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RP&E Reflections 2003: Accountability


RP&E Reflections 2003: Accountability

Reprinted from RP&E Vol. 10, No. 1
Where Do We Go From Here? 
“We Must All be Accountable in a Grassroots Movement” 

By Penn Loh

In 1992, I was a twenty-something graduate student at UC Berkeley who had just joined a student of color environmental justice group, Nindakin, which was an affiliate of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. As a member, I often felt out of place. Not only was I not in my home community (Boston), but I was at an elite university with all its privileges. As a group, we also struggled over our role, par- ticularly one question: Are we fighting our own oppression within the university or are we using our resources to support local community groups? More than a decade later, I work for a community-based EJ group, Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), and those questions persist. During my seven years at ACE, the group has grown from an intermediary organization providing legal and technical support to grassroots groups in Boston to a group that is also organizing communities directly, nurturing youth leadership, building coalitions, and planning to establish a grassroots membership. We are neither a grassroots group nor an intermediary; we are both. I realize now that the divide between “grassroots” and “intermediary” is just a reflection of the root injustices—racism, classism, sexism—that we are fighting against. An intermediary is an intermediary because it has some form of power that the grassroots doesn’t and feels some responsibility to share it. For me, the guiding light for resolving these tensions comes from Dana Alston’s words at the First People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit: “We Speak for Ourselves.” In that statement, she challenged us to build a movement led by those most affected—a goal that is easy to say, but hard to do. If we are a movement led by people struggling locally, then how do we build power and use it to achieve broader change regionally, nationally, and internationally? 

At ACE, through an ongoing study group with our youth, staff, board, and community leaders, we’ve started to tackle these questions. We agreed that a “movement” has lots of people, each with a shared analysis of what’s wrong. Like flowing streams of water, we’re headed in the same direction, but not necessarily in a coordinated manner. A movement hits critical mass when people can identify with it and take part, yet without necessarily belonging to a group. We concluded that the EJ Movement is still in its infancy, not yet a mass movement but with the potential to be one. With the help of the Environmental and Economic Justice Project (which is based out of the organizing group AGENDA in South Los Angeles),  ACE determined that we needed to build power of sufficient scope and scale to achieve systemic change. This discussion has helped us draft a five-year strategic plan that defines our role in the movement. ACE sees itself as part of a movement that is building power from the bottom up, with strong grassroots organizations connected through networks and a broad base of leadership that is representative of, and accountable to, our communities.

ACE’S staff has community organizers born and raised in the neighborhood along with lawyers and other professionals from inside and outside the community, white and of color. Yet, none of us has license to speak for the community.  As staff, we are accountable to the youth, residents, and community groups we work with. Our constituents currently make decisions about strategy and overall direction as members of our project and campaign committees and our board of directors. As we move to a membership structure, all decisions will flow from our members, who will also elect a majority of our board. Our job in supporting the grassroots is to continually develop leaders who in turn nurture others to follow them. EJ organizations from across the country have agreed that the EJ agenda must be set by those most directly affected and that our first priority is to strengthen the grassroots base. At Summit 11, we went a step further with the “Principles of Working Together,” which sets a code of conduct to ensure the integrity of grassroots leadership while working with all sectors of the movement. The challenge now is to put our shared principles into practice by strengthening grassroots organizations. Change happens through collective action, not through an individual savior or charismatic leader. We must make ourselves replaceable and restrain personal glorification.

We must actively combat internalized racism and classism and put into practice meaningful democratic participation. As Gandhi said, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.