While mainstream environmental organizations lick their wounds over the failure of climate-change legislation and their startling lack of diversity, people of color and those living on low incomes continue to bear the brunt of climate-change impacts. We saw this most recently with Superstorm Sandy, which ripped through New York and the northeastern seaboard late last year. Sandy devastated many communities in low-lying areas such as the South Bronx and parts of New Jersey.
Among U.S. cities, New York City has the second-highest number of people living in flood-prone zones; it’s second only to New Orleans. Many of these flood-prone areas are in The South Bronx, which also hosts a number of industrial and hazardous waste sites.
Citywide, Sandy damaged a staggering 20 percent of all New York City Housing Authority properties. And 30 percent of homeowners and 65 percent of renters battered by this storm had household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.
With that in mind, environmental justice advocates who’ve for decades cared for poor and racially marginalized communities in the face of environmental harms needed to represent for their neighbors. They couldn’t afford to wait for mainstream environmental groups to get their acts together, nor could they afford to allow their neighborhoods to get written out of reconstruction plans as has happened in other cities in past disasters. In January, more than 200 EJ advocates from New York City’s five boroughs and New Jersey, gathered to figure out how to make community equity and sustainability an integral part of the rebuilding process.
Organized as the Sandy Regional Assembly (SRA), the collective delivered a blueprint for grassroots-led recovery to President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force in early April.
The SRA’s plan is a comprehensive one. It includes a wide range of recommendations, from strengthening and expanding public housing to funding local groups to retrofit buildings into evacuation centers.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Juan Camilo Osorio, a policy analyst for New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) and an SRA planning committee member. “The idea here is to make sure community-based organizations are working to make their neighborhoods part of the conversations about how to build resiliency, and strengthen community oversight, and making sure projects really get implemented.”
Last week the SRA’s planning committee delivered its recovery agenda to Shaun Donovan, secretary of the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and chair of Obama’s Sandy recovery task force. The task force is expected to present its own recommendations this summer.
Acting Locally. And Statewide. And Nationally. And Globally.
Historically speaking, environmental successes—achieved by either EJ or mainstream organizations—haven’t been the result of a single great leader. There is no Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez of the green world, and those who have attempted to be The One have failed.
The big event that netted the environmental movement’s biggest victories—the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—was less Million Man March and more Occupy.
That event, Earth Day 1970, was largely uncoordinated. “Earth Day had a tiny national staff—a handful of young activists—and there were no big environmental groups around to get behind it,” Nicholas Lemann recently wrote in The New Yorker. “The staff imposed minimal central direction over the local activity, and chose not to put on a main event, like a march on Washington.”
Even in 2013, EJ groups carry on this tradition. According to Elizabeth Yeampierre, director of the Latino-led, Brooklyn-based group UPROSE and an SRA planning committee member, describes a balancing act of sorts. “We’ve been working with the city, the state and at the national level,” she says. “But to work at the national level and not still be rooted in the community would be out of alignment. If we’re out there delivering victories nationally without having any connection to folks on the ground then who are we?”
Of course EJ groups cover far more ground than climate-change. Dealing with local pollution sources such as factory mercury emissions and car smog are core for EJ communities that contend with resulting health problems.
This work is what connects, say, an UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a group like Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).
LVEJO has been in the news lately because its director, Kim Wasserman, was awarded the highly coveted Goldman Environmental Prize of $150,000 last week. Wasserman and her group had spent months organizing people in Little Village—including a large number of Chicano residents without full U.S. citizenship—to fight for the shutdown of an area coal plant operated by a subsidiary of Edison International. Many in the Little Village neighborhood suffer asthma: A Harvard study concluded that every year roughly 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits and 2,800 asthma attacks in LIttle Village were linked to toxic emissions from nearby clustered coal plants. Wasserman’s own son was diagnosed with asthma three months after his birth.
Last year, LVEJO worked with environmental groups small and large to urge Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other politicians to shut down the plant. With more than half of the city council pushing for closure, its operator, Midwest Generation, chose to retire the outdated plant.
Wasserman readily credits consistent dialogue with other EJ organizations across the nation—including UPROSE and the NYCEJA—and the activism of undocumented immigrants for the victory.
“I don’t think there’s a strong enough emphasis on what our rights are beyond our basic constitutional [rights],” Wasserman tells Colorlines.com “Meanwhile, families who didn’t even have children with asthma were on the front-lines with us, even if [the coal plant] didn’t impact them directly. They were coming from the perspective of ‘I’m fighting for our neighborhood, our community.’”
A New-Old Way Forward
As the larger, better-funded (and predominantly white) mainstream environmental groups have been dissected in major dailies including The Washington Post and the New Yorker, groups like Yeampierre’s and Wasserman’s have been at the center of a discussion about whether philanthropic foundations have made sound funding decisions.
Between the departure of Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s most EJ-friendly administrator in history and the sustained loss of political momentum around climate-change legislation, the environmental justice movement would seem to be in a tailspin. Yet the movement’s community-focused model allows a flexibility that appears to transcend the cult of the individual leader. Even Robert Bullard, who is widely considered the godfather of EJ, eschews grand-leader titles. “The environmental justice movement has continued to make its mark in the [21st century], Bullard wrote in his recent book, “The Wrong Complexion for Protection.” “Groups are demanding a clean, safe, just, healthy and sustainable environment for all. They see this as not only the right thing to do — but as the moral and just path to ensuring our survival.”