Unpacking the lack of diversity in the environmental justice movement

The environmental movement has been criticized as a luxury movement for decades, a movement meant solely for the white and middle-class. Why has this assumption lasted throughout the years? To answer this question, we have to understand the role of race and class privilege in the general environmental movement and the environmental justice movement.

In the appropriately titled article, Race and Class Privilege in the Environmental Movement, Gregory Mengel draws on previous activist works to examine the lack of diversity in the environmental movement and the role that privilege plays in perpetuating this phenomenon. He starts with the claim that we must, “engage the entire human family.” I agree – it’s important to expand the reach of sustainability and for environmental activists to emphasize the universality of environmental change. Mengel also emphasizes how easy it is to be blind to the inequalities pervasive in daily life and in activism, citing cognitive dissonance as the source.

“Cognitive dissonance, whereby the brain essentially rewires itself so as to not perceive aspects of the world that present painful contradictions or challenge one’s sense of identity.”

This analysis interests me, coming from a psychology/neuroscience background. Cognitive dissonance (coupled with guilt, lack of perspective on what “normal” entails, et cetera) may very well be the reason for the lack of understanding within the activist community, the refusal to address the diversity issue that is very much a problem. Reiterating Mengel, this doesn’t mean that the people in the environmental justice movement are bad people; nonetheless, it does mean that a perspective shift is necessary.

The list that Mengel provides is helpful as a starting point. These items should spark conversation as well as an initial shift in perspective that encourages people to change their baseline assumptions of privilege and the lack thereof as related to sustainability.

The featured five items from the list are:

  • I can, if I wish, purchase fresh local produce at my neighborhood farmer’s market.

  • Because I have had access to an abundance of consumer products all my life, I am able to derive both material and moral satisfaction from choosing a simplicity-based lifestyle.

  • I can take a nap in a public park without it being assumed that I might be homeless.

  • My sense of intimacy with the land does not entail spending all day in the hot sun picking strawberries or tending someone else’s lawn.

  • I can enjoy National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, imagining them as intact wildernesses because their establishment did not involve the forcible removal of my ancestors.

These items call into question previously held presumptions around sustainable food choices, green consumerism, public parks and other natural spaces, and romanticizing sustainability, reminding us to keep race and class in mind rather than getting swept up in the privilege that is often required to maintain the green living forced indiscriminately onto everyone in a well-intentioned but poorly informed push that alienates individuals without these privileges.

Ultimately, Mengel’s points are well-backed up by statistics, including those from The Green Insider’s Club, that reveals problems in the mainstream environmental movement including a green ceiling, pervasive discrimination and bias, and lackluster effort and disinterest in diversity.

Some of the statistics shocked me, especially concerning the lack of interest in NGO’s, government agencies, and foundations in promoting cultural initiatives externally or internally. However, this article ends with a positive spin that adds an element of logistical, concrete solutions that complement Mengel’s idealogical shift. By promoting tracking and transparency, accountability, and increased resources, it is possible to transform the environmental movement for the better.







The Garden of Environmental Justice


The Garden of Environmental Justice brings together elements that I believe are important, and in some cases, necessary, to advancing the environmental justice movement. These aspects of environmental justice have come up in many of the topics covered in class from gentrification to food deserts to toxic waste/chemical facilities.

  • Understanding and Recognizing Privilege
  • Inclusivity and Diversity
  • Community Input and Engagement
  • Grassroots Organization and Community Mobilization
  • Youth Power
  • Education and Raising Awareness
  • Corporate and Government Accountability
  • Allies and Supporting Organizations

Food deserts and insecurity

Technology /engineering field, being conscious of who my work affects and whether they are truly beneficial/useful for the communities/audience that uses/consumes them


What have you learned about different communication approaches regarding issues of environmental justice? (You can reflect on the narratives used by our guides at Veggielution and Chinatown Alleyway Tours, perspectives on how different forms of media approach EJ issues differently, as well as the course readings and your own experiences.) ! How might your experience in this class shape your understanding of the particular fields you plan to enter? What new goals can you now set for yourself as a student, activist, young adult, prospective employee as a result of what you have learned in this class?

Fossil Fuels, Renewables, and a Dangerous Double Standard

To me, stories of disease, health problems, and community disruption in Richmond and other East Bay communities located near oil refineries are sad, but also not surprising. Fossil fuel processes from beginning to end have dangerous side effects that pose public major health hazards. Whether it’s oil mining in South Los Angeles or coal mining in the Peruvian Andes, fossil fuel extraction damages whole communities and pollutes the environment. Transporting fossil fuels can lead to disastrous accidents, as seen in Porter Ranch (and I hope that the City of Benicia will say no to oil-transporting trains for their own safety). And of course, burning fossil fuels is extremely destructive for the environment at all scales, but has very negative impacts for communities near power plants and freeways, who are usually low-income and minority.

I experienced a small glimpse into the immense danger fossil fuels pose to communities in 2008, when the ash-retention pond used by a massive coal power plant in Tennessee burst open during a storm. The toxic grey sludge surged into Watts Bar Lake and sent huge floods of slurry across the low-lying surrounding area, destroying 42 houses, including the homes of my grandparents and my aunt and uncle. Thankfully nobody was killed, but these many families were forced to relocate and abandon their community, and the poisons released into the lake have severely decreased fish and wildlife populations. While this part of Appalachian East Tennessee is largely white, it is also very poor and uneducated, and most residents had no idea of the risks of the power plant nearby, nor were they given adequate compensation after the accident.

Keeping in mind all of these stories, I am always saddened at how little input communities have in what kinds of fossil-fuel facilities move into their areas and at how opaque these companies are about the dangers they pose. I am also reminded at the incredible promise of renewable energy, which offers a solution to our energy needs while posing essentially zero health consequences or risk to the larger world. Surely people of all classes and backgrounds would be proud to have these beacons of a brighter future in their yard, rather than burdening others with such dangerous, global-warming-inducing archaic options?

A rendering of how an offshore wind farm would appear from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo from Cape Wind Associates.

Unfortunately, it appears that some of the most privileged people in the world have such little empathy for others and such short-sightedness that they are spurning renewable energy for the most trivial of reasons. Ocean-side residents around the world, from Cape Cod to the Netherlands to Long Island to Ontario are protesting the construction of clean, dependable offshore wind farms because of perceived damage to their ocean views, and in many cases, these protests have helped to delay or cancel projects that would have greatly reduced the need for fossil fuel power plants in those areas. Perhaps greater education about the risks of fossil fuel power are needed, or perhaps the government needs to have a stronger hand when it comes to such important issues. However, it is clear that we cannot let such trivial objections stand in the way of solving the world’s greatest environmental justice issue.

Video on Privilege in Environment Issues

For my final project in this class, I created a short video that explores the role of privilege in environmental issues.

My Biology teacher in middle school once asked me, “Have you ever wondered why all the oil companies and industries are located in low-income neighborhoods with majority people of color?”

This question led me on a journey into grassroots community action to shut down a refinery in my hometown of Pittsburg, California.

Hear more about my personal exploration into privilege and environmental issues through this video:


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Environment, Race, and Socioeconomic Status

North Richmond.jpg

Throughout the quarter, our class has explored how race and socioeconomic status play a role in the environment. One article that our class read that is a good example of how the environment, race, and socioeconomic status interact is Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The Factory on the Hill by Jane Kay and Cheryl Katz. This article discusses the negative impact the Chevron Richmond Refinery has had on the residents of North Richmond, California.

“It’s the triple whammy of race, poverty, and environment converging nationwide to create communities near pollution sources where nobody else wants to live.”

– Jane Kay and Cheryl Katz

The communities of color in Northern Richmond have been victims to the refinery for over 100 years. Toxic emissions from the Richmond refineries are believed to increase residents risk of heart disease, stroke, and asthma.

This is only one example of environmental racism. Throughout the United States low income and people of color are forced to deal with the consequences of living in a poor environment. I believe that living in a clean, healthy, environment is a right and not a privilege. Regardless of race and socioeconomic status, no one should be subjected to living in an area that is detrimental to their health. In an ideal world refineries and other buildings that negatively affect the environment wouldn’t exist, but I believe that industries that produce toxic emissions should be relocated to areas where people do not live.

Environmental Justice and Privilege


The first wave of environmentalism that arose in the latter half of the last century was largely a white movement that grew out of idealism and a romantic picture of nature. It centered around the preservation of nature for the sake of nature rather than the impact that environmental destruction had on people’s lives, in particular the lives of marginalized peoples. It was therefore far removed from the lived experiences of people faced with the consequences of environmental destruction.

In the face of climate change the environmental movement has had to think in more global terms than ever. Terms like environmental justice and climate justice attempt to capture the intersectionality between environmentalism and other forms of social injustice, particularly wealth inequality and racism. And yet even today the environmental movement is largely a white movement, or at least the mainstream environmental movement is largely disconnected from grassroots environmental justice activism. By excluding people of color from the environmental movement, we are painting a picture in which only white people care about sustainability, instead of one where people of color care strongly about these issues and how they pertain to their communities, and where they are recognized as an integral part of the environmental movement.

One problem is that environmentalism and sustainability mean completely different things to different people. While to one person it might mean buying vegetables at the local farmer’s market or putting solar panels on their roof, for someone else it might mean demanding clean air or reliable access to drinking water. It is therefore important to realize that our experiences with nature are largely defined by our privilege. We cannot ignore the intersectionalities surrounding the environmental movement. This holds true within the US, but even more so across countries.

What does it mean when Hilary Clinton pats herself on the back after the Paris climate agreement while countries across the world are already experiencing increased droughts and famines as a result of climate change. Similarly, how much does it really help if a wealthy Palo Alto tech entrepreneur spends thousands of dollars on a Tesla while communities in Richmond are still faced with the pollution of the oil refinery?

We can so conveniently ignore these other struggles that are not directly connected to our own lives and pick out the aspects of environmentalism that appeal to us and fit comfortably into our privileged life styles, but in order to create a movement that addresses all people’s concerns with regard to the environment they live in, we need to understand how our own privilege influences the ways in which we interact with, and seek to protect, the environment.

Environmental Justice and Feminism

Niger Delta

Article Spotlight:

The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni

The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni is about the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations (FOWA), an umbrella organization for all women’s groups of the Ogoni, an indigenous ethnic group in oil-rich regions of Nigeria. The authors give a brief history of the movement and then analyze how and why the movement has been so effective in organizing, expanding, and achieving its goals in both environmental justice and feminism.

This article reiterates the importance of environmental justice as a movement that serves underserved communities as well as the realization that women often unjustly bear the burdens of environmental harms as one of the underserved communities. FOWA is an incredible movement that supports the Ogoni women through various means, fighting against the air and water pollution resulting from oil production as well as domestic violence, contraception, and sexual education.

A Tale of Two Cities: Environmental Justice and Transportation

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is a local non-profit organization that strives for environmental justice for all, specifically focusing on environmental justice for Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Recently, APEN held a protest to show their “opposition to oil trains moving through Richmond and the Bay Area” (APEN). Ethan Buckner, a campaigner at the protest, stated that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District allowed the Kinder Morgan company to bring more oil trains through the Bay Area without consulting the public. By bringing more oil trains through the Bay Area, Buckner argues that the Kinder Morgan company is threatening the lives of millions of Californians. Beyond disregarding public opinion and increasing oil trains through the Bay Area, the Kinder Morgan company is also practicing environmental racism. The Crude Injustice report shows that oil trains often travel through poor communities of color yet rarely travel through affluent white neighborhoods. In Richmond, the community residing within the danger zone from trains transporting oil is comprised 90% by people of color. The Kinder Morgan company is clearly exploiting communities of the Bay Area and especially its people of color. These injustices need to stop and I’m glad to learn that the APEN is fighting for environmental justice for all communities.

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Last year my community faced a similar situation regarding the introduction of a new high speed rail. Before I describe the situation my community experienced, it’s important to note that my town is affluent but diverse, so our experience is not of the same nature as the racially-based environmental injustices seen in Richmond.  About a year ago, the transportation committee of my town’s government began campaigning to gather support to build a high speed railway. This high speed rail would require a significant amount of tax dollars to build and result in very high speed trains streaking through town every few minutes during commuting hours and disrupting the town’s peacefulness. The transportation committee promoted the new high speed rail because it would run on electricity, have less of an environmental impact, and help improve transportation in the broader Bay Area. Regarding social equity, the high speed rail would result in environmental injustice for people living near the rails due to increased noise pollution. Since numerous citizens felt the addition of a high speed rail unfairly burden our town, in the name of improving broader Bay Area transportation, the city council ultimately struck down the proposed plan.

Although by striking down the plan my town avoided experiencing environmental injustice, this action does negatively impact other Bay Area residents that rely on public transportation. The train would have allowed more accessible and ‘cleaner’ transportation than the current system allowing lower income commuters that rely on public transportation to have a faster commute as well as more social mobility. Beyond improving social mobility a high speed rail running on electricity would also have led to decreased environmental impacts. According to Robert Cruickshank in Environmental Justice Does Not Mean What They Think It Means, “motor vehicles are responsible for 57% of the air pollution…” An efficient train run on ‘clean’ power could cut down the amount of air pollution in the Bay Area since people would rely on their cars less and decrease asthma risk caused by high pollution.

The situation my community faced is an example of the tradeoffs involved among communities regarding environmental justice. The citizens of my town felt that the burden of the high speed railway was too high of a cost and were able to block it. Although my community attained environmental justice for itself, it’s actions inhibited plans that would have helped people of other communities that depend on pubic transportation for social mobility.  For the parallel situation involving Kinder Morgan oil trains, the people of Richmond are facing an environmental injustice that is seriously threatening their safety.   Although Richmond based oil refineries would argue that inhibiting oil trains hurts their business interests, this claim is weak compared to the danger the oil trains pose to the community of Richmond. Whereas the affluent community of my town was able to politically forestall the high speed train, the much less affluent and minority community of Richmond has less political clout to fight off the environmental injustice of the oil trains

Environmental Racism in the Bay Area

unnamed“Have you ever wondered why all of the oil companies and industries are located in low-income neighborhoods with majority people of color?”

When my 9th grade Biology teacher asked our class this question, I was perplexed. Yet, being in an environment where students did not always challenge the authority nor immerse themselves in learning outside of the classroom, I was never really able to significantly ponder that question until 11th grade, when reality came crashing down.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Freedom Breathers, I became very acquainted with my city government, grassroots organizing, and, most importantly, knowledge, understanding, and questioning of complex and institutionalized injustices. From that experience, I learned that Pittsburg, California was only one of few marginalized communities that faces a large amount of industry, and thus, pollution, toxic plumes, and poor health conditions. I also learned that gentrification, income, skin color, education, and other factors are all linked, a concept that my freshman year Biology teacher had hinted at.

When reading the article, “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill,” I noticed a very interesting and important point: white people did not want African Americans entering or living in the same neighborhoods as them. This discrimination occurred during the World War 2 era, and still continues to this day. In fact, the tech boom has caused further acceleration of gentrification in most of the Bay Area.

Young, often white tech workers moved into San Francisco because of the many tech companies that house their headquarters in the city. The young tech workers are attracted to the city, and its abundance of food options, nightlife, and culture. Unfortunately, they are also affecting the local culture in a negative way, by pushing rents costs up. These higher costs can be afforded by the tech workers, but not the long-standing members of the community who are now being displaced out of San Francisco. These displaced people are often African Americans or Chicano/Latinos who have contributed to much of the culture and livelihood of the neighborhoods in San Francisco, such as the Mission District or Clarion Alley.

Where are these displaced people moving? They’re all being pushed more inland, to places like Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburg, and Antioch, where the population is predominantly low-income and from minority groups. They are being forced to live in places with limited resources and poor health conditions, which further divides the white population living in clean, healthy neighborhoods from the people of color living in – what should be -uninhabitable spaces.

These forced migrations into unsafe areas are definitely aspects of environmental racism. The fact that citizens in Porter Ranch, who are predominately white, received government help only a few months after a gas leakage, while communities of color facing environmental injustices continued to be ignored, even after years of asking for help. In many ways, discrimination against people of color is institutionalized and furthered by poor political practices.

I stand with the people of Richmond to increase more citizen level representation in city council and places of power, because only those who can identify with the issue can take the steps needed to fix it. By doing so, I hope that questions such as the one my 9th grade Biology teacher posed could be understood and discussed at an earlier age.


From fortune cookies to the story of Donaldina Cameron: My experience in Chinatown

CC BY-SA 2.0. Photographer:Ksayer1. Entitled: Fortune cookies 2

Last week our class visited 5 of the 41 alleyways in San Francisco’s Chinatown.An alleyway is defined as a street that is less than 32 feet wide between storefronts on either side of the street.

I had never been to Chinatown before and learning about it through a tour with Chinatown Alleyway Tours was an exciting and engaging experience for me. Through the tour we learned how the alleyways, have changed from dangerous walk ways that people avoided to the well lit and clean alleyways they are today. Additionally, the alleyways today reflect the culture and history and of Chinatown.

The alleyways used to have a high frequency of crime and grime since the city and the residents owning property on alleyways did not feel it was their responsibility to clean them up. The poor state of the alleyways motivated a group of teenagers to clean them themselves. Soon afterwards, store keepers became motivated by the teenagers and started cleaning the alleyways as well. The teenagers’ initiative to improve the alleyways is responsible for the pristine alleyways we see today and shows that teenagers can make a lasting impact in their towns.

The alleyways of Chinatown are historically rich. During our tour we visited a one room fortune cookie factory where the employees folded each tasty treat by hand. Although fortune cookies are often thought of as a part of Chinese cuisine, we learned that these cookies were originally created by a Japanese restaurant owner living in California who wanted to create a cookie that Americans would enjoy. His cookies proved to be very popular. When Japanese citizens were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II, the Chinese decided to start making fortune cookies. The cookies continued to be very popular and are still served today in American Chinese restaurants.

Not only are the alleyways historically rich they also reflect the culture of Chinatown. Today murals can be found in most of the alleyways. The murals were painted in the alleyways primarily to visually communicate the culture of Chinatown but also to discourage graffiti. Some alleyways also have themes, including the Alphabet Alleyway which shows the English alphabet ‘jumping’ down the sidewalk past an elementary school. I found the Cameron House located on the Alphabet Alleyway to be particularly fascinating. In the 1900s, Chinatown was a dirty and unsafe place. Many girls and woman who immigrated from China were enslaved in the brothels. Donaldina Cameron, a missionary, worked with policeman to rescue these enslaved immigrants. During the day she taught the rescued women to sow and cook, and during the night she disguised herself as a man and went to brothels where she would help the women escape. Donaldina’s story is one of courage and strength and is a great example of the rich history in Chinatown.

After our visit to Chinatown, I now appreciate the community for much more than the good food that can be found there. Chinatown has worked hard to maintain its culture and celebrate its history through the alleyways and community centers.