An Introduction to Environmental Justice

October 26, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Well, you haven’t heard from me for a while, in large part because I’ve been running around like a chicken giving talks and teaching classes. I’ll be sharing some of the other talks with you in the future, but today I’m going to fill you in on the first two of a series of luncheon seminars on environmental justice that my husband, Keith Russell, the Rev. Lori Hartman, and I are leading up at New York Theological Seminary this fall.

The first session was an introduction to the environmental justice movement and the environmental racism that made the movement necessary. We discussed two on-line videos, the first a case study of the dire environmental situation in Camden, New Jersey, a majority Black city a hundred miles south of New York. Some of the seminar participants were shocked that such things were going on so close to NYC; later they would be even more shocked by the situation in Harlem and the South Bronx.

The second video was Environmental Justice on the Cutting Edge,” a lecture by Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of the environmental justice moment,” about what the environmental justice movement is. We began viewing it about ten minutes in, when Bullard actually begins talking. People found the series of Power Point maps that Bullard shows especially informative.

With the discussion about these two videos as background, the second session focused on environmental justice as a grass-roots phenomenon driven by groups and actions in local communities. I started the session by giving a talk about the movements in which the environmental justice movement is rooted, after which we watched and discussed another case-study video, this one about community action against environmental racism in Chester, Pennsylvania. Finally, I introduced our distinguished speaker, Peggy Morrow Shepherd, director and co-Founder of We Act for Environmental Justice, the grass-roots environmental justice organization in Harlem.

Here’s my talk:

In the lecture video that we viewed last week, Dr. Robert Bullard said that the environmental justice movement isn’t a top down movement where experts tell the people what the problem is and what they should do about it. It’s a grass roots movement where the people being harmed by environmental racism come together, get organized, and fight back.

In fact, the environmental justice movement is intrinsically connected to, or even descended from, four grassroots movements that came before it. These four movements, as Luke Cole and Sheila Foster explain in their wonderful book, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement, are the civil rights movement, the anti-toxics movement, the United Farm Workers|, and the indigenous people’s movement. (Much of this talk is taken from the first chapter of the Cole/Foster book).

The first and most influential of these, of course, was the civil rights movement, with church-based civil rights leaders, Latino as well as African-American, pioneering the early actions against environmental racism. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was in Memphis to support the garbage workers’ strike there when he was killed in 1968. The first protest against environmental racism, in 1992, against the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in African American majority Warren County, NC, was led by civil rights activist and African American minister Dr. Benjamin Chavis. The first national report on environmental racism was issued by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, which was also led by Rev. Chavis.

Especially important in the development of the environmental justice movement was the civil rights emphasis on direct action and refusing to accept claims from experts who try to argue, for example, that environmental degradation in majority Black, Latino or indigenous areas are somehow random, unintentional. The five hundred people arrested in acts of civil disobedience against PCBs, the extremely toxic chemical compounds dumped in Warren County, NC, directly echoed earlier civil rights sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience.

Civil rights leaders in positions of political power have also made a difference; Congressman John Lewis introduced the Environmental Justice Act in 1992; it did not pass, but raised environmental justice as a public issue.

The anti-toxics movement was also really important. It burst into national prominence in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area and evacuated residents of a housing development built on a former toxic waste dump there. This was the beginning of “grassroots environmentalism” because it and similar actions were about the effects of toxic waste on human health, not only about wilderness and wildlife. Subsequently, seven thousand anti-toxics groups formed across the country, but they tended to lack the kind of national organizing skills that characterized the civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, anti-toxics groups advanced the national policy of pollution prevention by getting certain industrial chemicals banned. They also led the way by using (or in some cases, discrediting) scientific knowledge. Academic research has proven essential to getting toxics banned across the country. The anti-toxics movement also helped to shift the focus from legal to economic structures that were purported to be “natural” but weren’t. Profit fixation can be as harmful as unjust laws.

The third precursor of the environmental justice movement, the United Farm Workers, brought together the quest for Latino civil rights with labor organizing, focusing in particular, on the toxic effects of pesticides in the fields where farm workers labored. It started with successful organizing to ban the use of DDT in the later 1960s, an action that was the first instance of organizing against environmental racism in the US. Latinos have also organized against excessive logging that destroys the environment, and against strip mining, especially in the Southwest.

The fourth grassroots movement that has had a significant impact on the environmental justice movement is the indigenous people’s movement. This is so in part because indigenous people are all around the world, and so have helped build connections between environmental justice groups here in the U.S. and in other countries, especially in the Global South. One of the first indigenous environmental actions in the U.S. was in the late 1980s when a Navajo tribe in Northeast Arizona organized against the siting of a toxic waste incinerator on their reservation. This initial action has now grown into an international network of forty grassroots indigenous environmental justice groups.

The other significant contribution of the indigenous peoples’ movement to the environmental justice movement is the spiritual dimension it brings, specifically to the understanding of the environment by Christian and other western environmental justice groups. This is so because indigenous people understand themselves to be connected much more directly to the earth than many of us in the West do. Intrinsic to the indigenous movement is the sense that indigenous people are a part of everything, not set above it. This contrasts with the “dominion theory of creation” believed by many Christian groups, that God created us to have dominion over the earth and subdue it, not to be part of it.

But this indigenous notion of being one with the earth is precisely the “integral ecology” that Pope Francis called all people to in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, last May. So some Christians do in fact share this notion of deep connection with all creation. This integral spirituality, introduced by the indigenous people’s movement, is present throughout the “Principles of Environmental Justice,” formulated by the first People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit in 1991. These principles affirm the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity, and the interdependence of all species.

One group that Cole and Foster do not mention in From the Ground Up, but that has played a highly significant role in the environmental justice movement, is women. But Bob Bullard and Damu Smith devote an entire chapter to women in The Quest for Environmental Justice. It’s called “Women Warriors of Color on the Front Line” of the environmental justice movement. They begin by mentioning three women of color who have received national and even international acclaim for their leadership in the environmental justice movement.

One of these is the Kenyan, Wangari Maathai, who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for founding and leading the Green Belt Movement that mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees in Africa over a thirty year period. Another is Margie Richard, from Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” who was the first African American woman to receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. And the third is Peggy M. Shepherd, co-founder and director of We Act for Environmental Justice in Harlem, who received the 2003 Heinz Award for the Environment and who, I’m excited to say, will be speaking with us in a few minutes.

The rest of the article by Bullard and Smith allows Latina, African, and Native American women to speak for themselves about the grass-roots actions they have led across the country. In a certain sense, women’s leadership of the environmental justice movement is the unstated theme of our seminar today. I invite you to keep that theme in mind as we show a short video and then hear from our distinguished speaker, Peggy Shepherd. The video is about grass roots organizing against environmental racism in Chester Pennsylvania, a city on the Delaware River about an hour south of Philadelphia.

Before we begin, let me add that this video has special meaning for me because I was born in Chester, as were my parents. But after World War II, most of the white people moved out, and Chester now has a population that’s 85 percent people of color, and is a leading cancer cluster in the U.S. I also mention this because one of my earliest memories is of watching the smoke billow out of the oil refineries in Chester, back when it was a majority white city. And it happens that my mother, her sister, their mother and I, as well as my aunt’s only son, all have had terrible abdominal cancers caused by a genetic defect, and three of the five of us died from those cancers, the three who spent most of their lives in Chester. Now nobody has proven that the toxic chemicals in the air in Chester caused those genetic defects, but I myself strongly suspect that that’s the case.

I say this because I think it’s a great pity that in the U.S. since World War II, working class white people haven’t realized that they have more in common with people of color, especially with regard to toxic chemicals in the water and the air, than they have in common with rich white people who live up in the mountains or wherever.

So here’s the Chester video: (9 minutes) and do be sure to notice the significant role women play in the various actions.

Finally, I am honored to introduce Peggy Morrow Shepherd, director and co-founder of We Act for Environmental Justice in Harlem, and recipient of the 10th Annual Heinz Award for the Environment and many other honors. (In case you want to get a sense of our speaker, Peggy Shepherd’s bio is on the We Act webpage at and her Ted Talk on environmental justice is on YouTube at

The third session of our luncheon seminar series, on the relationship between climate change and environmental justice, will be held at New York Theological Seminary, 475 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, on Wednesday November 11 from noon to 1:30 PM. Please join us if you can.


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