South Carolina State Representative Harold Mitchell, D-Spartanburg, who’s made headlines recently for his efforts to modify his state’s ‘Stand Your Ground Law’, is more than an advocate for criminal justice reform. He’s also a social entrepreneur and proponent of environmental justice in low-income communities of color.
Founder of ReGenesis, a 15-year old program based in Spartanburg focused on curing the ails of pollution and redeveloping impoverished communities, Mitchell has gained national acclaim for piloting a model for healthy, sustainable living coupled with environmentally friendly practices. Through ReGenesis, Mitchell has transformed what started as a $20,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a toxic, abandoned fertilizer site into more than $250 million worth of leveraged investment to rebuild and revitalize his community.
Mitchell’s model is one that involved a partnership between public, private, and governmental interests, and the results have been nothing short of astonishing: a $6.1 million recreational facility, new and affordable residential housing, and a commercial development that includes a grocery store and health center. What’s more, through ReGenesis’ efforts, members of the local community have gained valuable workforce training and employment opportunities, a renewed sense of community, access to safer, cleaner green spaces, and a new sense of accomplishment for having turned their community around.
According to Representative Mitchell, achieving environmental justice requires a holistic approach that follows principles of equitable development. He set out to build entire communities focused on health, education, housing, job creation and training, and an enhanced quality of life, all while addressing environmental issues. And Mitchell has done just that. For his efforts, Mitchell received the EPA’s 2009 Environmental Achievement Award, and cities across the country are looking to his model as an example of success for community revitalization.
Earlier this year, Birmingham, Alabama Councilman William Parker traveled to Spartanburg, South Carolina with a delegation of colleagues to learn more about Mitchell’s model and to glean insight into ways to apply the same principles to his community. Organizing the community, working with local government, and learning to create and leverage multi-stakeholder partnerships were among the “best practices” Parker said he wanted to take from Mitchell and apply to the planned Birmingham rebuild.
Over the years, Mitchell has been adamant that communities must empower themselves by creating organizational structures to get work done, capacity building, and creating a shared vision for their community, and investing time and effort into understanding the history and the how of environmental justice.
A native son of Spartanburg himself, Mitchell has dedicated his career to cleaning and greening his community and creating new economic opportunities, all while taking up the mantle of environmental justice. It may not be the calling he initially set out to pursue, but it’s one he’s embraced nonetheless.