Why race matters in the fight for a healthy planet.
by Jennifer Hattam
Sierra Club founder John Muir didnt have to worry about lead paint, asthma attacks, or unemployment rates. But John McCown does. The codirector of the Sierra Clubs environmental-justice program, McCown is one of a growing number of Club staff and volunteers working in the inner cities and rural areas that most Americansincluding environmentalistseither fear or forget.
These activists are cleaning up dirty air in Fresno, California; protecting neighborhoods and wetlands in Gulfport, Mississippi (see "Profile,"); fighting urban blight in Washington, D.C.; and preserving jobs and air quality in Middletown, Ohio (see "The Sierra Club Bulletin,"). In doing so, theyre also pioneering a different way of organizing. In communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, which are more frequently beset by polluting facilities and ecologically destructive development, environmental concerns vie for attention with worries about jobs, health, crime, and education. To succeed, an environmental campaign must respect these other priorities and engage in the larger struggle for social and economic improvement. To ignore those problems is to risk turning potential allies into opponents, as a group of anti-pesticide activists learned the hard way (see "Divided We Fell,").
"When youre a new organizer, its easy to think that you can come into a neighborhood and make things happen," says Julie Eisenhardt, a Sierra Club environmental-justice activist. "One thing that becomes clear very quickly is that people already know the solutions to their problems. They just need a little help to make it real."
Playing a support role means working with the people who bear an environmental burden disproportionate to their numbersAfrican Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and poor whites. These interactions can be fraught with distrust and discomfort. Environmentalists have a reputation as wealthy, white tree-huggers who dont care about people of color and the poor, while members of those communities are perceived as unconcerned about the environment. Overcoming those stereotypes requires expanding the definition of what is considered an environmental problem, and addressing how race and class issues color environmental ones. After all, as McCown points out, "Pollution does not respect the barriers that we ourselves put between us. It does not discriminate."
In 1993, the Sierra Club officially adopted its first environmental-justice policy, recognizing that "to achieve our mission of environmental protection and a sustainable future for the planet, we must attain social justice and human rights at home and around the globe." Since then, Club staff and volunteers have:
provided organizing assistance to over 250 low-income neighborhoods and communities of color nationwide
hired full-time environmental-justice organizers in Detroit; Memphis; Washington, D.C.; the Southwest; and central Appalachia
awarded some two dozen grants, including ones to help local groups lead "toxic tours" in Cincinnati, create community gardens in Tennessee, and educate the public about environmental damage caused by factory farms in rural Alabama and Mississippi
helped shut down a polluting sewage-treatment facility and a medical-waste incinerator in Detroit
helped African-American families in Pensacola, Florida, get funds to move away from the two Superfund sites in their community
helped Native American groups in New Mexico and Arizona block construction of an 18,000-acre mine that threatened a sacred lake
supported grassroots groups along the U.S.-Mexico border with grants and organizing assistance
collaborated with Amnesty International to defend activists around the world who risk jail, exile, or even death for speaking out on environmental issues
Creating a more diverse movement, one community at a time.
Activism runs in John McCowns Georgia blood. His father fought for civil rights and in the late 1960s helped turn poverty-stricken Hancock County, a rural area dominated by its plantation past, into the first U.S. county since Reconstruction to be politically led by African Americans. The younger McCown participated as early as third grade, when he was among the first black students to integrate a local all-white school.
Some 35 years later, McCown is still working to overcome prejudice. In 1993, he was hired by the Sierra Club to help with outreach to at-risk communities. Once the sole Club employee devoted full-time to environmental-justice issues, he now oversees grassroots organizers around the country. McCown talked with Sierra about how low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are fighting corporate polluters and political neglect.
How did you get started with environmental organizing?
Back in 1986, the governor of Georgia was trying to put a $50 million hazardous-waste incinerator and an 887-acre solid-waste landfill in my town. We got organized and after a five-year battle, we eventually blocked both projects. At that time, I had heard about the Sierra Club, but it always seemed conspicuously absent from local struggles like the one in my hometown. I often wondered, since were all fighting the same environmental foes, why arent we talking to each other?
In the early 1990s, I finally met some Sierra Club activists from the Gulf region who were trying to make the Club more relevant in adversely impacted communities. Historically, the organization had not sought or valued the views of these communities. But these people realized that this was wrong, and that it was time to come together. They wanted to hire someone who could help make that happen. And they hired me.
The first time I brought Sierra Club people into an environmental-justice community was in Columbia, Mississippi, in 1994. We walked door to door, we stood in peoples yards and around their porches, and we listened to them tell us what its like to live in a neighborhood with a Superfund site. A chemical plant exploded there in 1977, and rather than rebuild, the company took most of the 4,000 drums of toxic chemicals and buried them there. When it rains, these chemicals wash through the community. People eat food from their gardens and get really sick.
The Sierra Club activists are hearing these stories, and theyre realizing that, damn, these people are just like me! Theyve got the same hopes and aspirations. They want their children to grow up and be healthy, productive members of society. Theyre just catching hell because they happen to be African American and perceived as politically weak.
Ive taken a lot of risks acting as a go-between for the Sierra Club and suffering communities; Ive been called an Uncle Tom and all sorts of horrible names. But although I can remember lying on the floor of our house as a child, dodging bullets from the KKK, my father never taught us how to hate. Im a spiritual person, and I know that God is not a racist. He created us all, so I want to do anything I can to help bring Gods children together.
When youve seen multiracial coalitions succeed, what has been the key factor?
Some environmentalists will come into a community and say, "Dont worry! Well do it for you! Well speak for you!" Our approach is different. We believe that the real experts on environmental-justice issues are the people who are actually living beneath the smokestacks and on top of the landfills. These are your true leaders.
We go into a community only at its invitation, and we respect the right of the community to define its own agenda. We spend our resources on the challenges that they identify. Were giving workshops on fundraising and proposal-writing. Were hiring local organizers, were renting offices with fax machines and computers that residents can use as a resource. This approach has been revolutionary.
What changes have you seen over the years in environmentalists attitudes toward race and social justice?
This work has changed the entire direction of the Sierra Club. People are looking at the environmental-justice implications of everything theyre working onfrom sprawl to endangered species to clearcuttingand looking at ways to engage nontraditional constituencies. This Club will never be the same. It will be better.
At last years environmental-justice conference, we sat down and had an honest discussion about race. Everybody shared their experiencesracial incidents that they may have suffered or participated in, instances where they stood by and did nothingand we pledged as a result to confront institutional racism within the Sierra Club and get funding set aside to do racial-sensitivity training all over the country.
Its such a touchy topicAmericans dont like to talk about race.
But weve got to work through it. Ive had time over the last 12 years to understand that Sierra Club volunteers are for real. Ive stayed in their homes, eaten at their tables. I know their children, and I know these people are serious about working for justice. Without the benefit of that kind of interaction, other activists cant develop the same levels of trust. So we have to constantly create opportunities to come together.
There are misperceptions on both sides. You always hear that environmental groups dont care about communities of color and those communities dont care about the environment.
Absolutely. And who benefits from that type of garbage? The very people that were fighting. We dont have the money that they have, so our only option is to start talking to each otherand thats their greatest fear.
When we first went to Columbia, Mississippi, the president of the company that had polluted this town lived in the same neighborhood as [former Sierra Club president] Robbie Cox. So when this CEO heard about our meeting, he called Robbie up and invited him to dinner. He thought he was going to have one of those good-old-boy conversationsyou know, "Come on, Robbie, whats it going to take to get you guys out of there? You arent serious about working with those po black folks, are you?" But Robbie spoke up for people in the community, presented a letter with their concerns, and for the first time in ten years, that CEO made a visit to Columbia to talk with them about possible remedies. And he came down twice. Because the Sierra Club got involved. [Editors note: The community was eventually able to obtain funds for some residents to relocate, and healthcare for those who remained.]
To have white brothers and sisters stand in solidarity with us as we take on common foes, and say that this type of treatment of minority communities is not acceptable, adds credibility to the already credible struggle for environmental justice. We have to realize that our similarities greatly exceed our differenceswere all breathing the same air, drinking the same water, eating the same food, and fighting the same enemies. If I were a polluter or a corrupt politician, I would be deeply concerned about what I see happening in the Sierra Club.
Where do you hope well be on these issues in another decade?
I hope that when people think about conservation groups that are tearing down barriers and working to build relationships based on mutual respect and trust, the Sierra Club will readily come to mind. When they think of a national organization that is building broad coalitions to bring pain on polluting corporations around the country, the Sierra Club will readily come to mind. If the Club can get really serious about this, it will be the most powerful organization in the country, environmental or otherwise, because its membership will look like America. When the Sierra Club speaks, you will actually be hearing the voice of America.
Flip through most magazines (including this one) and you might notice something about the people shown hiking, biking, or camping in ads celebrating the outdoors: Theyre almost always white. Indeed, while minority groups make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 16 percent of all "outdoor enthusiasts," according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
But while they may engage less often in outdoor recreation, people of color do not care less about environmental problems.
National opinion polls conducted between 1993 and 2000 consistently found that a higher percentage of blacks than whites opt for pesticide-free produce, and drive less for environmental reasons. The polls also showed that blacks join environmental groupsalthough not necessarily the nationally known onesat similar rates as whites and are just as likely to call air and water pollution and global warming "very" or "extremely" dangerous to the environment. The actions of African-American leaders reflect these trends; members of the Congressional Black Caucus are more likely to vote pro-environment than their colleagues in the House.
In a 1998 survey by the Latino Issues Forum in California, 96 percent of Hispanics agreed that preserving the environment is important, just behind reducing crime and improving public educationand ahead of protecting immigrant rights and bilingual education. The states Hispanic voters voice these concerns at the ballot box, with 74 percent supporting a successful $2.6 billion parks-and-open-space bond measure in 2002, compared with 56 percent of whites. Another survey, conducted in 2002 in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, found that Hispanics support wilderness protection more strongly than the general population.
Despite these sentiments, the 1998 Latino Issues Forum survey found that "a large portion of the Latino community feels isolated from the environmental decision-making process," with 61 percent of respondents agreeing that white leaders make environmental policy. And 55 percent agreed that most environmentalists are "white, middle class, and live in the suburbs." Recognizing our common ground is only the first step; diversifying our ranks must come next.
White visitors to Washington, D.C., are often cautioned to stay away from the low-income, predominantly African-American communities in the southeastern part of the city. But in the late 1990s, Sierra Club members ventured into the Anacostia neighborhoods to help local residents keep a private prison out of their public parkland. The collaboration led to a victory in 1999, when the zoning commission rejected the prison proposal. It also made it a little easier for Julie Eisenhardt, a white Wisconsinite with a degree in medieval history, to begin her work as the Sierra Clubs first environmental-justice organizer in the nations capital. Eisenhardt was introduced around the neighborhood by Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, an African-American politico from Anacostia who worked on the prison campaign. "I could tell people that when we fought the prison, an important organization that helped us succeed was the Sierra Club," says Kinlow, who recognized in Eisenhardt a fellow fighter for social justice.
"Eugene put his reputation on the line by getting involved with all this," says Eisenhardt. "If anyone asked, Whos this little blond girl? he was the one who had to answer for me." The risk paid off. Eisenhardt forged relationships around the neighborhood, paving the way for an ongoing partnership with community groups. When Eisenhardt moved on to the Sierra Clubs environmental-justice committee, the Club hired longtime Anacostia activist Linda Fennell to continue the fight against neighborhood blight, unequal levels of services, and air pollution from nearby highways and power plants.
Eugene Dewitt Kinlow
Washington, D.C., activist
"Our community has the largest percentage of people who are unemployed and on public assistance in D.C., and the largest population of kids in poverty. It also has little or no commerce. We had one grocery store, but that closed about five years ago. So, frankly, many environmental issues are subsumed under more immediate oneshow am I going to keep a roof over my head, how am I going to feed my kids and keep them safe from crime? It can be a difficult veil to lift.
"So it was incumbent upon Julie to look at the community and try to see it through their eyesand then get them to look at things through an environmental lens. When youve got broken bottles in the neighborhood, illegal dumping, and trash in your river so its not fishable or swimmable, those are environmental problems too.
"Of course it was difficult at first. Residents are very cautious about outsiders. People have come in and promised us many things and we dont ever receive them. They want access to our leaders and our political support, and then they just abandon us after they get what they want. But for the Sierra Club to put its office in the heart of Anacostia demonstrated a commitment right off the bat. Julie showed that she was real and that the commitment of the Club was true.
"Julie was dealing with local groups that had great ideas, but lacked resources. They could have a protest, but they didnt have a fax machine to get a press release out, or even a computer to make a flyer. The Sierra Club did, and they opened their doors to us. That meant a lot.
"About a year and a half after we defeated the prison, there was a proposal to put a trash-transfer station in our ward. They always want to put the most negative things in our community. But since we had respectability from the prison fight, and the resources from the Sierra Club to assist us, we were able to say no. Weve been accepting everyone elses sewage and junk for so long, and we will not accept any more."
former Sierra Club EJ organizer
"When I walked into a room in the neighborhood, it was easy to tell that I wasnt from there. Its important to be honest about who you are, and what your motivations are, and to not try to act like you understand what people are going through or what their experiences have been. Folks in these neighborhoods have had do-gooders come in for generations saying theyre going to rescue them. So people perceived us with a certain amount of skepticism.
"Too many times, were in such a hurry to get things done, we forget that were human and we need to relate on a personal level. There are a lot of older women involved in community-building east of the river, and two or three times I made the mistake of assuming that I had to slow down or talk louder, and kind of explain things, but these women were just absolute fireballs. I learned very quickly that they dont need to be talked down to.
"We had a number of social events. At one, we had the garden-club presidents from both Anacostia and Georgetown. People associate Anacostia with poverty and drug-dealing, but heres an older woman putting planters out on the street and flowers in the corner park. Shes trying to do the same thing as the wealthy people from Georgetown.
"Its not like we had to convert people. These folks already cared about environmental issues because their kids have asthma attacks, theyre seeing lead poisoning affect the ability of students to learn. When you live in a city, thats really what the environment is. We just had to convince folks that the Sierra Club was there to help them on their issues.
"A lot of roadblocks come up in this kind of work, and we cant change the way we were raised or our different backgrounds, but we can discuss the preconceived notions that we bring to the table. We can also be geographically diverse in where we hold events and make our meetings transportation-accessible, with childcare and some snacks, so as many people as possible can get there. There are a lot of ways to get rid of the logistical things so we can get to the real stuff."
In the late 1990s, I spent three years working in Californias Central Valley, one of the nations most important agricultural regions, with a large coalition dedicated to ending dangerous pesticide use. Although "minorities" compose a majority of the population in both the valley and the state overalland Latino farmworkers and gardeners are heavily affected by the chemicalswe were governed by an all-white steering committee, and none of our other leaders were people of color.
When I moved there, the state was debating whether to tighten drinking-water standards for DBCP, a soil fumigant linked to cancer and sterility. Banned in California since 1977 and in the United States since 1985, DBCP still contaminates many municipal water sources, and is allowed in tap water at levels our coalition believed to be dangerous. An alliance of water utilities and pesticide manufacturers argued that stricter regulations would result in higher water bills, imposing a burden on poor families. Environmental groups, including my own, pointed out that the state could provide financial assistance for communities, or initiate legal action against the chemical companies on their behalf. (About 20 percent of the contaminated communities already had legal settlements with
the makers of DBCP that probably would have required the manufacturers to pay for additional cleanup.) Mostly, though, we ignored the cost and focused on the health risks of taking no action.
When our delegation of activists showed up at a hearing in Fresno, we were surprised to find that the opposition was represented by a group of African-American physicians. The doctors had been rallied by the industry alliance, which had convinced them that tighter standards would take an economic toll on poor African-American communities. In order to boost turnout, industry had sponsored a barbecue outside the hearing for the families of the black physicians, who then testified inside that anyone concerned about poor people and African Americans should oppose tighter regulations on DBCP. Ultimately, state regulators agreed, and left the standard unchanged.
We made two big mistakes. We failed to emphasize potential economic solutions, and we had little connection to local black and Latino communities. As a result, our industry opponents were able to successfully pit environmentalists against people of color and the poor.
When environmentalists ignore the impact of race on organizing, we fail to gain the active support of large communities of color that agree with us on many issues. Roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population is non-white, but our ranks dont reflect that, and neither do our priorities. If we take seriously the need to understand how racial inequality manifests itself in our society and in our own movementand the need to make concrete changes to our organizationsthen our movement will be a more hospitable place for people of color to work, and we will be less likely to promote policies that deepen inequality. Then we will stand a far better chance of building a world where we treat the earth, and each other, with honor, reverence, and respect.
Justin Ruben works as a labor organizer in New Haven, Connecticut.
Residents of Californias agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley breathe some of the nations poorest air. Childhood asthma rates in Fresno County are the highest in the state and triple the national average. But the Latino farmworker families who often suffer the most are also plagued by poverty, inadequate healthcare, and double-digit unemploymentproblems more immediate than dirty air.
Tackling that difficult mix of concerns are a pair of "valley boys" who grew up in Fresno Countys small towns. Kevin Hall, a former agricultural reporter, became a Sierra Club air-quality activist because he worried about his sons health. (He jokes that hes now "Enemy Number One" to some farmers.) Rey León went off to Berkeley to study Chicano issues and public health, but returned home because he had "a mission" there. Together the two men, one white, one Latino, have dogged reluctant government agencies, filed lawsuits against the EPA and the local air district, and built public support to clear the way for politicians like state senator Dean Florez to take action. Last fall, Florez pushed through a bill to overturn the statewide exemptions from air-pollution rules that agricultural operations have long enjoyed.
Kevin Hall, air-quality chair
Sierra Club Tehipite Chapter
"We are all overwhelmed with the enormity of the task in front of us. I have the means to work on a voluntary basis, but I see people like Rey doing great work for little money and with little job security. Theyre heroes. Outside organizers from other progressive groups come and go; theyre here a year, maybe two years, and then theyre off to the next thing, going where the grant money is. Thats one of the reasons I dont want money attached to what I do, because it wont be sustainable.
"Rey helps keep me on track in terms of the priorities of the Latino community. Homeless rates and unemployment rates are high, and even the ability to afford medicine is a huge problem. For many people, the idea of working on air pollution can seem like a luxury, despite the horrible suffering. I just try to get in the backseat and say, How can I help?
"The Latino community thought the Sierra Club was focused on the Sierra Nevada and endangered species, so they were a little surprised by our interest in air quality. Im not a tree hugger, Im a bus hugger. My first priority in terms of transportation is affordable farmworker transit. People struggle just to get to work or school or the market, and lack of transit is a major hurdle to healthcare access in rural Fresno County.
"Some perceptions of the Sierra Club work against us. People see it as older, white, and elitist. They think that were all northendersfrom the nicest side of townand that weve got money and all the privileges. Its important to ignore those perceptions and demonstrate your truth through action. In elementary school, I was taught by nuns from Spain, and the sisters always said that actions speak louder than words. I think that holds so true in the Latino community: Say what you want, but show me what you do. If Ive earned any respect in that community, its because I have done what I said I was going to do, which is work on the problem."
Rey León, senior policy analyst
Latino Issues Forum, Fresno, California
"I love science. I did great in my chem and calculus classes in high school. As student body vice president, I organized our first Earth Day event. But when I went to U.C. Berkeley, I learned that environmental science is just thatscience. It doesnt have a social perspective; you dont learn how it impacts people differently. When I was in Berkeley, I also tried to get involved in environmental issues with the public-interest group CalPIRG. They sent me up to the hills to ask these old retired white folksobviously upper-incometo give donations. But it wasnt working, not with me. I noticed the way the people who answered the doors looked at me and how they responded. It was uncomfortable. So I didnt go back.
"Its been important for me to confront the things that affect the health of my community. People understand that all of nature should be respected. But it really hits home when they understand that there are environmental factors that are causing our own extinction. Thats what has been ignored by white environmental organizations that have traditionally worried more about animals than about people of color.
"Environmental justice is catching on now, but most groups havent paid attention to economic justice. For example, in that big movement to save the dolphins, environmentalists pressured Mexican fishermen to stop using certain kinds of nets on tuna. In the end, they did, but a lot of small-time fishermen went out of business and big conglomerates that were able to afford the new methods took over. So you solved one problem, but you created another one. Environmental struggles have to be part of a human-rights struggle that encompasses all the elements.
"I know theres a group within the Sierra Club thats contesting immigration because it impacts the environment; if the Club wants to work with Latino groups, thats pretty damaging. The concept of environmental justice means inclusion, it means participation. Environmental groups should start taking steps toward having their own ranks reflect communities like mine. Not just the workers, but in the upper echelon. It cant be the same stratified society we see out here. That kind of change within an organization sets a powerful example. Its like any other spiritual rebirth, its got to start from within. Anything else is just going to be an illusion."
All aboard for landfills, air pollution, and a new perspective.
The view through the bus window is bleak: Ripped-out pay phones and boarded-up windows mar almost every building, while towering landfills and sooty smokestacks dominate the broader landscape. Our tour guide, Cheryl Johnson, points out the creeks too polluted to fish in, the small backyard gardens so contaminated that no earthworms appear after a rain. And she does not mince words about Altgeld Gardens situation.
"The South Side of Chicago has been a dumping ground since the 1860s, when it was full of slaughterhouses," says Johnson as she shows a group of Sierra Club activists around her public-housing project. The type of industries has changed since then, but thats about all. Built in 1945 to house African-American military personnel, Altgeld Gardens has been dubbed the "toxic donut" for the dozens of chemical plants, refineries, and other industrial facilities that encircle its 3,000 inhabitants.
"Toxic tours" of areas like this are becoming more common around the country. Just as environmentalists lead hikes into scenic areas to demonstrate the value of protecting them, residents of polluted areas are escorting outsidersenvironmental and religious groups, students and teachers, government officials, and journaliststhrough their neighborhoods and inviting them into their homes to put a human face on what would otherwise be an abstract problem.
The experience is eye-opening. "At first the idea of busing upper-middle-class white kids into a community of color seemed a bit odd," admits Geoff Milz, a Sierra Student Coalition activist at the University of Cincinnati who helped organize a tour of that citys low-income areas. "I didnt want it to be us versus them, but it put a lot of things in perspective, especially for the suburban and rural students who didnt have much firsthand knowledge of pollution or poverty."
Toxic tours spotlight a communitys woes, but also show how besieged neighborhoods are fighting back. Johnson is director of People for Community Recovery, a grassroots group formed in 1979 by her mother. On the tour, Johnson highlights the neighborhoods resourceslike a wooded park with a small lake, or residents carefully tended gardensand emphasizes its values. The almost entirely African-American population has an average household income of less than $9,000 per year, an unemployment rate of over 20 percent, and unusually high frequencies of cancer, respiratory ailments, and other health problems. But it also has its own elementary school, daycare centers, and churchesand a strong sense of community.
"I enjoy my neighborhood. I love my neighbors. The same friends my children played with when they were in strollers are still their friends today," Johnson says. "I didnt ever have to worry about not having a babysitter, because there was always my friends houses they could go to. Most people dont have that today."
It can feel uncomfortably voyeuristic to go on a guided tour of other peoples tragedies, but Johnson sees it as "taking something negative and turning it into something positive." Toxic tours can draw media attention to a communitys fight or recruit new activists. Like other tour guides, Johnson also hopes to give visitors a new perspective on a neighborhood that often has a bad reputation.
"People have preconceptions about my community, but when they meet us, they get a different feeling," Johnson says. "They see that just because I live in a poor community doesnt make me a poor person." Jennifer Hattam