Community-Based Action

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As communities of color continue to be targeted by extreme environmental conditions, they are finding unique and creative ways to express their opposition to further environmental degradation. They are also educating youth and kids about environmental issues to ensure a more aware and conscious citizen population. One very interesting project has been lead by Seattle’s community members and is outlined in Clayton Aldern’s article, “Seattle’s new environmental justice agenda was built by the people it affects the most.” Some of their environmental justice agenda items include increased citizen participation and green careers:

  1. “Design environmental policies and programs that acknowledge the cumulative impacts of environmental, racial, and socioeconomic burdens, such that Seattle ensures “clean, healthy, resilient, and safe environments” for communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with low incomes, youth, and those with limited English.”
  2. “Create opportunities for “pathways out of poverty through green careers.” One strategy, for example, advocates for “support structures for people of color to lead in environmental policy/program work through positions in government and partnerships with community organizations, businesses and other environmental entities.””
  3. “When crafting environmental policies and programs, ensure that affected communities have “equitable access, accountability, and decision-making power.””
  4. “Center community stories and narratives and “lift up existing culturally appropriate environmental practices” during the decision-making process.”

As someone who is interested in community organizing, especially in the environmental justice field, I enjoy learning what strides communities are making. I strongly believe that if someone is invested in creating change in a community, it is vital to immerse oneself in the community and let the community members guide your response to the problems they face. Going into a community with an “I am going to fix all of your problem’s” attitude and not understanding the dynamic of the community is a problem that many engineers face. I try my best to learn from the people first, then impose my thoughts onto the situation at hand, so reading these steps helps provide insight into a community’s needs.

 

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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.

Sources:

http://www.pachamama.org/news/race-and-class-privilege-in-the-environmental-movement

http://www.diversegreen.org/the-challenge/

 

 

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.

Article Spotlight: Perspectives on the California Drought

Article Spotlight:

The California Drought: Who Gets The Water And Who’s Hung Out To Dry?

Earthjustice’s feature on the The California Drought: Who Gets The Water And Who’s Hung Out To Dry? presents multiple perspectives on the crisis. The article shares a range of voices including independent farmers, ranchers, and fishermen in the Bay Area Delta, a water policy expert, and a Native American tribal leader in California. Earthjustice raises concerns about the interests of industries such as commercial agriculture and fracking in California as the drought continues:

That wasteful, polluting practices like oil and gas exploration are allowed to continue in the midst of an acute water shortage shows there is still a long way to go toward rethinking the management of such a precious resource. That massive, taxpayer-subsidized farms are planting water intensive crops like almonds in the middle of semi-arid regions that, even in a wet year, don’t naturally receive enough rainfall to sustain the crops should force a similar rethinking of California’s agricultural practices.”

I thought this article effectively demonstrated that the question of water rights, especially in a time of scarcity, cannot be resolved simply. Oftentimes, the people who are most severely affected by the drought also depend on water in some way for their livelihoods, and ensuring equity can become a problem when it’s individuals against industries fighting for the same limited resources, for survival.