Next year, communities across the nation will be marking an unusual milestone. The 20-year anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice may not garner a great deal of notice in corporate boardrooms and lawyers’ offices next March, but it will carry a special kind of significance for many of the small, outlying neighborhoods that border America’s largest cities. EO 12898, signed by President Clinton, requires the federal government to address “the environmental and human health conditions in minority communities and low-income communities with the goal of achieving environmental justice.”
Metropolitan areas like the poverty-entrenched city of East St. Louis, IL, which has been coined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the “most distressed small city in America,” the town of Emelle, Alabama, which has the dubious distinction of having one of the largest hazardous waste landfills in the U.S., and the oil refinery in Richmond, California, which sits at the nexus of one of the most populous areas in the state, are all textbook examples of reasons why the order was implemented in 1994.
Each of these three cases existed at the time of signing by President Clinton; each was identified as having significant impact on the health and quality-of-life of residents, and each happens to be heavily populated with low-income residents and people of color. Remarkably, they are also all examples of situations in which Executive Order 12898 has failed to resolve environmental justice complaints for local residential populations.
One of the questions that frequently pops up in situations like these is not just why federal governance has failed to protect the rights of local populations, but what does it take to convey the importance of environmental injustice to those who live and work outside its boundaries? What does it take to make environmental justice concerns everyone’s business?
Finding the answer to this question, according to some experts, can only be accomplished by asking another, equally uncomfortable question: Why is environmental destruction of residential neighborhoods allowed to happen in low-income and communities of color at all?
The answer, says Richard Moore, who is the Program Director for Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and previously served as the Executive Director to the Southwest Network of Environmental and Economic Justice (Southwest Network), lies in studying where industrial sites have historically been placed. They aren’t usually found clustered around middle class or economically influential neighborhoods, rather they are found in or beside low-income neighborhoods. A significant portion of low-income communities in the United States are communities of color (specifically, Latino, African American, Native American or Asian). Since these communities are low-income, many times they don’t possess the financial resources to fight for better environmental protection.
“(We) consider race as a primary factor for the location and siting of many of the facilities (we investigated),” says Moore, who noted that much of the work that Southwest Network undertook during his tenure there focused on what some refer to as environmental racism.
Author Robert D. Bullard, PhD, who is well known for his writings on environmental justice, describes environmental racism as “environmental policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.” Bullard made the assessment as part of a presentation at an environmental racism summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002.
In other words, says Bullard, environmental racism isn’t just the intentional targeting of communities based on race, but the disadvantage that an action, such as the siting of a particular factory, places on a particular community. The environmental justice movement is a response to environmental racism.
The challenge to eradicate environmental injustice, said Moore, starts first with changing mindset. It’s an undertaking that the Southwest Network and Moore’s earlier affiliation, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), both pursued.
In 1990, SWOP, under Moore’s direction, wrote a letter to the “big 10” environmental organizations, challenging them to reconsider their definition of environmentalism and the lack of attention paid to local pollution in communities of color. SWOP called for the organizations to develop environmental campaigns around the communities impacted by closed factories, cultural lands made into national monuments, and disenfranchised communities of color.
It was an ambitious call to some of the largest advocacy organizations in the world to stop “the clean up and the preservation of the environment on the backs of working people, in general, and people of color, in particular.” It boldly called on the organizations to “cease operations in communities of color within 60 days,” until they could guarantee a reasonable representation of communities of color on their staff.
According to Moore, Sierra Club, one of the “top 10,” was a leader in transitioning to greater integration within the environmental movement. Throughout the environmental movement, many leaders realized that environmentalism couldn’t really exist without recognizing the goals of environmental justice, and this mind shift led the way to empowering people to fight for change within their own communities.
These days, Moore uses the lessons he learned in his global reach experience to aid a more local network in New Mexico. As program director for Los Jardines Institute, he oversees programs that reach all ages and all backgrounds of Albuquerque’s Latino farmworker community. The fight to ensure cultural literacy as well as food security for the local community is as much a part of fighting for and promoting environmental justice goals as his earlier advocacy for disenfranchised homeowners in industrial zones.
I asked Moore what he thought the secret was to teaching others who have never experienced environmental injustice. What does it take to make it everyone’s business? How do we sensitize other communities to the needs of their neighbors – and the needs of one another?
“I think that one of the ways of getting the message across is by coming to the reality that we need to be aware of each others’ concerns and issues.” Dialogue, he said, was crucial.
So was finding common ground.
And there was no better way, he said, than to “open up lines of communication and go through a process together,” to work, study and break bread together, as they do each day at Los Jardines. It’s a lesson, he said, that served him well during the tumultuous years of forging connections with those who had never had to face environmental justice issues in their communities.
“The thing that brings us closer together many, many times,” said Moore simply, “is working together.”
Images courtesy of Los Jardines Institute.