Environmental justice: A vision for change


"The environment for us is where we live, work and play."  Jeanne Gauna, the SouthWest Organizing Project's co-founder and longtime co-director, crystallized the inspiration and sentiment of the environmental justice movement with this simple yet profound idea.  In addition to transforming and reinvigorating the environmental, labor, indigenous and civil rights movements, environmental justice established a vision for change so bold and revolutionary that we are just now beginning to realize both its wisdom and impact.

The genius behind Jeanne's mantra and the environmental justice movement's vision is the understanding that the key to shifting public consciousness toward living sustainably and in harmony with Mother Earth was including people and the economy as part of the 'environment' conversation. The environment for us is also where we pray and go to school. In other words, the decisions we make to protect the environment need to include, and be grounded in, our everyday reality.

Like the First People of Color Summit on the Environment held in 1991, the SWOP Letter to the Group of Ten was a landmark event and a galvanizing moment for people of color throughout the United States. The summit and the letter brought us together, and were also our way of reaching out to the mostly white environmental movement—a necessary challenge to broaden their perspective and deepen their analysis or risk becoming irrelevant and ineffective. Policy solutions needed to include a lens toward racial and economic justice. So, interesting as it may be to learn the perspectives of the recipients of the SWOP letter 20 years later, it would be perverse and one dimensional to measure the environmental justice movements success only through the eyes of those who helped exacerbate the crises of environmental racism in the first place, because the aims of the EJ movement were much larger than transformation of mainstream environmental organizations.

There are obvious successes of the environmental justice movement. Executive Orders on Environmental Justice signed by President Clinton and New Mexico's Governor Richardson are examples of the environmental justice movement's influence on policy at the highest levels. The Obama administration's appointments of EPA Chief Lisa Jackson and Green Jobs Czar Van Jones are examples of the leadership the EJ movement has produced. Additionally, and probably more importantly, grassroots organizations are responsible for countless ordinances and regulations passed within cities, counties, tribes, and states throughout the country that work to protect human health and the environment from the type of pollution that is causing our global ecological crisis.

The not so obvious success of the environmental justice movement is the impact its vision has had on our narrative of how we as people interact with Mother Earth. The Principles of Environmental Justice wove a narrative of social change grounded in the values of equity, justice and sustainability. It is a solution oriented story that is anchored by the notion that a rising tide will lift all boats. Today, concepts like green jobs, a green economy, renewable energy, zero waste, corporate responsibility and triple bottom lines, have all seeped into the mainstream of public consciousness.

And although this expanded definition of the environment is becoming mainstream, we obviously must deepen our work and our challenge to power. Last December in Copenhagen, corporate heads of state failed to make the necessary agreements to save us from ourselves. Our society runs the risk of embracing energy solutions that continue to cause extremely serious localized pollution of low-income communities of color-like nuclear energy and coal, neither of which can ever be green or clean. Every day, our corrupt political system makes it incredibly hard for communities all over the world, including the community of Mountain View, to realize their dream of living in a clean and healthy environment.

The environmental justice movement united urban, struggling suburban and rural communities from every corner of the country under a tent that connected and reframed key and timely concepts like conservation, sustainability, health, workers' rights, corporate responsibility, indigenous sovereignty, the economy and democracy. It also situated our struggle within a larger international movement for global justice. It hasn't been easy work and it certainly has had its ups and downs but we did it. And we’re still doing it. The environmental justice vision of change was and still is a road map of how we can transform the greatest crises we've ever encountered into our greatest opportunity.

Robby Rodriguez is the Executive Director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, a grassroots community organizing group founded in 1980 to realize racial and gender equality and social and economic justice based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since 1997, he has helped to organize New Mexico communities to achieve social change in various capacities with SWOP.