Scott Kurashige: We’re going to start with our panelists giving us their sense of how they see the world today and the core concepts we need—to make sense of the challenges we confront.
Grace Lee Boggs: I had the great privilege of coming to Detroit in 1953. And I have lived through Detroit becoming the national and international symbol of the miracles of industrialization, to becoming a national and international symbol of the devastation of industrialization.Today, you see here a symbol of a new kind of society. A society where the gulf between the industrial and the [agrarian] epoch are being resolved. Not because anyone thought it would be desirable, but because living at the expense of the earth, living at the expense of other people, has brought us to the edge of disaster. And it’s that time on the clock of the universe where we face an evolution to a higher humanity, or the devastation and extinction of all life on earth.
Racial and Gender Justice
A United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader, James Lawson was a counterpart of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966, and as pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn., played a major role in the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. As a young college student, Lawson was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence through his association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), America’s oldest pacifist organization. Now retired, he continues to teach nonviolence and fight for the rights of the oppressed.
Andrew Stelzer: I think a lot of people would say that since the 1960s, or perhaps the early 1970s, we haven’t really seen a massive effective mobilization that worked on any issue. Do you think that’s true?
Lawson: Yes. The peace movement has failed. I would say that mobilizations at the Democratic or Republican conventions (in which I have participated) in Seattle, and some of the anti-Iraq War mobilizations have failed. What is needed is a protracted struggle—organizing around non-violent assessment and focusing on a target—with maybe a decade or two of intense activity that does not depend upon Congressional legislation, but rather forces upon a city or nation the agenda of justice and truth.
The election of our first African American president has sparked debate over how far we have come as a nation on issues of race. Some suggest that we are in a post-racial society, but this assumption has not been supported by recent census statistics. While one in seven people in the U.S. are now living in poverty, statistics show that African Americans and Latinos have fared worse during the recession.
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and chief executive officer of PolicyLink points out, if you look deeper at the data, the story of who has actually been “hit hardest” is clear:
- More than one in four Blacks and Hispanics live below the poverty line.
- Hispanics saw the biggest jump in poverty (2.1 percent).
- Biggest drop in real income was among Blacks and non-citizens (4.4 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively).
This discussion naturally raises questions about the role of leadership development programs to address the racial divide in this country. Many such programs in the nonprofit sector have extended their reach and recruited more people of color, but more could be done. A deliberate approach to diversifying leadership programs would do much to mitigate the history of exclusion that has kept people of color underrepresented in leadership positions in the public and private sectors and also help level the playing field by providing them with new skills and resources and access to influential networks.
As part of RP&E’s 20th anniversary commemoration, we decided to review the origins of key social movements over the past few decades and their trajectories into the future. The ensuing panel discussion with three generations of women activists looks at the intersection of race and class with gender, and how women’s participation in social justice movements has (or has not) empowered women workers, especially working class women of color and immigrant women.
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• Catherine Tactaquin is the executive director and a co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Her commitment to immigrant rights is motivated by her experience as the U.S.-born daughter of immigrant farm workers from the Philippines. She was involved for many years in grassroots organizing and advocacy in the Filipino community on issues of discrimination and foreign policy.
• Juliet Ellis is executive director of Urban Habitat, an organization that builds power in low-income communities and communities of color by combining education, advocacy, research, and coalition-building to advance environmental, economic, and social justice in the Bay Area. She is also a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
"Gender constructions themselves are racialized. Our overarching notion of what is a good man and what is a good woman, are based on white people being good people and people of color being bad people."
Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine. A leading figure in the racial justice movement, Rinku has positioned ARC as the home for media and activism on racial justice. She has extensive practical experience on the ground, with expertise in race, feminism, immigration, and economic justice. Over the course of her career, Rinku has woven together journalism and organizing to further social change. She also has significant experience in philanthropy, as vice chair of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Advisory Committee member of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. Previously, she was the co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.
From the Editor
In this issue we celebrate our 20th anniversary with reflections on the social and environmental justice landscape from 1990 to the present. When the journal was founded, the EJ movement was just beginning to be heard on the national stage. A succession of intense local struggles around the siting of toxic facilities in communities of color had brought the impacts of racism back into public view.
The movement welcomed a publication that could, in the words of founding editors Carl Anthony and Luke Cole, “strengthen the networks between environmental groups and working people, people of color and poor people.” In these times of multiple crises, as racial and economic justice seem ever more elusive, we are proud to play a part in reporting on the valuable thinking and work of this crucial coalition. In addition to a sampling of reprints from the last two decades, we share speeches and interviews from a cross-section of today’s engaged activists.
Over since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.
Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.