Just journalism, or hegemonic narrative?

An environmental justice activist responds to HCN's coverage


This letter is a response to The environment is where we live, published in the Feb. 1 issue of High Country News.

Let me begin by thanking you for doing a series on environmental justice (EJ). The successes of the EJ Movement stand undeniably. I write to correct some inaccuracies in the initial installment of your series, to add history and to attempt to understand your intentions. I assume that the possibility of contacting environmental justice folks or organizations to guest edit this series was not considered.

After reading the first article in the series "Green Justice," I felt confused and puzzled about your framing of the EJ movement, one of its national leaders, and those who have worked and continue to do work and show care and concern for the place they call home - the Mountain View community in Albuquerque's south valley. My first reaction was actually shock, followed by anger and finally I was just mystified. I was edified that you recognized the Environmental Justice Movement and the role of one its national leaders from New Mexico. Then taken aback by your questionable "Personal Problems" column, whose import to the article I still struggle to understand. Your positioning of certain organizations and individuals also confused me.

Many of the EJ struggles you write about in New Mexico are attributed to others when in reality it was local organizations that led those struggles. The SAGE council led the sacred sites fight to protect the Petroglyph National Monument Park in Albuquerque, and the Colonias Development Council's organizing efforts with a community in southern New Mexico won what is today known as the "Rhino Decision." Both these groups are affiliated with the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) and the network supported these issues, but the smaller groups led the struggle. A significant amount of the policy work done in New Mexico has been done by the New Mexico Environmental Justice Working Group (NMEJWG) convened by SNEEJ, which includes some of the New Mexico affiliate organizations of the Network and outside technical assistants.

We Speak for Ourselves is not an old struggle to us. That struggle is over. It is a given. It is also the mantra of the EJ Movement, and no one person can lay claim to it, just as no person can lay authorship to the re-definition of the environment.  These mantras, definitions, The Principles of EJ and The Principles of Working Together* are the ethical mobility of the EJ Movement. They are its collective wisdom - the cultural capital of the Movement. A collective organic intelligence is not private property. We wonder why some people attempt to lay claim to thoughts, ideas and conceptualizations of the Movement. Even Wikipedia cannot resist calling Dr. Robert Bullard the father of EJ. I know Bob and although I haven't had a discussion about this with him, I have enough confidence in his work for the EJ Movement to know that he does not consider himself the father of EJ.

Our communities are dealing with ever growing and ever changing forces that burden them because of social (race, class, gender, social, educational, political, artistic, and cultural) and environmental inequities that persist. Examples of this are: the facts of racial prejudice, the grinding fact of poverty, the judgments of "lazy" and "don't care" that go with it. The oppression of women and children from within and without, an education system that focuses on attendance without understanding motivation, a justified negativity about the political process, culture and talent that is unappreciated, a confusing and bitter tension within all organized religions about what is and is not social justice and a dominant culture that parades as the "American Way" in violation of it's own foundation. These inequities persist precisely because they are institutionalized.

There has been progress in race relations in the US. We are in most cases safe from lynching and outright murder. However, only those who are addicted to the dominant powers would allow themselves to think that we are post-racism. The covert and institutionalized inequities are built into our system of ineffective "color-blind laws." Just ask the young males of color in the south valley of Albuquerque, who must deal with a larger police force than the rest of the city, along with police harassment.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

appreciation, really!
Chet Jurgens
Chet Jurgens
Mar 30, 2010 03:17 PM
Take heart Mz. Martinez: without the platform accorded by HCN (High Country News) I may never have heard of SNEEJ (Southwest Network for Environmental & Economic Justice), nor indeed the movement of which I have now learned it is just a part. I read every word of your response carefully. As an outsider and part of a minority (one quite apart from the constituency you represent) I am well aware that feeling misunderstood comes with the territory, and that hypersensitivity to perceived criticisms or the injustice of generalizations is an ever present risk. That is my view of my own circumstances: I certainly do not have the temerity to claim it represents any truth about you.

On comparing the original HCN article against your criticisms of it, I thought the original was the same sympathetic account I remembered. Although I thought your response was at times shrill (eg: the drunk driving charge was brought by the authorities, not by the journalists, and to have omitted such details would have been PR not reportage) I valued the alternative view. Not everyone will be as unbiased: in my own work, I do a pre-flight check to ensure I am advancing the cause I espouse, and not just scratching my own flea bites. However, you don't come across as the sort of person who needs advice, but sometimes that's part of the territory, too.
"Just journalism or hegemonic narrative
Rose Moss
Rose Moss
Mar 30, 2010 07:49 PM
While accusing the HCN reporters of giving more favorable coverage to "white folks", the author of "Just journalism or hegemonic narrative" expresses a very race-centered view. Looks like Ms. Martinez projected her own biased views onto the story she criticizes. Sad.
Amen to that
Karen Mangan
Karen Mangan
Apr 07, 2010 07:34 PM
I agree about the author's race based view. I object to some of the language used by the author-language like: "....addicted to the dominant culture" (that's code for "white culture") and "a dominant culture that parades as the "American way" in violation of its own foundation" Um, ok-I get it-wer're bad, we're really bad.
I would like to see the authors of the original article grow a backbone and defend their article. Not sure if this is going to happen, as liberals often seem unable to defend their own position, especially when criticism comes from their left. They don't want to be accused of racism, etc. Again-sad, very sad, and a sign of the times.
Green Justice
Marla Painter
Marla Painter
Apr 01, 2010 03:15 PM
I agree with the online comment from my former colleague, Jenice View, that “The Environment is Where We Live,” (HCN 2/1/10) could have focused more on the environmental problems that we struggle with here in Mountain View and less with personalities. The substance of our issues can easily fill a whole issue of HCN. For instance, little was said about the recalcitrant political structure that continues the environmental oppression in our community. Nevertheless, the interpersonal dynamics do affect how the work progresses. And so, perhaps unwisely because I’ve already said enough, I continue the conversation.

Sofia Martinez (HCN online: Just Journalism, or Hegemonic Narrative?, 2/25/10) is an important figure in the environmental justice movement. However, it troubles me plenty that Ms. Martinez hangs on to the hopeless and out-dated vision of segregated political organizing. Twenty five or so years ago, many of us young white organizers who worked as allies to the EJ movement understood that we needed to sit back and not speak unless spoken to. People of color needed to find their voices. Some of us were drummed out of the "white environmental movement" because we called-out other white people who claimed to speak for communities of color. As a young female organizer in that situation, I experienced internal conflict when my feminist sisters saw me allowing men-even if they were men of color- to dominate. Now I know that I can remain loyal to my commitment to be an ally to people of color and also speak for myself as a white woman who lives in a mixed community, namely, Mountain View. Contrary to Ms. Martinez's comment, I have never claimed to speak for people of color, but at the same time I feel welcome as a neighbor and an activist in the community. It is only a few with their own political agenda who freeze out those who they consider to be "the other.” This is sad mostly because it hinders progress toward our common goals.

It’s my observation that young organizers of color are more inclined to see issues as the focus, of course within an assumed context of racial power. The "hierarchy of oppression paradigm" therefore is slowly being replaced with "lets just get on with the work". Most people with whom I work have no qualms about pointing out that white folks are speaking too much or dominating a discussion. But we work it out and we work together.

Countering racism is a lifetime task. If we wait to eliminate racism before we work together, nothing will ever get done.

Older white people often don't join environmental justice struggles because they fear being beaten up for their skin color and privilege. Of course, racism is not dead and our ingrained privileged behavior has not vanished; everyone has to confront unconscious racism in a group endeavor. But in a world that belongs to the young, the political culture of white guilt that paralyzed environmental politics twenty years ago no longer dominates the discourse.

Re: I don't blame Ms. Martinez for defending her partner, Mr. Moore, or her daughter, Bianca Martinez. But her canard is a one-note song. The environmental problems affect all of us who live here, white, Chicano, Native Americans, Mexicano, Black, homeless, homeowners, renters, low income, privileged. We all have a responsibility to work for justice, for the land and for our communities to be healthy and intact.

For the most part, the pioneers of the environmental justice work of twenty-five years ago have progressed beyond a need to be recognized. Indeed, Professor Magdalena Avila rightly should be acknowledged both for her outstanding work in California and her current work in New Mexico. We love and salute her. Can we just acknowledge that there are many giants, Mr. Moore and Ms. Martinez included, who all should be held up as movement heroes--and now let's get on with it?

No one is more sanctified than another to speak about the problems that face the oppressed throughout the world. When white people speak out about oppression they are not necessarily speaking for the oppressed. Let's work toward speaking as a unified and diverse political movement.

Thanks for all the good discussion. Race and privilege are often the elephants in the room. Let’s continue to talk about the elephants.

Marla Painter
Albuquerque South Valley EJ
Lora Lucero
Lora Lucero
Apr 02, 2010 12:00 AM
Thank you for publishing Sofia Martinez' response. I hope the important environmental justice struggles can rise above turf issues and personalities, and focus on the common goals shared by many.