Environmental Justice logo - the earth globe held by hands of different colors
I happened to read an article over at Colorlines a while ago, Mainstream Green Is Still Too White, which addressed the failure of The American Clean Energy and Security Act, discussing the lack of engagement and mobilization by mainstream (mostly white) environmental groups of poor people of color who "bear a disproportionate burden of climate change."  

It made me think about how I have viewed my own activism over the years, and how the framing of black, brown, red and yellow folks community struggles are often simply tagged "civil rights" or "human rights" or battles against racism and xenophobia and white privilege, or for immigration reform, better education, health care, housing, voting rights—without a "green movement" tag attached.

This disconnect is clearly not real, given the historic participation of so many people of color in the battle for environmental justice, which cannot be separated from the existence of and struggle against environmental racism, and yet too often in my own community the thoughts shared with me about "the green movement" tend to be "oh, that's liberal white folks stuff" and some other comments I won't repeat here. When I look at polling data about the top priorities in our communities of color, "green" is nowhere on the lists, and yet "health and health care" are often up at the top.

We know that many of the ills that plague poor communities, especially in communities of color, are directly related to toxic waste dumps located in or next to our neighborhoods, garbage, sewage dumps, the link between cockroaches, rats and asthma rates, poor quality food—there are hundreds and hundreds of studies that prove this.

Across the nation there are a slew of community groups who continue to fight back against the disproportionate burden we have dumped upon us.

I became an applied medical anthropologist, focused on health and healing issues in communities of color—both here and in the Caribbean—later in my life as a direct result of political activism in the late 60s and 70s.

Looking back at that time, it was only recently that I realized that at no point in those early years did I or any of my comrades in struggle think of ourselves as part of a green movement. Not one of us ever said "we're environmentalists." Yet, in truth, we were.

I'd like to share some of that history with you.

Follow me below the fold for more, and suggestions for taking action.

In a conversation with a close friend and sister, Iris Morales, while writing a foreword to The Young Lords Reader, reviewing our participation in the late 60s and early 70s in the Young Lords Party, and the community programs we were part of which we called “ofensivas” or “offensives," we both recognized that our program and platform and how that played out on the streets had very clear relationships to the “environment”—our neighborhoods, our communities health and well-being.

We just didn’t have a label for it called “green.”

At the time we  thought of “green” as something middle and upper-class white people were into. They were "tree hugging" and "saving whales," while we were in the streets fighting with racist cops and trying to get health services, and food on the table. We were fighting to stay alive, survive and organize.

So our community programs—shared with the Black Panther Party—like Free Breakfast for Children and the People's Housing Coalition, and Health Revolutionary Unity Movement (HRUM) activism around lead poisoning and TB and hospitals that would serve rather than kill people were never presented to our community with a "green tag." It is only in retrospect that I can see that we were young environmentalists.

Our very first street initiative in New York City, after surveying the community, and asking people what they thought was the problem at the top of their list (not ours), got a surprising answer. It wasn’t cops, drugs, crime or schools.

It was "la basura"—the garbage— that filled the streets, and was piled up in stinking alleyways and vacant lots.

I wasn’t a stranger to “garbage issues” in places where people of color lived. In the middle 1960’s, living in Washington, D.C., I participated in PRIDE Inc., which had as its primary focus the attempt to rid the back alleys of rats—giant ones, which flourished in the Chocolate City simply because there was no daily garbage pickup. At that time the city had no home rule.

It was so bad back then, I had to buy a shotgun to shoot at rats to scatter them to take my garbage out the back door and down to the alley.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when folks living in the same conditions in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem), as folks in D.C. demanded of us in 1969 that we do something about the garbage.

This group believed in confrontational protests so that they could receive attention from city and government officials. One of such confrontational protests conducted by the Young Lords was the Garbage Offensive in August 1969 in response to the deplorable sanitary conditions of East Harlem. Garbage was only regularly collected from wealthier, white sections of the city while East Harlem was ignored -- mostly due to the ethnic and immigrant status that most of the community had. "White affluent areas were serviced properly with regular garbage pick-ups, while Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods were left in unhealthy conditions" (The Prolibertad Freedom Campaign Newsletter, August 2009, E2). New York City Officials were asked several times to correct the situation, but this was not working. The Sanitation Department failed to recognize any problems associated with garbage collection in East Harlem, noting that the area "gets maximum service" and that "all possible help [is given] to neighborhood clean-up programs." (Fried)

So with no other options, the Young Lords and "residents of the area around Park Avenue and 110th Street joined in heaping and burning garbage at several intersections." (Fried) An anonymous Young Lord going by the name Yoruba said,
"we don't want violence for violence's sake, and we don't want to dump garbage in the street...but if we have to go through a mountain of red tape, if there's never any action by the city, then we have no choice." (Fried, NY Times)

This protest was successful in that it effectively increased awareness to the needs of Puerto Ricans in East Harlem, which was illustrated by sanitation becoming a major issue in the coming mayoral election.

The next issues we took on were lead poisoning caused by lead based paint in tenements owned by slumlords, TB spread by overcrowded living conditions and lack of access to quality health care, or even testing (we kidnapped a TB truck from a wealthy neighborhood and brought it to East Harlem), and Lincoln Hospital, where botched abortions were performed and rats ran across operating tables. We took over the hospital in a sit-in participated in by community folks, hospital workers and doctors.

Teresa Horvath discusses this in detail in "The Health Initiatives of the Young Lords Party."

Details she doesn't mention or didn't know, was that the success of the lead poisoning testing involved engaging local street heroin injectors (tecatos) in the drawing of bloods from the children who had tested positive in urine samples, since the doctors we had engaged in the beginning weren't very good at it, and then getting those same addicts off of drugs and into the organization.

Why do I bring this history up? Because 1970 saw the launch of Earth Day, and there was a huge demonstration/celebration on New York's 5th avenue. Mayor John Lindsay blocked the streets and the crowd was massive (reportedly over a million people) and overwhelmingly white.

Fast forward to 2008 in Philadelphia, and a discussion of Earth Day there.

Kathleen Rogers is the president of the Earth Day network. Ms. Rogers, how did you come to feel Earth Day needs more diversity?

ROGERS: I was sort of dumbstruck – when we started doing surveys of the environmental membership, and I discovered that the average age was somewhere between 51 and 55 and we were almost exclusively white. And I found that disturbing. It was a study that we did ourselves, and we all took a deep breath and said, ‘we need to change things.’ If we want to be powerful, then we need to bring many more people into this movement.

CURWOOD: Why has being green also traditionally meant being white?

ROGERS: Well, I think because, in large part the membership in the environmental community has been white. And so, if you’re looking at the first Earth Day event, which was part anti-war, part environment, and you look at subsequent events, people tend to think about the environment after they’ve taken care of their basic needs. And so the upper-middle class population of this country – again, largely white for many, many years – were those tried and true members that also became activists.

Book cover:  Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices From the Grassroots  Robert D. Bullard (Editor), Benjamin Chavis Jr. (Foreword)  
We knew about activities that were already taking place on the West Coast, starting in the early 1960s, where Cesar Chavez was organizing farm workers. By the later 60s the United Farm Workers were addressing pesticides, and the effects on farm workers and consumers.

But it wasn't till 1999 that a major book compiling the history of environmental racismwas published and distributed widely—a direct result of a groundbreaking first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held on Oct. 24-27, 1991, in Washington, D.C.

Barely do people get the opportunity to participate in historic events. But each of the 300 African, Latino, Native, and Asian Americans from all 50 states who gathered for the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in late October must have left with a sense that the atmosphere in which environmental issues are debated and resolved is changed for good. And for the better.

Joined by delegates from Puerto Rico, Canada, Central and South America, and the Marshall Islands, those present at the October 24-27 meeting in Washington, D.C., set in motion a process of redefining environmental issues in their own terms. People of color gathered not in reaction to the environmental movement, but rather to reaffirm their traditional connection to and respect for the natural world, and to speak for themselves on some of the most critical issues of our times. For people of color, the environment is woven into an overall framework and understanding of social, racial, and economic justice. The definitions that emerge from the environmental justice movement led by people of color are deeply rooted in culture and spirituality, and encompass all aspects of daily life—where we live, work, and play. This broad understanding of the environment is a context within which to address a variety of questions about militarism and defense, religious freedom and cultural survival, energy and sustainable development, transportation and housing, land and sovereignty rights, self-determination, and employment.

For instance, it has been known that communities of color are systematically targeted for the disposal of toxic wastes and the placement of this country's most hazardous industries—a practice known as "environmental racism." Three out of five black and Hispanic Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites, while about half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans live in such areas. Government, church, and academic research has confirmed that race is the strongest determining factor (among all variables tested) in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. Even armed with this knowledge, delegates were shaken by the reports of widespread poisoning, oppression, and devastation that communities of color are experiencing—including water, air, and land contamination, which cause cancers, leukemia, birth defects, and miscarriages.

At the summit a statement of principles was adopted:  
17 Principles of Environmental Justice

WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives, which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice:

    Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.
    Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
    Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.
    Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threatens the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.
    Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
    Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.
     Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
    Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.
     Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.
    Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
    Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.
    Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provide fair access for all to the full range of resources.
    Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color.
    Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multinational corporations.
    Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.
     Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations with emphasis on social and environmental issues based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.
    Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth's resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

Adopted at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, October 24-27, 1991, Washington D.C.

There is no lack of activity taking place in communities of color around environmental justice and the inter-connected issue of environmental racism.

Yet the perception of us as somehow not green, and not part of the larger movements around climate change and green movement continues. "Green" is still portrayed as white in the traditional media, and is thought to be so in the minds of quite a few folks of color.

In the Afrosphere, I found this comment over at Madame Noire:

It’s not so much that whites have more of a greener sensibility than nonwhites, but rather when it comes to environmental issues, we’re not speaking the same language. Recycling, investing in solar energy, saving the polar bears and driving a Prius, while all commendable, does not carry the same urgency if your house is located near a Brownfield or nuclear reactors. Moreover, much of the agenda of the modern day green movement, which has placed the well being of the environment over the well being of humans, has amounted to nothing more than a form of eco-imperialism. This is why many minority environmentalists have declined to join large environmental organizations and are instead fighting on the grassroots level for environmental justice.

What can we do to change this?

We have a regular, extensive rescue of and listing of diaries (thank you Meteor Blades) that are green on the front page.

We have a community group, EcoJustice which states in its profile:

A key focus of our writing is the environmental impacts on minority communities in countries around the world. A key tenet of Environmental Justice is that all living things have a right to clean, healthy and sustainable communities. Today, the concept of Environmental Justice extends to include such related issues as climate, food and ecosystem justice.
We have very few diaries that are tagged "environmental racism."

I went back to see look at the first one here at Daily Kos, which was authored by Page van der Linden in 2004:

'Environmental racism': hazardous waste near Native American reservations. All in all I only found 31 diaries with that tag. There are however probably many more that could have utilized it.

Among the highlights were:

Fri Mar 23, 2007 at 08:46 AM EDT
Their Water Was Poisoned by Chemicals. Was Their Treatment Poisoned by Racism?

an article in Black Kos, week in review
by dopper0189

Tue Jan 29, 2008 at 11:05 AM EST
Environmental racism, environmental justice: What have these terms meant?
by Nuisance Industry

Mon Nov 02, 2009 at 09:59 PM EST
EcoJustice: Getting a taste of what it means to be Black
by citisven

Fri Sep 10, 2010 at 02:55 PM EDT
Eco White Privilege
by Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse

Mon Feb 21, 2011 at 10:01 PM EST
EcoJustice: Green and White ???
by soothsayer99 for EcoJustice

Fri Aug 19, 2011 at 05:00 PM EDT
Stop Tar Sands: Scars Upon Sacred Land IV: "A Slow Industrial Genocide"
by Aji

and my own recent:

Thu May 09, 2013 at 07:50 AM EDT
Raw sewage dumped into black community backyards in GA

Missing were pieces focusing on the Asian American EJ movement, like this one by Krie Nguyen, "Asian-American Environmental Justice Movement: Asian Americans are becoming increasingly influential in effecting policy change."

There is a wealth of information available about local groups in communities of color, their issues and their activism.  

This TedTalk by Peggy Shepard, tells the history of We Act's community mobilization since 1988, in Harlem, in which she uses the term "Sacrifice Zones," which is also part of the title of an important book by Steve Lerner, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States.

Across the United States, thousands of people, most of them in low-income or minority communities, live next to heavily polluting industrial sites. Many of them reach a point at which they say "Enough is enough." After living for years with poisoned air and water, contaminated soil, and pollution-related health problems, they start to take action--organizing, speaking up, documenting the effects of pollution on their neighborhoods. In Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner tells the stories of twelve communities, from Brooklyn to Pensacola, that rose up to fight the industries and military bases causing disproportionately high levels of chemical pollution. He calls these low-income neighborhoods "sacrifice zones." And he argues that residents of these sacrifice zones, tainted with chemical pollutants, need additional regulatory protections.

Over the coming months, I'm going to write more pieces on these issues, and attempt to focus on what isn't being covered.

But I implore those of you who are currently writing green to take a look at the movements you are focused on, or involved in, and to include and reach out to groups of people of color in your area who are fighting for green too. If you belong to environmental groups that are all white—ask, why? I have recently raised that question right here in the Hudson Valley of New York, where there is a well-organized resistance to hydro-fracking. But the meetings I've been to here in Ulster County were almost all white, yet our census demographics show 20.5 percent people of color.

Can you identify issues or areas of concern that may be causing a disconnect? I had a conversation on Tuesday with one of our very active town Democrats, who are pretty progressive around environmental issues. I wondered, and asked him outright, why I never see almost any poc's at local meetings, or town votes? At many meetings and gatherings I am the only one.  

Help make spread the word about efforts of groups like Green For All whose webpages and programs like "I am the Green Economy" visually highlight faces of many colors.  

They even have music, a great way spread the message to young people, especially young people of color.

The end result will be stronger coalitions, and help us ensure environmental justice for all.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jul 28, 2013 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges, Black Kos community, LatinoKos, Progressive Policy Zone, DK GreenRoots, Climate Change SOS, EcoJustice, and White Privilege Working Group.

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