden committed to prioritizing racial justice and equity. With unprecedented funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, we are finally ensuring that the communities who’ve borne the burden of pollution will see, breathe, and feel the benefits of the federal government’s investments.
But it’s not just about the funding – it’s about changing how our government works and who it works for.
It’s about making sure everyone has a seat at the table, especially communities who’ve historically been shut out of the conversation... I’m talking about our low-income communities, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and rural communities.
It’s about ensuring that solutions aren’t developed from the top down, but from the bottom up.
In the words of Dr. King, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Folks, we’re at a pivotal time in history. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix many of our Nation’s most persistent and pervasive environmental and public health concerns. But if we are to transform a system that has neglected the needs of so many, for so long, we ought to rethink how that system is structured and who it truly benefits.
Clean air and clean water are fundamental human rights. This shouldn’t be about politics, and we owe it to Dr. King and leaders like him to advance this work and never lose sight of our commitment to helping others and bettering our communities.
What is our time here on earth for if not to make people’s lives just a little bit better, a little bit easier, and a little more joyous?
The theme of today’s service is a Dr. King quote that I personally love and strive to live by, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
Let me be clear: we cannot achieve his vision without the devotion of our state and federal employees.
That’s why everything I do—everything we do—at EPA centers environmental justice and equity, because each of us has a responsibility to leave the world just a little bit better for our children and for their children.
My brothers and sisters, time is precious, and our work is critical. Whether it’s working to ensure that families in Lowndes County, Alabama, have resilient and reliable wastewater infrastructure or that every North Carolinian has clean air to breathe, this is all of our mission, and there is no task too small because we are all in this together.
You, as public servants, know this better than most – because you live it. It’s part and parcel to who you are.
So, as I stand here in the pulpit of a southern Baptist church, on the shoulders of one of the greatest leaders who ever walked this earth, I vow to do my best every day to advance his mission so that we may achieve a society that truly reflects his vision for a beloved community – and I know you do as well.