The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Celebrating 25 Years of Environmental Justice
An important anniversary rolls around at the end of this month. It has been 25 years since one of the landmark events modern environmentalism -- the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.
This anniversary is a fitting occasion to remember that meeting, to recall its roots, and to celebrate the ongoing contributions of the environmental justice movement.
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For four days in late October, 1991, a remarkable collection of leaders gathered in Washington, DC. 300 African, Latino, Native, and Asian Americans from all 50 states -- joined by delegates from Puerto Rico, Canada, Central and South America, and the Marshall Islands -- set in motion a process of redefining environmental issues in their own terms. (The summit meeting is described in a powerful contemporary article by Dana Alston, who recognized that "the atmosphere in which environmental issues are debated and resolved is changed for good. And for the better.")
The summit brought together people with shared experiences of being marginalized, and of bearing disproportionate impacts from pollution and environmental destruction. But the groups they represented also had dealt with very different issues, and had differing ways of thinking, organizing and acting. They had often been divided by region, language, culture and class. The summit's first task was to build understanding and trust among divergent, and sometimes conflicting, groups.
The success of that group-building is revealed in the signature document from the summit, simply titled "Principles of Environmental Justice". Affirmed by consensus, the principles list 17 points that define the core assertions, goals and demands of environmental justice.
As I re-read the short preamble and the 17 principles -- all fitting on a single page -- I am struck by how bold that statement was, and how timely it still is. The principles are an affirmative declaration of rights and values that resonate in today's headlines. The ongoing protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, against the Dakota Access pipeline, for example, stand squarely in the tradition of the principles.
I was blessed this week by attending an event that observed the anniversary of the 1991 summit. At this year's Americas Latino Eco Festival, held in Denver, a series of commemorative presentations and panels included folk with deep roots in the environmental justice movement, and many who are current activists in the cause.
Dr. Benjamin Chavis gave a brief keynote talk. Ben, then working with the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, was one of the organizers of the summit. He reminded us of some of the precursors to the People of Color gathering.
Back in 1982, one of the first dramatic protests against environmental racism took place in Warren County, North Carolina. Among North Carolina's 100 counties, Warren had the highest percentage of African American residents. And it was in that county that state officials planned to bury vast quantities of dirt contaminated with the toxic compound PCB. 500 people -- mostly women, Chavis reminded us -- blocked the road leading to the landfill, and were arrested. The dirt was placed in the landfill, which then leaked toxins into the shallow water table, polluting wells that nearby residents used for drinking water.
Warren County was not an isolated fluke. In 1987, the United Church of Christ published the groundbreaking statistical survey, "Toxic Waste and Race", which drew on census data and EPA information to show that toxic "superfund" sites are disproportionately located in communities of color. It is race, not income, which is most closely correlated with the location of those polluted sites. (A follow-up study 20 years later revealed that disproportionately large numbers of people of color still live in hazardous waste host communities, and that they are not equally protected by environmental laws.)
The 1991 summit included testimonies of many communities -- Black, Latino, Native, and Pacific -- which had experienced these impacts, and which had acted with protests and resistance. Alston wrote in 1991, "These struggles, some of them more than 15 years old, dispel the myth that people of color are not interested in or active on issues of the environment."
Dr. Chavis this week pointed out that the fight against environmental racism (a term that he coined) already was well established. One of the gifts of the summit was to spell out in the 17 principles a positive statement and a set of definitions that could be used in making claims about injustice. That positive statement, affirmed by such a diverse community, transformed scattered protests into an coordinated movement.
One of the lasting impacts of the summit is the establishment of the notion of "environmental justice" as a legal and ethical principle. The work of the United States Environmental Protection Agency is shaped by environmental justice priorities. In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations". Both of these can be seen as direct outcomes of the People of Color summit.
The environmental justice movement provided a direct challenge and a helpful corrective to the big-name environmental groups. On one side, the EJ advocates protested the predominantly white staffing and leadership of the prominent groups, and documented many cases where those groups ignored or rejected the wishes of impacted minority communities. They demanded to be included and heard, especially in situations directly involving their own communities.
The emerging notion of environmental justice also challenged a pervasive idea in mainstream environmentalism -- that "the environment" was best found in pristine and remote natural settings. Environmental justice set forth the definition that, "the environment is where we live and work, play and pray." (It is now sometimes expressed as "play, learn and pray.") this redefinition of the environment as local, damaged, and of immediate importance is one of the great gifts of the environmental justice movement.
The activists taking part in this week's panel highlighted many ways in which the movement that was born at the 1991summit is still enriching and shaping the broader movement. In one prominent example, a New York City organizer pointed out that the People's Climate March -- with 400,000 people on the streets of the city in 2014 -- was so large and so influential because it brought together such a wide variety of people. After that march, it was impossible to say that only affluent white folk care about the climate. The important theme of climate justice, which looks globally at human rights and equity, is itself an expression of the environmental justice principles.
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The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit of 1991 is a foundational chapter in the history of environmental activism, in the US and around the world. The 300 delegates created a philosophical claim for ecological integrity and social justice, and they brought to life an empowered and coordinated movement.
It is indeed true that "the atmosphere in which environmental issues are debated and resolved is changed for good. And for the better." All of us who are committed to caring for God's creation should be immensely grateful for the movement born in 1991.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of that important summit, I urge you to read the Principles of Environmental Justice -- and to be challenged by those wise and concise statements. Reflect on ways in which you see the continuing relevance of the environmental justice cause. And, to most genuinely honor this anniversary, consider ways in which you can support the ongoing work of environmental justice.
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