Sierra Club Joins Growing Movement For Environmental Justice
by John Byrne Barry
Fighting for environmental justice is a lot like the many other
environmental struggles the Sierra Club engages in - but with the added dimension of race
and class. In Detroit, for example, the nation's poorest big city and the center of U.S.
automobile manufacturing, the Sierra Club recently helped force Henry Ford Hospital to
agree to stop burning its waste in an on-site incinerator.
What made this an environmental justice struggle as opposed to a regular
old fight for clean air? The Henry Ford Health System owns three hospitals - its flagship
facility in Detroit, a few miles north of downtown in a predominantly African-American
neighborhood, and two more in the suburbs. The hospital in Detroit burns its medical waste
and all its trash, from Styrofoam dishes to construction debris, in the incinerator. The
suburban hospitals don't; they ship their infectious waste to a commercial autoclave and
recycle or use alternative disposal methods for the rest.
Community leaders were incensed by the unequal treatment. "I want to
be a good neighbor to the hospital, not a patient in it," says James Williams, a
member of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice who lives across the street from
the Henry Ford Hospital.
Recent studies by the Michigan Department of Community Health and Wayne
State University found that children under 15 living in neighborhoods surrounding the
hospital were three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than county residents
who lived outside Detroit.
Anti-incinerator activists got a big public boost last November when they
rallied in front of the hospital on the same day as the "Great American Smoke
Out," charging that that the "second-hand smoke" from the incinerator may
be a contributor to Detroit's high asthma rates.
The hospital announced in February that it would close the incinerator.
Anna Holden, chair of the Sierra Club's Southeast Michigan Group, which has been working
with Williams and other community groups, says she was delighted, but wary that the
hospital still has not set a timeline for the shutdown.
And, she cautions, the push to close one polluting facility is just the
beginning. Three other major polluters - the Detroit municipal waste incinerator, the
General Motors Poletown plant and the City Medical waste incinerator in Hamtramck - are
all located in one of Wayne County's most economically depressed zip codes, just a few
miles from Henry Ford Hospital.
It is the disproportionate impact of polluting factories and
hazardous-waste facilities that characterizes environmental injustice, says Rita Harris,
recently hired as a Club environmental justice organizer in Memphis. "Numerous
analyses confirm that people-of-color neighborhoods and low-income white communities bear
the brunt of such undesirable facilities."
Last year, the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice Organizing Project received a $500,000
grant to hire organizers in four cities - Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and
Memphis - and to help community groups fighting for improved air quality and toxic-waste
cleanup. Until Harris was hired, John McCown, who started working on environmental justice
issues with the Club in 1993, was the only Club staff member dedicated solely to
environmental justice work.
Critical to the project's success is how the Sierra Club approaches the
affected communities. Kirstin Replogle, chair of the Club's Environmental Justice
Committee, says the organizing principle is straightforward: "Provide assistance for
communities that ask for it, respect and encourage leadership already present within the
community and always allow the community to speak for itself."
The demographics of the Sierra Club can be an obstacle, she says.
"People in poor communities look at us as privileged upper-middle-class educated
people. How can we possibly compare our struggles to those that many of these communities
One way, of course, is to listen. "We have to build trust," says
Jim Price, Southeast field director and early leader of the Club's environmental justice
efforts. "The people in these communities are already bearing the brunt of
environmental hazards; the Club has to be careful not to exploit them a second time by
swooping in and 'solving' their problems."
Says Price: "Here's the recipe for failure: 'Let's go in and get
these people to work on our issue.'"
The New Columbia Chapter in Washington, D.C., started by asking community
leaders to show Club members around. The chapter has sponsored walks through some of the
city's poorest neighborhoods, like Anacostia, as well as a boat tour of the Anacostia
Chapter Chair Gwyn Jones likens this approach to the traditional Club
practice of getting activists out to threatened natural areas in need of protection.
"You can't care about a neighborhood you don't know. Until I paddled down the
Anacostia, I had no idea how beautiful it was."
Rita Harris, born and raised in Memphis, was executive director of the
Mid-South Peace and Justice Center before joining the Club as an organizer last year and
had worked with local Club volunteers for years. Much of her work is in the heavily
industrial riverside community. "Because Memphis is a river city, all of your
commerce and industry is along the Mississippi, and because of the legacy of Jim Crow laws
that required segregation, these polluted and undesirable areas are where the blacks have
historically lived. They can legally move elsewhere now, but many are trapped there
because they can't afford to move."
One polluting facility she has been fighting for years is the Refined
Metal/Exide secondary lead smelter, which melted down old car batteries to recover their
lead. It's 500 yards from a residential neighborhood and less than a mile from an
The plant is now being demolished, due to a variety of factors, including
community pressure. One precipitating incident, says Harris, came when the general manager
of Great Danes Truck Lines, located across the street from the smelter, found that the
lead levels in his blood were dangerously high. He was an elderly white man who lived a
long way from the inner city and his doctors were initially baffled about how he had
absorbed so much lead. When they learned where he worked, they advised him to move and he
left the state. Before he did so, however, he helped organize the community to fight the
smelter. If he was poisoned working inside an office, he reasoned, what about the
neighborhood kids who played outside, and what about the people who gardened?
The Club's involvement in environmental justice struggles is not limited
to the four cities with paid organizers. The New York City Group sought out environmental
justice organizations already working in local communities and offered to help. One was
the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Watchperson Project, led by Samara Swanston, who became a Club
member and is now vice chair of the New York City Group. (See "Who
The Club and Watchperson are fighting the proposed expansion of a garbage
transfer station, pushing instead to clean up the site for open space and waterfront
access. They are working with groups in Jamaica Bay, where the kids, says Swanston,
"are super-citified. Where they come from, all the parks are paved over. They don't
see any grass or water or wildlife. Many have never been to the bay. We take them to this
bucolic inlet with ponds and shoreline and osprey and horseshoe crabs."
Being a Sierra Club environmental justice activist involves more than just
fighting the polluters and building trust in the affected communities; it also means
"selling" the idea of being engaged in these struggles to the Club as a whole.
Though support for environmental justice work within the organization is
increasing, says Replogle, she still encounters resistance. "Some Club members say
that we're a public-lands protection organization, not a social justice
Replogle and others respond to this by pointing out that they don't want
to build a separate environmental justice movement within the Sierra Club, but to instill
the value of environmental justice wherever it's germane. So when a chapter is fighting
sprawl, part of its campaign could be focused on revitalizing existing communities in the
inner city. When the Club is fighting for clean water, the campaign's talking points could
include the argument that poor people who engage in subsistence fishing should be able to
eat their catch without endangering their health.
"We want as many Club campaigns as possible to incorporate these
environmental justice values," says Replogle, "in part because it helps the
environmental justice movement, but also because it strengthens the campaign itself, and
the Sierra Club."
From Quagmire to Commitment:
How the Sierra Club Inched Into Environmental Justice Work
In 1991, the Sierra Club and nine other major national environmental
organizations (known as the Group of 10) received a letter from a network of environmental
justice leaders accusing them of "environmental racism." Michael Fisher, then
the Club executive director, said, "You're right."
The Club hired its first environmental justice organizer the next year,
then in 1993 hired John McCown, who has, since then, helped bring the resources of the
Sierra Club into hundreds of communities, mostly in the Southeast.
At a recent workshop at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, McCown
shared the story - he and others have told it enough times it's become a legend - of an
early Club foray into environmental justice. Shortly after he was hired by the Club,
McCown worked with Jim Price, regional field director, to bring a group of 60 Club members
from the Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee - almost all white - to Columbia,
Miss., during the dog days of summer. They toured the neighborhood surrounding an
abandoned turpentine plant that had exploded and leaked toxics whenever it rained. The
local residents, primarily poor and African-American, had become increasingly frustrated
working with the plant owner and the regional office of the Environmental Protection
Agency to get it cleaned up. "People couldn't even eat the food from their
garden," said McCown. The Club came to see how it could help.
The local residents were angry and they vented. It was a rough day. That
night in the hotel, Club members were hot, agitated and frustrated, not sure how to
proceed. Allegedly some drinking occurred. At one point in the evening, Louie Miller, a
Mississippi Chapter volunteer, growled, "Who the hell got us into this !%#!#
Everyone pointed to McCown, the only black face in the room, and said,
But Miller, McCown, Price and other Club activists slogged through that
quagmire and in the process helped move the Club outside of its usual comfort zone into an
expanded commitment to environmental justice. This past April, Miller and McCown were
presented the Sierra Club's Special Achievement Award for the work they've done together
recently organizing residents in rural Mississippi to speak out against factory hog farm
"The recent grant is a strong endorsement of the work the Club has
done in the Southeast," said Kirstin Replogle, chair of the Environmental Justice
Committee. "Our goal is to expand on that."
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