Environmental Justice ~ Walking With Warriors
By Gwen McKinney,
Earth Day will be celebrated April 22 with a focus on the dangers of plastics to our planet. CommPassions marks Earth Day by celebrating the often unsung environmental justice warriors who are making a difference in communities across the country and the globe. Environmental Justice (EJ) is a burgeoning movement that embraces an equity lens on behalf of marginalized and exploited communities. Their work – in the legislature, the academy, the community – is far-reaching and impacts on the economic, social, political and cultural spaces that touch our lives. We sat down with four longtime EJ leaders during a live interview on WPFW Radio (Pacifica Station 89.3) in Washington, DC to take stock of the movement’s struggles, victories and unfinished business
Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
Gwen McKinney: The land we walk on, the air we breathe, the water we drink…the space we occupy. The environment is everything – cross sectional, intersectional, it is us. And we can’t talk about justice and change without talking about the environment. Today CommPassions speaks with environmental justice warriors:
GM: How did you get started on this work?
Dr. Beverly Wright: So, it started a long time ago in Buffalo, New York, when I was introduced to the situation of facility chemical poisoning of a community, Love’s Canal, with a professor Addie Levine.
And later moving back home and discovering Cancer Alley in New Orleans and working with Dr. Robert Bullard, in Houston where they were trying to put a landfill in a middle class Black community. Bob said to me, “I bet this is going on in other places.” So, I began working with him uncovering what was happening in Louisiana.
But, the beginning really was a call from Charles Lee, from the United Church of Christ, who had discovered an article that Bullard and I had written called the “So began our connection with UCC and the University of Michigan. And it took off from there.
[Charles Lee followed that initial research with a study Toxic Waste and Race which became the lynchpin for environmental justice activism 35 years ago.]
GM: Mustafa became a hero to many people last year, tell us about your decision?
Mustafa Santiago Ali: I didn’t have a decision in it when I resigned from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 8, 2017. Because the proposals that I had seen from both (incoming EPA Administrator) Scott Pruitt and the president. I knew that the choices that they wanted to move forward on would be devastating to our communities. So I respectfully submitted my letter of resignation.
Because Administrator Pruitt had shared in his Senate confirmation that he didn’t know a whole lot about environmental justice, I decided to take that as an educational opportunity to share with him some of the tools that were within the agency and how communities had played such a critical role in the progress that had happened to date.
Every administration that comes in has the opportunity to be a champion of environmental justice and a champion for communities unless they decide not to. And we know based upon the decisions that we’ve seen made, that they have chosen not to.
GM: Even in light of the political siege, victories have been scored over the years as the EJ movement has grown and built support. Tell us about some of the victories?
Vernice Miller-Travis: President Bill Clinton’s executive order on environmental justice in February of 1994 was one victory. That was the culmination of a tremendous grassroots effort to get the EPA and other branches of the federal government to pay attention to the inequities and suffering that communities were enduring due to lax enforcement, or nonexistent enforcement, of existing environmental laws affecting people of color, poor people, immigrants, low income and working class communities all over this country.
So when President Clinton signed the executive order, that was a big thing. It mandated that all federal agencies had to look at how their policies and practices could adversely affect communities of color and to make sure that they were doing things in concert with all of the guidance and requirements of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the EPA was flagrantly violating.
Another victory, on the last day of the Obama administration, we had really been throwing down – we meaning a collection of Environmental Justice advocates, Civil Rights and environmental attorneys – had been really pressing EPA to live up to the full promise of the Civil Rights Act and make sure that people were not receiving monies at the state and local government levels implementing environmental laws and programs in ways that made life more difficult for people of color or ignored the struggles and environmental threats that they were facing. They rolled out their Civil Rights enforcement, three affirmative findings of racial discrimination – the first time in the 47-year history of the agency.
GM: Leslie, please focus on a victory that you, the Sierra Club and EJ activists have s scored recently.
Leslie Fields: There are a lot of wins. Any victory takes a lot of people, a sustained push and effort that comes from kitchen table advocacy, countless meetings, and countless people organizing. A few years ago, on the US-Mexico border in El Paso, there was a horrible smelter called the Asarco smelter. That smelter had been around for 100 years and was one of the worst cases of environmental racism. They would run the lead smelter at night when the winds blew south so that all of the pollution went across to Juarez, Mexico.
And the people in Mexico, right across the river, could do nothing about it. For almost 100 years, this pollution was drifting across the river to a country that could do nothing about it. So we had a great organizer, Mariana Chu, and hundreds of activists got that smelter closed and torn down.
Another one here locally in DC, is the cleanup of the Anacostia River. That was a long fight. A lot of organizations and community activists were involved – people like Dennis Chesnut, Brenda Richardson, the Earth Conversation Core, the Anacostia Watershed City, the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, but the people who really identified the filth and contamination of the river were the Seafarers, a yacht club of African American men. And they were the ones who sounded the alarm on the pollution and how horribly filthy it was.
Since we have a combined sewer overflow system – when we have a heavy rain event, the sewers are opened up and the water flows straight into the Anacostia River. Now they’re building the reservoir to hold the sewage when there’s a rain event, we’ve been paying for this through our water bill so that the water can be processed properly now. But the river is demonstrably cleaner.
GM: We’re talking about victories, but we also see the gentrification in Anacostia. There’s going to be a clean river, and people are going to be out there swimming, but it’s not going to be the people who lived there when that river was too dirty to even get near. How do we address that?
VMT: That’s a conundrum that we struggle with all of the time. So someone who used to serve on the board of the nonprofit that I helped start in Harlem [WE ACT], helped deal with these issues. She said after we battled the sewage treatment plant and got them to fix the problem and transition the bus depot to use natural gas, cleaner burning, after we got them to move the marine transfer station where all of the garbage trucks used to come. After we did all of that, which took us a good 20 years – then Columbia University decided to build a new campus right there facing the Hudson River. So my colleague said “Who knew we were doing all of this work for Columbia University? Who knew?”
GM: Let’s talk about climate change. There’s been a huge amount of progress made even in the face of resistance and brick walls. We’ve bulldozed some of those. Beverly, you’ve scored a very big victory along with your colleague Bob Bullard around climate change.
BW: As it relates to climate change and gentrification – New Orleans is the poster child for what has happened. New Orleans is being gentrified at warp speed thanks to millions of dollars pouring in after Hurricane Katrina. So climate change is really changing the landscape. For the first time, we’re almost teetering on the edge of being predominately white, but even more than that the income disparity is the scariest thing because very wealthy white people are moving to New Orleans. The median income for whites is higher than the national average, whereas we have lost 4 points as African Americans going under the poverty line.
We’re poorer now than we were before the storm. And we are watching historic neighborhoods, like the 6th Ward where Louis Armstrong was born and where the Mardi Gras Indians originated, is changing so quickly. And you know it’s gentrification because you’re almost run over by bicycles. Whenever bike lanes are created, the next thing you know white people are there in large numbers and you can barely drive cars.
When they start building supposed low income housing and they create soccer fields and no basketball courts, then you know they’re not planning that for us. A friend of mine said right after Katrina that if we did not look at the rebuilding of the city through a racial equity lens we would see a huge transformation from Black to white.
GM: Talk about your climate change initiative. New Orleans is the poster child for the impact of climate change on people’s lives. Katrina wasn’t just an issue of the levees.
BW: Dr. Bullard and I for the last 30-40 years have been working inside of universities with communities. We have been trying to push this concept forward that I call “communiversity.”
For the first time in all these years, the Kellogg Foundation actually funded our HBCU CBO (community based organization) Equity Project. We are currently working in 5 Gulf Coast states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas)with 5 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in those states to take a deep dive into some of the issues related to climate change and resilience for thei communities.
In each state we have one community that’s been devastated by environmental injustices and impacted by climate change. We also have our HBCU climate change conference where we bring together Black students from all over the country, as far away as Howard University and Lincoln University in Philly.
GM: To zero-in, Mustafa you and the Hip Hop Coalition are doing some cool stuff. Tell us.
MSA: We approach it in a number of different ways. One of them is the Respect My Vote Campaign. If we are not voting, then policy is not going to look like it should to be beneficial to our communities. The resources are not going to make it into our communities.
So we are blessed to be working with a number of artists who use their platform to make sure that people are getting engaged in the civic process. The other part is People’s Climate Music. In 2014, we put out the HOME album (Heal Our Mother Earth). We had incredible artists like Ne-Yo, Common, Antonique Smith, Elle Varner. Those individuals have a real connection because they come from these communities and can speak to what’s going on around civil rights, social justice, environmental justice, and climate have the ability to touch folks.
We know hundreds and sometimes thousands of scientists may share information, but only maybe 10% of folks will pay attention to it. But, if you have someone like Jay Z, Beyoncé, Common, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa sharing information then everyone pays attention.
GM: Let’s rewind to 1991. In the interest of full disclosure, I was involved in managing the communications planning and strategy for what was called the First National People of Color Summit on the Environment. Vernice, could you share and reflect on what that event meant and what happened going forward?
VMT: About 700 people came together at the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. We developed, debated and voted on and accepted, approved and affirmed the principles of Environmental Justice. The 17 Principles of EJ are things we thought were important to bring to the conversation about environment, race and class…and disproportionate impact, and informed consent, and the rights of indigenous people and their sovereign rights to make sure that their environments are safe. We covered a whole gambit of issues.
We were opposed to militarism because militarism is one of the most environmentally destructive things you could do to the earth and to all living things. These things were core values and still resonate today.
The most important thing was the democratic process that we engaged in with people not only from across the US ((mainland) but from the Marshall Islands, from Puerto Rico, from American Samoa, from some African nations.
GM: The fight and struggle is something we’re trying to amplify. You don’t get wins without waging these struggles. How can people who are not activists or tied into a movement, get involved?
VMT: Get engaged in political process. Vote. Many communities of color don’t often participate in the political process, which allows folks to make decisions that adversely affects our lives. So the first thing you must do is vote. In Harlem we mobilized people to vote first and then we discussed environmental issues. And we ran our own candidates because people who look like us were not defending our interests. Stay informed on issues. Come to hearings, council meetings, you have to show up.
LF: Anyone can get involved. You can be a student or a grandma – that’s the beautiful thing about Environmental Justice, there’s room for everybody. You don’t have to have any special qualifications. Just care about your community, care about what’s going on across the street from you. Care about your neighborhood.
To find out more about getting involved in the fight for environmental justice check out the links below.