Arnita Gadson grew up in a West End home about one mile from Rubbertown. It had a beautiful garden that produced much of her family’s food. During the summers, she loved spending time working her family’s Western Kentucky farm.
Through all this, she says she never thought much about environmental justice.
“I always heard people talk, but I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she says. “I asked about these companies and learned quickly.”
After spending much of her professional career in the insurance business, Gadson said she barely knew the definition of environmental justice when she got an interview with the University of Louisville in 1997.
“I went to the library at 8 a.m. the next day and learned everything I could about environmental justice,” she says.
And it paid off, as she became the U of L’s Environmental Justice director.
She credits the late Rev. Louis Coleman for raising concern about pollutants in West Louisville in the late 1990s. Once she became involved in the issue, Gadson helped Louisville become a national leader. She worked with Sen. Gerald Neal to obtain funding for the initial studies that led to the first testing of the air in West Louisville.
The monitoring and testing she fought to fund proved to be worthwhile – results showed 18 chemicals of concern, and Gadson worked with the newly formed West Jefferson County Community Task Force to bring about changes in emissions policy generated by businesses. The task force comprises representatives of 12 West Louisville neighborhoods, along with local businesses and regulatory agencies.
“We didn’t expect the results from the testing, and we worked to change the regulations, and we re-did the regulations, with many of them more strict that the EPA.” she says.
The group still meets monthly with a full agenda that Gadson prepares. In June, the agenda included a discussion of a new app – called “Smell Louisville” – which would allow residents to report suspicious smells from their phones, which could lead to the creation of data about odors.
The group also discussed the Black Leaf Chemical Site, where a pesticide manufacturer was found to have contaminated the ground, making is unsafe for residents. Gadson is pushing to clean up the site and make it ready for commercial development.
She is well-known among government leaders, local businesses and residents for her tenacity in dealing with environmental justice issues. In 2008, she was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear to head Kentucky’s Environmental Quality Commission, a position she held until 2016. She returned to become Executive Director of the Task Force in 2016.
While she’s known as a tough negotiator, Gadson has earned a reputation for getting things done and making change happen – and for caring above all about environmental justice for everyone.
“I pride myself on collaboration – we can argue but it has to be a win-win for everyone,” she says. “My joy comes when I see things moving.”