When Cynthia Ferguson (LAW ’00) received a governmental promotion of seismic proportions, she did exactly what those who know her expected her to do: She told no one.
“When she was selected as [the United States Department of Justice’s] acting director for environmental justice, I read about it in the newspaper. She had not even contacted her family,” laughs Kim Lambert, a close colleague of Ferguson’s who manages the environmental justice program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“That’s a big deal! That’s as high as you can go in federal government,” Lambert says. “Most people would have been calling to the heavens. But that’s not her.”
Ferguson seems allergic to fanfare. She’s humble and spiritual, sometimes praying for guidance in her work, which she refers to as “the calling.”
Long before “the calling” and shortly after getting her undergraduate degree, Ferguson took a job at a large, international chemical company.
It had been exciting studying mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and now she was helping design chemical manufacturing equipment.
“In school I loved it, but in practice I was like, I don’t know,” she says. “I really wanted to do work that I felt added value. Had meaning.” Or more meaning, at least.
For her second assignment within the company, she began doing safety, health, and environmental work, ensuring that the company’s plants followed solid and hazardous waste laws.
“Just because you live in a certain area, don’t make a certain amount of money, or [because of] the color of your skin, doesn’t mean you can’t go out and breathe clean air. It’s unjust.” —Cynthia Ferguson
She found the work much more satisfying.
“I really enjoyed this environmental work, but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it on the industry side,” Ferguson says. Still, she didn’t know what came next.
“I’d saved up nothing; it wasn’t in the plan [to go back to college],” she says, “But I knew I wanted to continue to pursue environmental work.” She began researching law schools, particularly ones with good environmental programs.
Chicago-Kent College of Law’s program was building a stellar reputation through what would eventually become its Environmental and Energy Law Clinic. Ferguson joined just as the clinic was earning its bones, fighting for small community groups on Chicago’s South Side against “Goliathan” opponents, from coal fire conglomerates to city hall. Locally, it was the rudimentary tip of the spear in the environmental justice movement.
“The cases [at first] seemed small, but definitely mattered,” Ferguson says.
It’s worth noting what Ferguson means by environmental justice, or what she reflexively calls “E.J.” When asked, her voice loses all hesitance.
“Fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, national origin, or income level, relating to development and implementation and enforcement of laws,” she says. “You’ve got communities that weren’t allowed to use their voice to have a say in what was being done to their communities. Either they were being kept in the dark or weren’t told until too late, or they just weren’t listened to. That lack of political clout or power was taken advantage of.”
Then, she adds simply, “As you engage with communities, they will teach you what environmental justice means to them.”
Adds Quentin Pair, the DOJ’s former environmental justice coordinator who Ferguson worked with and replaced when he retired in 2015, “At the bottom of the environmental justice well is trust—you cannot do this without the cooperation or at least understanding of community people.…And they don’t [innately] trust the government.”
“Cynthia slid right on in,” Pair says. “She’s a very spiritual soul, she’s very protective of communities, and it’s best not to get stupid with her. They saw that; that she has skill and empathy.”
Ferguson was known for wearing walking shoes to community meetings, and staying until the last person had their say.
“A lot of people look at their job as nine to five. But she didn’t. She always stayed,” says Lambert.
Ferguson’s first contact with the DOJ happened when she interned for them in law school. It wasn’t glamorous, but she didn’t expect it to be. Both of her parents served the public: her father worked for the City of Baltimore, while her mother was a nursing assistant and heart monitor technician.
“Going through documents. That’s what I remember, going through documents, looking for evidence of how a company may have disposed of waste on a superfund site,” Ferguson says.
It was glamorous enough for her to accept a job there as a trial attorney upon graduation.
“My whole life growing up was in that division,” she says now, 23 years later. “I was definitely blessed to find the area I wanted to focus on.”
The job demanded plenty of complex judgment calls. Ferguson remembers a safe drinking water case against a tribal government in charge of operating utilities on a reservation—a government that didn’t have a lot of resources, but seemed to care deeply about the environment.
“That taught me a lot from an EJ perspective,” she says, “There are times when you have to bring those types of enforcement actions, but at the end of the day, our goal and the tribal government’s goal was the same: human health.” They reached a cooperative agreement in the end.
By 2012, Ferguson was promoted to senior litigation counsel, leading EJ efforts for the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. She also began taking part in larger, interagency working groups.
Finally, in 2022, the Department of Justice selected her to head its new EJ office and appointed Ferguson as the Department’s environmental justice officer, allowing her to sit on the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council. The demands of the position mean she no longer handles cases herself, but instead supports the Department of Justice’s various divisions in incorporating environmental justice tenets into their enforcement strategies.
It’s a hefty and often high-altitude responsibility, but Ferguson keeps her eyes and thoughts on the ground game.
“Everyone deserves clean air, water to drink, a safe place to go outside and play and not worry about contaminated soil, and if they want to fish in the stream, not worry about eating it,” she says. “Just because you live in a certain area, don’t make a certain amount of money, or the color of your skin, doesn’t mean you can’t go out and breathe clean air. It’s unjust.”
“The reason I agreed to do this is to lift up this issue so others who may not be engaged, get engaged,” Ferguson adds. “Those that dedicated their lives to this work, it really is a calling.” •