Looking Back, Looking Forward

25 Years of Environmental Justice

World Social Forum in Porto Alegre cc. 2004 Raquel Tannuri Santana

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The Exodus of the People of Mossville

March for Mossville on Sasol on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. © 2016 Liana Lopez @lianalisaa

By Rebecca O. Johnson

Mossville, a small community in Southwest Louisiana, was settled over 220 years ago by 12 Black families led by the freedman Jim Moss. At its founding in 1790, the area was still controlled by France and while Blacks weren’t fully enfranchised as citizens, the French government did allow African Americans to own land. Mossville wasn’t allowed to incorporate as a village or town, but it was one of those African American places that governed itself, schooled its children, grew food, fished and built businesses. A century and a half later, Mossville has survived annexation by the United States, the Civil War and Jim Crow rule of the 20th century. But today, the town stands on the brink of disappearing, wiped away by multinational petrochemical companies.

“Sasol can’t pay for our suffering, our pain and everything, but we got to get out to save our lives,” said Christine Bennett of Mossville Environmental Action Now, at a town hall meeting to address the ongoing buyout of the town by the South African petroleum conglomerate.

Sasol (originally known as the South African Coal Oil and Gas Corporation Limited) is one of the 14 refineries and chemical processing facilities operating out of the industrial zone surrounding Mossville. It had been, since its arrival in 2001, largely opaque in its operations and seemed relatively benign—as producers of industrial toxins go—to the people of the community. But about five years ago, the oil giant cut a deal with the State of Louisiana to build a gigantic new facility that would completely overshadow the town. Sasol had been approved to commence construction of the first shale gas to liquid (GTL) processing facility in the country.

March for Mossville on Sasol on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. © 2016 Liana Lopez @lianalisaaSasol, with the support of the state government of Gov. Bobby Jindal, presented a so-called “Voluntary Property Purchase Program (VPPP)” to the residents of Mossville. The residents, working with Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN), had been organizing for over 30 years on multiple fronts: advocating for environmental justice; educating residents about the health and environmental impacts of toxic pollution; attempting to compel federal and state environmental agencies to enforce human rights laws; and advocating for health services, relocation and pollution reduction to improve the lives and health of residents.

MEAN has shown that their community has been disproportionately affected by the more than 1,000 tons of toxins collectively emitted each year into the air, water and soil by the industrial plants surrounding the community. They have lobbied for many years for a just and fair relocation of their community to a safe, healthy and toxin-free location. The offer made by Sasol raised hope that the community would finally find the relief they desired.

At an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) town hall held in October 2016, Dorothy Felix, president of MEAN, described the sad circumstances that have led many in the community to consider accepting the buyout:

“Mossville was to us... the life to have. We had our schools, churches, stores, cafes and families helping families; sharing with each other. Families had gardens, fished for food, raised cattle, chicken, hogs and other animals for meat. After all the energy and effort we exerted to make Mossville our lovely community, the government ignored, completely disregarded our hard work by permitting the plants to move in and surround us.... Now there are 14 large plants around us... we have pollution—chemicals, toxins, releases, upsets and health problems. They continue to poison Mossville.”

I began working with Felix back in 2010. Mossville was already beginning to suffer from depopulation. Since then, Felix and I had been looking into something that the Calcasieu Parish government administrators of the area made sure not to study, that is, just how many of Mossville’s homes were actually inhabited. Back then, we counted 375 structures. In June 2016, we found about 100, by mid-October that had dropped to 88.

Mossville was more than a thorn in the side of the industries and the police jury (what we might call a county commission or council in other, less authoritarian places); it was land, the resource needed for expansion of their already enormous industrial footprint, inconveniently occupied by disposable Black people. The state and local governments were acting with the same twisted glee they had displayed with the evacuation of poor Black folk after Hurricane Katrina. The Black-majority town of Mossville has been very nearly ethnically cleansed. But despite this depopulation, they continue to fight on, kicking off 2016 with a Martin Luther King day action at Sasol.

What is a Voluntary Property Purchase Program?
What does voluntary mean? In the case of the VPPP, it doesn’t refer to the residents freely offering their properties to Sasol in an open market that recognizes the value of their land to the company’s current and future expansion plans and profits. The voluntary purchase program offered to Mossville, as well as those described below, use funding provided by local or state governments as industries seek to avoid regulatory scrutiny, accountability and the cost of environmental remediation. For example, among the most egregious enticements the state of Louisiana granted Sasol in exchange for building their GTL facility was $115 million to buy out the people of Mossville, and dispossess them of their ancestral land.

This is a battle that has gone on for several generations.

The circumstances that would bring Mossville to this moment, its demise in sight, can be traced back to 1934, the moment the state approved the construction of a 35-mile shipping channel from Lake Charles to a bayou called Calcasieu Pass.

In 1936 Louisiana instituted a 10-year industrial tax exemption (Allen 2002) for all refineries and chemical processors that built, expanded or improved in Louisiana. This is equivalent to a permanent exemption from paying taxes, undermining efforts in the 1920s to provide healthcare and education to the residents of Louisiana.

Soon, oil refineries would open—Continental Oil in 1941, Cities Service in 1942, Cit-Con in 1947, Esso Standard Oil and Shell in 1949—and continue with ever greater encroachment on the land and legacy of Mossville.

Felix recounted to me the oral history she had learned from that time.“I heard stories that when they built the plant where Georgia Gulf sits, in the 1950s, that there was a cemetery there, a Mossville cemetery. I heard they tore up the bodies and threw them in the river.”

Louisiana and Voluntary Property Purchase Programs
Oil and chemical industries are well schooled in the dispossession of communities. Across the United States, from Maryland to California, multinationals have used a voluntary purchase process to uproot working-class and people of color. No state has better facilitated this dispossession than Louisiana. Mossville is not the first, but it will be the largest. Five communities founded by formerly enslaved Black people have been wiped off the map since 1987.

“My Dad walked across the yard. My grandfather walked across the yard. This is a special spot. My people are in this place, and there are some things you can’t put a dollar value on. To relocate will be difficult.... They tell you that you have the choice of saying yes or no, but you really don’t. I see my shelter, my comfort being torn down around me. I don’t have a choice.” Morrisonville resident to Louisiana Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights, 1993.

Revilletown, Sunrise in West Baton Rouge, Wallace, Morrisonville and the Diamond residents of Norco were all faced with the choice, continue the struggle in the face of poisoned wells, toxic air and deteriorating health, or accept a buyout. Rather than the proudly self-sufficient communities they once were, these residents had become “refugees in place” (Nixon) with industry closing in all around them.

Mossville Experience
While these voluntary purchase programs are not uncommon, their fairness is not well documented. MEAN members have carefully tracked the interactions of Mossville residents in their negotiations with Sasol. Analysis of their experience can serve as a model for other communities resisting similar displacement efforts.

The Sasol VPPP promised a guaranteed minimum offer, real estate appraisals to determine value above the minimum, and fair treatment of those residents who chose to remain in Mossville. These assurances have been ignored in the actual negotiations with residents. MEAN’s review of over 600 deed conveyances finds wildly uneven offers for similar structures. Rather than appraising based on acreage and as-built structures, appraisers have made disparaging judgments about the aesthetic quality of the housing that the owner will be required to destroy and dump in order to complete the buyout.

Folks in Louisiana are very place- and family-oriented. Those with land try to keep their kin nearby, frequently building so children and grandchildren can live on the same land. Before the buyout, seven generations of the Felix clan lived within eyesight of each other. The Sasol land grab ignored this reality, leaving many young people homeless and elders living in precarious conditions.

IThe stalwart residents who carry on the fight. Left to right back row: Ericka Jackson, Monique Harden, Christine Bennett, Desmond D’Sa, Dorothy Felix, Delma Bennett, Gail Garrett, Larry Allison, Ronald Carrier. Front row (left to right) Errol Hartman, Van Jackson and Karl Prater.n facing the inflated local housing market that has resulted from the VPPP, the Sasol offer has left many who accepted it with less community, more debt and poorer housing. And the company has not kept its promise to those who have refused the offer as inadequate or who are choosing to stay. Sasol successfully secured industrial zoning for all of Mossville, turned off street lights, blocked streets and imperils the day-to-day safety of residents who remain.

Polluting Industries Remain Unaccountable
Sasol buyout negotiations have let other toxin-emitting industries off the hook for the damage to residents’ water, land and health.

“The issue we were fighting was our health problems caused by the refineries in our area,” said Delma Bennett, treasurer and spokesperson for MEAN. “It has become just about Sasol, and that’s not fair. There are too many people who died, too many people got sick, and that’s not fair. We don’t even talk about the pollution anymore.”

A 2000 study showed that Mossville residents suffer from disproportionately high rates of dioxin exposure. The effects of dioxin and other exposures are long-lasting. There are no provisions for tracking Mossville residents’ health and well-being post relocation. The burden of industrial toxins on the human body does not just disappear when someone relocates. The people remaining are more, not less, at risk as state and local government have enabled not just Sasol but other facilities to jump the industrial fence line into Mossville, while approving the construction of three additional facilities. Sasol’s land grab brings the fence line to new communities. It will continue to grow as far as the industrial sector desires.

Slow Violence and Mossville
According to Rob Nixon, “Turbo-capitalism” is characterized by the elimination of what multinational extractive industries have found inconvenient to their profit-making aspirations.1 Louisiana has courted and kowtowed to their demands, conceding to everything industry wants, regardless of the needs of its citizens.

Concessions are what multinational companies call the legal agreements they make with governments in developing countries to access the environmental resources under the ground. These governments concede control of populations, workers and environmental protection in exchange for petro-dollars that rarely benefit the people consumed by Big Oil’s hungry maw. It is Louisiana’s state-wide concession of tax dollars, public health and its citizens’ land that has brought about the exodus of the people of Mossville and the scattering of the 12 founding families. But MEAN is steadfast in demanding accountability from state and federal officials. MEAN demands that Gov. John Bel Edwards withhold all allocated and promised state funds until Sasol engages in an accountability and restitution process with Mossville residents. Sasol must provide fair replacement value, address the housing market inflation caused by the VPPP, guarantee community control of the historical and cultural legacy of Mossville and address the harm they have caused through both monetary and non-monetary compensation. And the federal government must be held responsible as well. MEAN demands the EPA investigate the Voluntary Property Purchase Program scheme, abolish it and create greater accountability of toxin-emitting extractive industries to their fence line neighbors.

The people now in this struggle encourage all those in the environmental justice community to vigilance of and heightened resistance to the widespread peril of extractive industries to our environment, our health and a sustainable way of life.

Rebecca O. Johnson is a writer and activist living in Akron, Ohio. She works with environmental justice groups in the South and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

1           Nixon, Rob: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.


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Environmental Justice — 25 Years and Counting

World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. cc. 2004 Raquel Tannuri Santana
Excerpt from the introduction to a panel discussion by Michelle DePass at the New School in New York City.

The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991, in Washington, DC, drafted and adopted 17 Principles of Environmental Justice that have served as a defining document for the grassroots movement for environmental justice. (See page 82.) On the 25th Anniversary of the Summit, the Tishman Environment and Design Center of The New School held a panel discussion on the themes of the Principles in New York City. In this issue we present excerpts from that discussion and two pieces from RP&E published in 1992.

In October 1991, over 300 Black, Latino, Native and Asian American delegates gathered in Washington, DC, for The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.

Many of these delegates are people we all know, work with and admire and this panel discussion is part of celebrating the anniversary of the summit, as well as an exploration into the ways that academia can contribute to the discussion, research and actions of the environmental justice movement.

Dana Alston, an advocate for environmental and social justice, and a co-convener of the Summit described its purpose and guiding ideals this way, and I quote:

“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....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 the complete text see page 90.)

These words of Dana ring true to this day and we really have to lift up and acknowledge Dana, who is not with us anymore, as one of the real pillars in terms of the environmental justice movement.

Delegates to the Summit exchanged stories of environmental racism experienced by their communities, which were routinely targeted for disposal of toxic waste, or the placement of hazardous industries. They noted not just the environmental impacts of these practices, but the human health effects like cancer, birth defects, asthma and miscarriages.

Delegates worked to also develop solutions and policy proposals to support a just and equitable approach to address the environmental crisis, the ecological impact of war, underground nuclear testing, the international waste trade and U.S. foreign aid and trade policies. Through a process of consensus building, they also penned and adopted the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice to guide the movement “to eradicate environmental racism and bring into being true social justice and self-determination.” (See page 82.)

Now we are gathered here on the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Principles, to explore the themes of the Principles and opportunities for achieving environmental justice across different social movements, the practices and multidisciplinary perspectives. Many of the concerns voiced by delegates to the Summit are still very real today.

In 2014 activists took to the streets, led by frontline communities, to advocate for global action on climate change in the People’s Climate March. In 2015, outside the closed-door meetings of the COP in Paris, we saw a growing unification of movements for climate justice, the deepening of transnational, solidarity movements across the globe and the creative expressions of people and communities determined to achieve solutions to the climate crisis in their own terms. Last year we looked on in disbelief when the news broke about the lead and other contaminants poisoning the water in Flint, Michigan—a community that is 56 percent African American. The fight is still very much on, they still have to use bottled water and there have been nine deaths and numerous lives that have been irrevocably harmed from the crisis in Flint. Tonight, and in recent weeks, our thoughts are with the tribal nations and their allies standing in solidarity in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline.

On this commemoration day, we are recognizing that institutional racism and a long national history of undervaluing certain people and places have left a persistent legacy of environmental injustices....

We’ve come a long way from the Letter to the Green Groups in the early ‘90s, when the environmental justice community held them to task, the big Environmental Groups, to say that, “You’re not addressing issues of environment and people.” Remember that the Environmental Protection Agency actually protects human health and the environment. It’s both! They created a federal agency, a bipartisan creation of the EPA to do both. Yet, there was this recognition by environmental justice communities that the larger institutions weren’t doing so.

Pipelines have been stopped by local activists in the past, and they can be stopped today. Technological advances and efforts to promote digital equity are supplying frontline communities and grassroots organizations with new resources with which to advocate for justice, health and wellbeing. Let us elevate dialogue on issues of race and the environment in the 21st century and concentrate on finding ways that we can contribute to a more equitable future.

Michelle J. DePass is Dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, Director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center, and Tishman Professor of Environmental Policy and Management. From 2009-2013 she worked in the Obama administrations Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Prior to joining the EPA, DePass was a program officer at the Ford Foundation.



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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...

Principles of Environmental Justice

People of Color Summit delegates rally on U.S. Capitol Building steps. © 1991 Robert Bullard

Reprinted from Race, Poverty & the Environment (RP&E) 1992.


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 threaten 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 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 Of 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 providing 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 which emphasizes 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.
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Redlining Trauma

Mindy Fullilove © 2016 Tishman Environment and Design CenterBy Mindy Fullilove
From a panel discussion moderated by Michelle DePass.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove is Professor of Urban Policy and Health at The New School and a board-certified psychiatrist who examines links between the environment and mental health. Using psychology of place, Dr. Fullilove has examined the mental health effects of such environmental processes as violence, rebuilding, segregation, urban renewal and mismanaged toxins.

Michelle DePass: How does your professional work and scholarship relate to EJ?

Mindy Fullilove: I am a psychiatrist, and the type of psychiatry that I work in is called social psychiatry, which looks at how social systems relate to the problem of social health. I started doing research in AIDS, and what really became obvious a couple of years into the AIDS epidemic was that Blacks and Hispanics had higher rates of infection than their white counterparts. Why? The primary reason for this was the destruction of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and one of the principal offenders was the policy of planned shrinkage, which was carried out here in New York throughout minority neighborhoods.

So the issue that I’ve worked on is, what does the destruction of neighborhoods do to people, that creates the problems that lead to AIDS? How does it become related to intravenous drug use? How does it change life in neighborhoods, so people are at sexual risk? That lead me to delve deeply into the long and terrible history of segregation. This is an ever-evolving, constantly changing and really ever-worsening problem. Right now, the piece that we are living with is gentrification, but we have been through other policies in other decades, including: urban renewal, planned shrinkage, disinvestment and deindustrialization, Hope VI programs directed at federal housing projects, and now, gentrification. These have piled up one on another, creating a sorting by race and class, which paralyzes the whole nation.

Environmental justice is part of this longer story of—once you segregate a nation, how do you use the land, and how do you use the people? Step one: put toxins in ‘disposable’ places where Blacks live.

But, it becomes more complicated because places aren’t stable, and there’s no specific place that has to be Black. The Black people have to be Black, but the place doesn’t have to be Black. That’s the point of gentrification. Look at Harlem. Soon there probably aren’t going to be a lot of Black people living in Harlem. Hence, Harlem will not be Black anymore. So, then the toxins that were in Harlem will probably get cleaned up.

So, it’s a very complicated story and what I’ve tried to contribute is, really tracking down this long history of how segregation plays out, and how it has become hidden, so what we call urban policies are really racial policies.

DePass: I would love to hear a little bit about how you can riff on what Maya was just saying in terms of thinking about reassembling people, place and land to be able to combat some of these structural issues.

Fullilove: We might not have a theory of space in the United States, but we certainly have a practice. And our practice is what I call the redlining paradigm. To understand this, you actually have to go back to the origins of this practice.

[Redlining, instituted by the federal government’s Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1937, was designed to steer investment away from risky places. These were defined as those places with older buildings and non-white residents. Literally, the presence of a single Negro family meant that an area was given the worst possible rating, thus setting up the material basis for white flight. Hanchett observed, “The handsomely printed map with its sharp-edged boundaries made the practice of deciding credit risk on the basis of neighborhood seem objective and put the weight of the U.S. government behind it.]*

There are about 237 redlining maps (still not digitized by the federal government—even under President Obama) and what they are about is what is called “infiltration and encroachment.” What they deemed desirable was homogeneous neighborhoods. In particular, white neighborhoods had to be protected from undesirable racial elements. If we were moving in, that’s infiltration and encroachment. That’s literally what the surveys are about.

So, last time you were renting an apartment did you think of yourself as infiltrating? Last time you were on a spy mission did you think of yourself as infiltrating? Infiltration is not something people do when they are house hunting. They’re just looking for a place to live. Encroachment. Have you thought of yourself as encroaching when you were living in a neighborhood? Really, we don’t think of house hunting as either infiltration or encroachment.

In creating these maps, they would rank the neighborhoods—at the top you would have places that were “green” which means there were new buildings, new people and had good restrictive governance to keep the undesirable racial elements out. Maybe we don’t want to call it a theory, but this is the practice. This is the practice of the redlining paradigm.

If you look at what’s happening in the United States, New York City for example, look at where they are putting buildings and for whom are they putting up buildings. You will find that they are putting up buildings in places that they have declared “green.” Meaning, they’re for white people, that is whoever they consider white. These are all arbitrary terms. It has nothing to do with skin color, it’s what they deem desirable elements. Who are the people that are desirable?

They are putting up buildings for those people and they have restrictive covenants, the most powerful restrictive covenant at this point is money. So, where there are neighborhoods that are red, meaning the neighborhoods where poor people live, the undesirable elements and the undesirable people, there are no new buildings going up. If there are new buildings going up, it signals that those people are about to be pushed out because part of the process is ethnic cleansing.

We may not have a theory of space, but we do have a very active practice—a very unstable practice constantly sorting by race and by class, following the rules of the redlining paradigm. Take a look at those 237 maps and look at the supporting documents. Become familiar with the practice of race and space. Because it’s governing your life, my life and the life of all of us. It is the fundamental environmental injustice that is being constantly played out.

Displacement Trauma
What does this do to society? This creates trauma. If you’re going to push people out of their neighborhoods, it’s going to create trauma. Anybody who lived in Harlem and has seen their neighborhood be transformed from an African American neighborhood to a different neighborhood, how are they feeling about that? What’s going on in Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, and what do they have to say about that? These are terribly traumatic experiences, but they’re built on other previous terribly traumatic experiences. Black people used to live where the Lincoln Center is, and Puerto Rican people, and poor Irish people, and they all got pushed out. So, it’s one after another, after another cumulatively, synergistically destroying communities, which people try desperately to rebuild but then destroy them again. So, not only is there trauma in the present moment that’s happening to communities, but it’s built on previous traumas. What we really do need is to imagine the paradigm that we want. Can we extract ourselves from the redlining paradigm that has been governing the history of our nation? Can we overturn a paradigm that was founded in abusive plantation agriculture that was ecologically destructive of people, place, of the globe? Can we emerge from that ecological self-mutilation, to a way of governing space that’s inclusive, democratic and fun? Can we imagine that?

We’ve got to imagine this new way of how we’re going to live together. Can you have a Black land cooperative? How are people going to own the land?

We’ve got to think about how people are going to own the land because under current conditions, the hyper-commodification of land will destroy people’s habitat—humanity’s habitat. People have to live in communities because that’s our DNA. If we can’t live in healthy communities, we can’t be healthy. Hyper-commodification of the land is completely inimical with long-term sustainability of the earth, for our planet. Certainly for our species. So, what’s the new imagination? That’s your job. You know yourselves to be the kind of people who are going to imagine a better future. That’s really why you are here. So, now that we’ve given you your homework assignment, we would like it tomorrow.


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A Long Way to Go

© 2016 Tishman Environment and Design CenterExcerpts from a panel discussion at The New School in NYC.

Ana Baptista
Dr. Ana Baptista grew up in the Ironbound community in Newark, New Jersey, and was the director of Environmental and Planning Programs for the Ironbound Community Corporation where she oversaw a wide range of environmental justice, community development and community-based planning for the Ironbound community. She is Associate Director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center, Chair of Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management at The New School, and Assistant Professor of Professional Practice.

DePass: Can you talk a little bit about some of the changes that you’ve seen in the arc of what you’ve been talking about with frontline communities over the past 20-25 years, to strategies that they are employing now?

Ana Baptista: In 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, there were four states that had explicit environmental justice policies in the country. As of 2015, all 50 states have some version of an environmental justice policy. You would think that would be a huge victory, and that we would be celebrating. Except for the fact that if you really look at what these environmental justice policies do, what the substance is of these policies and the actual output of them, it’s very little in terms of what you see on the ground. A lot of it is symbolic.

Even in the realm of environmental regulations, we haven’t made very big strides because to this day, if a company comes to the City of Newark—for example, the Hess Corporation—and they want to build a huge megaplant, they will still, to this day, get their permit. Even though we know all this data and all this science, and even though we have an environmental justice policy on the books, there is still not an affirmative stance on disproportionate impact. So, we still have a long way to go.

I grew up in Newark, in a place called Ironbound. Seventy-five to 85 percent of the City of Newark is people of color and it’s highly segregated. I was an immigrant kid in the city, and I went to a school that was 95 percent Black and Latino and I didn’t speak English. So, I got a very different introduction to America than I think lots of other kids did. You walked outside your door and you could taste the air, you could smell the sewage, you could see the air pollution. The incinerator was a couple of blocks from my home. Today, my parents and my family still live there, right across the street from the local elementary school—a building that was 160 years old then and where still today, every three to five minutes we have to stop talking because of the jets that are flying overhead.

My parents’ attitude was “You know you’re an immigrant kid, so your goal should be to get out. Go to school, get an education, and get out.” So, that’s what I wanted. But my parents were also really involved in protest movements at the time: protesting waste incineration, tire incineration, sewage sludge incineration. So that was my first introduction to this thing called environmental justice, protesting and getting involved and empowered for the first time.

Resistance was really important because it’s a way to be heard and be seen. To be recognized as dignified human beings and dignified places. Because a lot of the dumping that happens is also a stigmatization, saying that you are less than, you know? Your community is not as valued as other communities. You’re invisible. Our community was always the place that’s somewhere else. It’s where the something else goes. It’s where your trash goes, where your sewage goes, it’s where everything that you don’t want goes. That’s also where the people that you don’t want go. Prisons, people of color, public housing. It’s where anything marginalized goes.

So, resistance was also a form of self-determination and of self-recognition. But, how do we go from just fighting all the time, what we don’t want, to having a vision for what we do want? And how do we actively and affirmatively build that for ourselves rather than waiting for someone to come and do it for us? Or just continuing to struggle to just resist constantly.

[After I graduated from college]I decided I want to go back to my community. I want to give back, and study urban systems and urban planning. So, I went back home, actually, to do my Ph.D., which was a wonderful gift. My parents thought I was crazy, and were like, “You’re coming back?”

So, when I came back to the community, I saw this evolution of EJ. I saw that EJ was building a movement of political organizing and community organizing that was based on planning and envisioning what we wanted. What does our future look like? How do we build it from where we are? That was really rewarding because I got to see, first hand, the value of community innovation even though it was at a small scale. It was like people testing things out, and people taking risks. Seeing how they can not just deal with creating environmental regulations but also community innovations.

It’s going to take a lot more work from various different sectors to develop EJ solutions on many fronts, including housing issues, the segregation in our cities, the complete collapse of our infrastructure in our cities, and disinvestment in cities. How do we rebuild our communities systemically? When I started out there were all these pockets of people doing little things, but there were no national or transnational networks or solidarity networks that were innovating and that were sharing and creating models for how you do that work. So, I’m really invested right now, still building community development, community work in Newark linked to those networks. And also looking at models for how we can report that same type of community in areas throughout the country. Sometimes in solidarity to people in other parts of the world.

The best examples that I’ve seen since then of trying to [move beyond symbolism] are states that have tied environmental justice and climate justice to economic policies, housing policies, transportation and public sector investments. How do we drive investment? How do we open up opportunities and access in a different way? Not just narrowly within the realm of the environment regulations.

The New York Renews Bill is a really good example of doing this affirmatively. Saying that, “We have environmental justice communities, and that means we are going to invest in those communities.”

If we are really going to do anything on climate change, if we’re really going to do anything on racial and economic justice, then we have to see ourselves as part as a collective.

How are you connected to your place, and space? Are you connecting back to it? Also, how are you connecting to this community of people and communities of institutions and organizations that are mobilizing, that are actively struggling, and that are actively innovating? There is so much richness out there.

I really want to encourage students to find those places, find the frontlines, listen to those stories, and connect to some kind of collective action and collective movement and solidarity and mutuality. Because I think that as long as we are kept in these little individual boxes, where we’re just making money and accumulating things and extracting things and increasing our own privilege, then we define success in the way the dominant discourse defines success, which is to continue to propagate injustice. But we can, again, reimagine what that could look like. What does regenerative economy look like? How am I a part of that? How are communities all across the country doing that? How do I become a part of that or generate that in my own community?

Everyone is captured with Standing Rock, and what’s happening with Standing Rock, but these points of resistance and blockade are happening all over the world. In communities where you come from, or where you’re living now, there is some form of resistance, some form of innovation that is happening. n


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Transforming a Movement (1991

Reprinted from Race, Poverty & the Environment (RP&E) 1992.

Dana AlstonBy Dana Alston 

Rarely 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, DC, 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.

All present were moved by the testimonies of communities, such as Reveilletown, Louisiana, a 100-year-old African American community that was forced to relocate in 1989 due to poisoning from neighboring industries. Even more disturbing were the accounts of the Carver Terrace subdivision in Texarkana, Texas, and the farmworker housing project in McFarland, California, that were built on top of abandoned chemical dump sites.

Economic constraints make it difficult for residents of these communities to “vote with their feet” by moving away from the contamination. Demands for relocation assistance from the government have gone unheeded.

Delegates despaired at learning how Native Americans die at each stage of the development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, but were energized by hearing how reservations are fighting back. Among the stories told were those of the Havasupai Nation of Arizona and its organizing against uranium mining in the Grand Canyon; of Native Americans for a Clean Environment’s efforts to close Sequoyah Fuels’ nuclear conversion and weapons plant in Oklahoma; and of the Western Shoshone’s civil disobedience aimed at stopping the U.S. government’s underground nuclear testing on their ancestral lands in Nevada.

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. On the second day of the Leadership Summit, delegates were joined by another 250 participants and observers from environmental, civil rights, population, health, community development and church organizations. In addition, academic institutions, labor unions, legal defense funds and policy makers were represented. Some came to learn, others came seeking partnerships and strategies for coalition-building.

The issues of partnerships between people of color and the environmental movement was a major topic of discussion during the summit. So-called mainstream environmental organizations are now in a flurry to diversify by actively recruiting African, Latino, Native and Asian Americans to sit on their boards and to staff their offices. Many delegates feel that the push towards inclusion is a result of the challenges brought by people of color, in particular a series of ground-breaking letters sent in early 1990 to the national environmental and conservation organizations by the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.

These letters and the publicity that followed outlined what is perceived as the racist practices of the green movement—which is generally viewed as white, middle- and upper-class, and insensitive to the needs and agendas of people of color. The letters point out that diversification of boards and staffs alone does not guarantee accountability.

Delegates detailed numerous examples where the unilateral policies, activities and decision-making practices of environmental organizations have had a negative impact on the social, economic and cultural survival of communities of color in the United States and around the world. A particularly telling example is the controversy between Ganados del Valle, a Chicano rural development organization in Los Ojos, New Mexico, and the Nature Conservancy, the self-styled multimillion-dollar “real estate arm of the conservation movement.” The Conservancy purchased 22,000 acres of land in 1975 to preserve biological diversity, ignoring the good land stewardship practiced by traditional communities. Ganados members had used that land for decades to graze sheep for cooperative ventures and preserve an age-old link between culture and land for Chicanos and Native Americans.

Delegates also raised questions about the leadership of the National Wildlife Federation, whose board members include Dean Buntrock of Waste Management, Inc., the nation’s largest toxic waste disposal company. Waste Management’s subsidiary Chemical Waste Management has been continually charged with perpetrating environmental racism by locating hazardous waste facilities near communities of color. Chicago’s South Side (72 percent Black, 11 percent Latino), Sauget, Illinois (73 percent Black), and Port Arthur, Texas (70 percent Black and Latino), are home to Waste Management’s major toxic waste incinerators.

Presently the company is trying to locate another huge incinerator in Kettleman City, California (95 percent Latino). And Emelle, Alabama (90 percent Black), is the site of a Chem Waste hazardous waste landfill—the nation’s largest. Summit delegates who are engaged in life and death struggles with Waste Management were hard-pressed to understand why such a corporation is represented on the board of directors of one of the largest and most influential environmental organizations.

For people of color, environmental issues are not just a matter of preserving ancient forests or defending whales. While the importance of saving endangered species is recognized, it is also clear that adults and children living in communities of color are endangered species too. Environmental issues are immediate survival issues.

The clear message from delegates is that if there is to be a partnership made with the environmental movement, it must be based on equity, mutual respect and justice. The environmental justice movement of people of color rejects a partnership based on paternalism.

Discussions at the leadership summit were not limited solely to reciting a litany of problems. Solutions and processes for developing solutions were an important outcome. For instance, strategy and policy groups convened to create action plans and formulate policy recommendations that would guide future organizing. An international policy group was formed in recognition of the global nature of the environmental crisis and the need for international cooperation to achieve solutions.

It was also decided that the policy recommendations growing out of this session would be presented at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), scheduled for June 1992 in Brazil. Policy recommendations include statements on the ecological impact of war, underground nuclear testing, the international waste trade, and U.S. foreign aid and trade policies. Statements related to paternalistic and oppressive behavior toward developing countries by some northern environmental organizations were also included.

In addition to the strategy and policy work groups, summit delegates went through the painstaking process of formulating the Principles of Environmental Justice. Final agreement on the preamble and accompanying 17 principles was arrived at by consensus-building. Collectively, delegates surmounted the barriers that have historically divided us—regionalism, culture, gender, language and class. Most important, this victory was achieved in a society that has used racism to pit one group against the other in an attempt to control the whole. By the end of the summit, those gathered spoke with one voice as part of a movement “to eradicate environmental racism and bring into being true social justice and self determination.” 

Dana Alston was a member of the planning committee for the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. She died in 1999 at the age of 47.

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