New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently welcomed Shawn LaTourette as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. LaTourette is the first out LGBTQ+ person in the U.S. to helm a state-level environmental protection agency.
“Shawn’s passion for environmental protection, coupled with his extensive knowledge on climate, energy, and infrastructure, will help build an environmental legacy that exemplifies these principles,” Gov. Murphy said in a press release on New Jersey’s state website. “I am confident that with Shawn’s leadership, we will create a cleaner, more sustainable New Jersey that we are proud to leave for future generations.”
LaTourette’s appointment makes him the first out gay man to hold a New Jersey cabinet position. It also makes New Jersey the first U.S. state to have more than one out LGBTQ cabinet member, the other being Sue Fulton, chair and chief administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission.
“At a time when the New Jersey legislature is empty from any representation for the LGBTQ community, this appointment is welcomed and appreciated,” Garden State Equality Executive Director Christian Fuscarino said in a press release. “It speaks to Governor Murphy’s commitment to diverse inclusion in our government. Highly qualified LGBTQ people like Shawn are ready to step up and serve in leadership positions in the Garden State.”
LGBTQ visibility does indeed matter, LaTourette told PGN. “Members of the public, especially our children, should see themselves in their leadership,” he said. “Now of course my status as an LGBTQ person doesn’t in any way make me qualified for the job. It doesn’t speak to my background or my expertise, but it does speak, I believe, to the heart of this administration— that we believe in lifting all people. By ensuring that our cabinet, our senior staff and all of our cabinet-level agencies reflect the people we serve, we can better serve those people.”
As commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, LaTourette plans to focus on climate change response and reduction, as well as environmental equity.
“New Jersey is sadly ground zero for some of the worst impacts of climate change,” LaTourette said. “We already know it’s impacting so many areas of our state and that those impacts will only get worse. Temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more frequent and intense. We need to be ready.”
LaTourette plans to tackle climate change both in terms of methods of reducing emissions as well as building resilience, he said.
“How do we make sure that our communities can withstand what’s to come,” he asked rhetorically. “We project that New Jersey will see three feet of sea level rise by 2050 and five feet by 2100 — we need to prepare the public and our communities and our institutions of government to manage that.”
The other of LaTourette’s main environmental priorities is in making sure that minority and low-income communities don’t continue to bear the brunt of the effects of pollution.
“To work to diminish that burden is to help build greater environmental benefits, including the benefits that are necessary to withstand climate change and facilitate climate justice, is a huge priority for me and for the governor,” LaTourette said.
LaTourette brings to his new role 20 years of experience working on environmental issues. At the age of 19 he began working with environmental lawyers who partnered with the law firm “of Erin Brockovich fame,” he said, advocating for New Jersey communities with petrochemical-polluted drinking water.
“Even at that point in my young life I saw starkly the issues of equity and justice that pervade the whole of society,” LaTourette said. “Folks that are working three jobs [who] probably pay the least attention to the annual reports about the state of their drinking water, they stand to endure some of the worst conditions. I saw that in my organizing work and tried to make sure that folks who didn’t have the resources to protect themselves could find protection.”
In 2020, Gov. Murphy, alongside U.S. senators and environmental advocates including LaTourette, passed the first environmental justice law in the country to help protect the marginalized communities that face disproportionately high levels of pollution.
“I really poured my heart into helping further that legislation,” LaTourette said.
People have asked LaTourette why he’s so passionate about justice. “I think it’s just a fundamental core belief that I have that if you are a member of any marginalized community, it is incumbent upon you to stand up for every marginalized community,” he continued. “Being an advocate is about standing up and being visible in roles like this and being present for people in diverse communities whether or not you share the same exact circumstances that make you diverse.”