Charles Ellison | Managing Editor
Recent weeks and months have seen an impressive uptick in headlines and current events highlighting environmental injustice and the way society is responding to it. A big part of the struggle in that response, however, is broader community awareness at the level which forces everyone to understand it fully on the grassroots to push adequate response at the so-called grasstops. World leaders wrapped up negotiations over what could have been a potentially groundbreaking global deal on climate change in Scotland, only to fall short. On the heels of that is a surprise announcement from President Biden that the U.S. and China will team up to fight climate. A judge approved a $600 million settlement for the beleaguered residents of Flint, Michigan who’ve had to endure contaminated water and dangerous public health effects for many years. Indigenous communities fighting the destructive Line 3 pipeline (which would cross over 200 bodies of water) in Minnesota may have found a major legal breakthrough that could stop future oil and gas pipeline projects. And, in Philadelphia, yet another junkyard fire catastrophe as thousands of residents had to choke on days of toxic fumes from burning fires. Unfortunately, that’s nothing new in Philadelphia.
The common theme that links every one of these developments is, actually, the issue of environmental injustice. What also links them is the failure of media, stakeholder institutions and policymakers to center environmental injustice in the conversations, coverage and decisions. As a result, it becomes a greater challenge to mobilize citizens and the heavily impacted “frontline” communities – Black, Brown and Indigenous – who are brutalized and beaten the most by increased climate disaster, constant pollution and bad health outcomes from unhealthy zip codes. Climate crisis and pollution impacts are no new thing to these communities – in fact, they’ve been dealing with it since before the United States gained its independence from Britain in the 18th century. One could easily make the argument that environmental racism has been the leading challenge faced by these populations since their very first encounters with either European slave traders or White settlers and colonists.
These are the communities, also, most likely to deal with heavy doses of day-to-day, trying-to-make-ends-meet economic and social distress. Everyday is an emergency day in Black communities, for example, in cities like Philadelphia where the poverty rate soars just above 30 percent, coupled by combat-zone levels of violence, a broken school system, high eviction rates, high incarceration and low labor participation rates. Just putting food on the table or figuring out next month’s rent are the priority issues. Events like the climate-focused “COP26” conference in Glasgow seem far removed and irrelevant to real-life concerns “in the streets,” so to speak.
That disconnect presents real problems when there’s little to no effort to connect those major climate-related and environmental events to everyday struggles faced by communities forced to the margins. When policymakers, non-profits or environmental advocacy institutions attempt to implement more localized eco-focused or “green” solutions and initiatives to distressed BIPOC communities, it’s tough going. That leads all too often to either of the following outcomes: 1) these communities have little grasp of what these “solutions” will do for them and, in some cases, are unresponsive or confused (“what does this have to do with me?”); or 2) communities will often reject such efforts when advocates and stakeholders – often White-led – arrogantly avoid or outright dismiss community input. We saw this happen in 2014 with “The Greening of Detroit” initiative, an aggressive White-led effort that set out to plant thousands of trees throughout Detroit, a majority Black city. While seemingly altruistic, the Greening effort missed a big spot: it never approached, talked with, consulted or even hired Black residents. Infuriated Black Detroiters snapped back. Indeed, all the trees were being planted by White people who didn’t live in the community.
The “green” sector, from large environmental non-profits to clean and renewable energy companies looking for new customers, must understand that it’s high time to exercise total inclusiveness in their market-shifting, climate-response and pollution-mitigation strategies. For example, solar energy companies cannot, on any conceivable level, believe that they can expand their market share or achieve “community solar” if 1) they are making no effort to close the racial gap among solar energy consumers and solar company employees, 2) their lobbyists are avoiding any sort of contact with influential Black, Latinx or other non-White legislators and 3) their outreach advocates make no effort to connect with these communities or interface, at basic, with their media outlets. Rarely do we hear or see solar energy companies pushing campaigns in Black newspapers or Black media outlets – yet, it’s almost comical to watch how frustrated they are by slow-going expansion efforts.
The broader “environmental” activism sector, in turn, must understand that climate crisis, as it escalates, will never be fixed by avoiding environmental injustice and environmental racism. Environmental racism is the root cause of climate crisis once we investigate the chronology a bit deeper. In addition, while approaching “frontline” communities, eco-focused advocates can’t assume such communities will immediately get or understand what it is they’re talking about or that something “green” is automatically good for them.
Extra investment of time, resources and effort will need to, at the onset, center inclusiveness and cultural competency. That first starts, at the top, by grooming leadership and expertise directly from those communities. The assumption shouldn’t be that they can’t do the work – the assumption should be that they are the most knowledgeable about the work, even if they’re lacking in a degree. For example, when a clean energy company or green-focused advocacy organization’s outreach strategy involves attempts at persuading Black elected officials in impacted communities, they’ll first need Black leadership and capable representation in their ranks. Even before then, it will be crucial to not use them merely as institutional tokens or window-dressing, but as leaders who are spearheading those outreach efforts.
Conversations or essential encounters with frontline environmentally battered communities must also meet them where they are. If green organizations are laying the groundwork for outreach to non-White communities, they need to first answer a key question voters and constituents ask during any political campaign cycle: “What’s in it for me?” This kind of messaging, the value proposition, must be crisp and simple. It must also be focused squarely on four elements that are priority to frontline-distressed communities, in this order:
1) How many jobs will this create? Will you hire me and/or people in my community for this?
2) How much will this reduce violent crime in my neighborhood?
3) How much healthier will I get if you do this?
4) How much will this immediately improve the quality of life in my neighborhood, from improved city services to cleanliness to increased property values?
We must answer what the value-add is. Be mindful of the fact that in many places, like Philadelphia for example, half the residents rent; therefore, it’s absolutely essential to ensure these initiatives are tenant-friendly and not just aimed at homeowners. The immediacy of results is also key since many people, especially urban Black communities, will give these efforts predictable side eyes upon viewing them as initiatives designed to only revitalize neighborhoods in preparation for future White residents. Once these questions are answered make sure to design a plan that includes frontline communities in every step of the decision-making process and, once again, hires and retains them for most, if not all, of the work that creates a fully inclusive green infrastructure economy.