Community-Based Action


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.



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.




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.