Mercy, mercy me: The ecology

Filed under: Earth Day,Featured |

Judy Hatcher, Executive Director, Environmental Support Center

I remember patchouli oil, macramé plant-hangers, bell-bottom jeans and oil shortages.  Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder sang about air pollution.  Recycling was an exciting new concept.  In high school, I learned about conservation and wrote impassioned papers on “Silent Spring and “Custer Died for Your Sins.”  Like the millions of other wistful young hippie-wannabees of the Seventies, I had vague notions about the superiority of a “natural” lifestyle and going back to the land.

However, as a black teenager in the Rust Belt whose parents were born in the rural South, I also knew that many of my family members and neighbors depended on the union wages they earned working in environmentally unfriendly manufacturing plants.  We laughed as we rolled up the car windows (usually too late) to avoid the smell of the orange-tinted air as we passed the steelyards.

The work was dangerous, the air was foul and the river was a national joke, but thanks to places like J&L, Chase Brass, and Republic Steel, people who learned the three Rs in segregated schools in Georgia and Alabama now owned tidy little homes in thriving working-class communities, and they could reasonably expect that their children might have white-collar jobs in very different workplaces.

So off I went to a highly respected university, and for the first time I really got to know middle- and upper-class white students.  They spoke casually of hiking and camping, taking road trips to the Grand Canyon, skiing in Vail or somewhere in Europe.

The few vacations I’d taken were mostly spent in the living rooms and backyards of relatives.  I’d never spent a night in a sleeping bag.  I couldn’t even swim or ride a bike.  My idea of the great outdoors was hanging out in the park for the afternoon, listening to a boombox and eating barbeque on a picnic bench.  Although I knew that it wasn’t really true, I began to think of “nature” as something which belonged to them, and not to me.

As a young adult, my superficial interest in “the environment” quickly faded away.  My work for social justice organizations began in the early Eighties, and I’ve been in that realm ever since.  Despite the feed-Jane-Fonda-to-the-whales comments that some people made about leftists, looking back, I’m surprised by how low environmental concerns ranked on the “progressive” laundry list of issues.

I’ve since learned that while important organizing was happening around toxics, nuclear energy and workplace safety in the 1970s and 1980s, most not-in-my-backyard efforts rarely encouraged a structural analysis of why some workers or communities were more likely to be dumped on, literally, than others.  Ironically, the federal regulations that emerged as a result of middle-class advocacy contributed to what pioneering researcher Dorceta E. Taylor calls “the path of least resistance”—the neighborhoods and workplaces of people of color

In those days, I knew that the farmworkers were organizing against pesticides, and unskilled laborers of every stripe were trying to keep their jobs while convincing their bosses to eliminate the corrosive chemicals that were killing them.  Native Americans were fighting the affects of uranium mining and oil spills.  African Americans were finding illegal waste dumps and toxic landfills everywhere they looked.  Without a lot of support from typical environmentalists, what emerged by the early Nineties was a full-fledged movement explicitly linking these issues to disparities based on race and class, and called “environmental justice.”

In 1991, hundreds of people of color met in a multinational summit to adopt 17 principles that still define the environmental justice movement.  Their statement, which has become even more relevant over the years, framed traditional ecological concerns in terms of “the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.”  It’s sprinkled with references to ideological concepts like genocide, self-determination, liberation and sovereignty.

By fiercely calling attention to race, class and privilege, these activists challenged the status quo, not only of the conservation movement, but of the Left, as well.  Without that clarity, it’s doubtful that I would be working for an organization like the Environmental Support Center, which has developed an institutional commitment to advancing environmental justice and alliances based on a shared understanding of the intersections of race, power and the environment.

Nearly two decades after that initial summit, mainstream greens still tiptoe around the affect that structural oppression has had on the health, property and communities of millions of the Americans they purport to represent.  Beyond marginalizing what will soon be a majority of the country, this passivity allows false issues, like “overpopulation” and immigration, to become part of the standard conservation narrative.  While a few major national groups, like the Sierra Club, have taken major steps to develop strong working relationships with groups organizing in communities of color, I’m not impressed by most of what passes for attempts at “diversity,” let alone equity, among the most of the conservation groups I know of.

Because of the green groups’ reluctance to address institutional racism, people of color are gravitating toward multi-issue networks like the US Social Forum, and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance , and building their own, separate relationships with each other and with labor unions, agriculturalists, reproductive rights and public health advocates, urban planners, faith-based communities and other partners.  These networks and coalitions thrive in the spaces where economics, human rights and the environment intersect.  Groups like California’s Environmental Justice Coalition for Water are reframing ecological issues.  “Environmental Justice and the Green Economy“  is just one example of the proactive, complex and exciting visions for change these activists are promoting.

I believe that poor and working-class people, and people of color, can lead us out of this economic and environmental mess that the world is in. But I still haven’t quite shaken my “big blue marble” idealism of the Seventies.  I’ve also been profoundly influenced by Robert  L. Allen’s “Reluctant Reformers,” which outlined how the promise of social justice movements in American history has been stunted or stopped by white privilege and supremacy.  So at the Environmental Support Center, we’re trying to contribute to the work of grassroots (and virtually unstaffed) environmental groups in lower-income and people of color communities around the country, while encouraging our colleagues in the conservation groups to take a step forward along the path toward anti-racism.

In 2009, the Environmental Support Center published “Everybody’s Movement: Environment Justice and Climate Change,” in an effort spark some real dialogues about the need to bring a social justice lens to the daunting problem of global warming.  Like everything else that’s bad, poor people and people of color around the world have been the first to feel what social scientists call “disproportionate impacts,” such as flooding, famine, drought and displacement, sometimes leading to warfare, potentially the leading edge of an apocalypse.  The best solutions can’t and won’t come from a small subset of policymakers, politicians and corporate interests from privileged countries.

Similarly, we rely on a healthy and abundant source of water, something that most Americans take for granted.  Without strong oceans, watersheds and aquifers, our day-to-day existence would be very different.  Once again, poor people and people of color are most affected by the various ways that climate change, toxics, sewage, pesticides and trash, inadequate planning and aging infrastructures have impacted this vital resource.  Agriculture, fishing, wildlife have already been harmed, and possibly changed forever.  Especially in the global south, humans feel the affect through high infant mortality rates, public health crises, armed conflicts over arable land…according to an old blues song, you don’t miss your water ‘til the well runs dry.  Our wells are beginning to run dry.

Long after he sang “Mercy, Mercy Me,” Marvin’s voice still lingers, sad and worried:

Where did all the blue sky go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north, east, south, and sea…

Nearly forty years later, we should be writing more hopeful verses to this song.  Conservation and environmental justice groups need the active engagement of as many of us as possible, from every possible demographic, if we’re going to succeed.  This is truly one of those situations where if you aren’t a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  People of color need to understand how our tap water got to kitchens, and take the neighborhood kids out to the state parks.  We need to engage with the good folks who’ve been working for clean air, land and water, and tell them that if they aren’t talking about equity, then they aren’t speaking for us.  We need to seek out and join the environmental justice organizations in our midst, so that they have the strength and numbers to succeed on our collective behalf.  We need to lift up the environment as issue wherever folks are talking about race, class and power.

As environmental justice pioneer Dr. Robert Bullard says, “The environmental justice movement challenges toxic colonialism, environmental racism, the international toxics trade, economic blackmail, corporate welfare, and human rights violations at home and abroad.”  It really does affect all of us.  Let’s make this everybody’s movement.

Judy Hatcher is the Executive Director of the Environmental Support Center.  Since 1981, Judy has worked as a grantmaker, a program manager, a consultant and a trainer for social justice groups all over the country. Previous employers include Amnesty International USA, the Funding Exchange, the Crossroads Fund, the Community Resource Exchange and the Center for Community Change. She was a consultant with the Grantsmanship Center and the Women of Color Fundraising Institute, among other organizations. Judy currently serves on the boards of directors of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the Pesticide Action Network of North America, and the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. She is a program committee member of the Twenty-First Century Foundation, and a member of the coordinating committee of the Environmental Capacity Builders Network.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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