The Shot Heard Round the West

What resulted from activists' 1990 challenge to the big greens

  • Richard Moore speaks to the crowd gathered for the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991.

    Courtesy SNEEJ
  • Michael Fischer used the SWOP letter as a tool to prod the Sierra Club into taking environmental justice issues seriously.

    Courtesy Michael Fischer
  • Leslie Fields, Sierra Club's director for the Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships program, at a booth at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual conference in Washington, D.C.

    Courtesy Sierra Club

Richard Moore challenges the big greens

In March 1990, Richard Moore was the director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, a grassroots advocacy group in Albuquerque, N.M. Founded in 1980, SWOP spent the decade conducting voter-registration drives and organizing in neighborhoods contaminated by pollution.

The group had been remarkably successful in its efforts, and Moore was poised to make SWOP a household name, at least in the mainstream environmental community.

So Moore and his colleagues sent out what came to be known as the "SWOP letter." Signed by 100 cultural, arts, community and religious leaders -- all people of color -- and addressed to the directors of the Big 10 conservation groups, the letter charged the organizations with a history of "racist and exclusionary practices," a lack of in-house diversity, and an all-around failure to support environmental justice efforts.

"That letter caught everybody in the mainstream environmental movement off guard," says The Wilderness Society's president, Bill Meadows. "I'm not sure people knew how to respond. Diversity became a pretty serious issue in the green community -- the letter raised the level of awareness and concern."

Moore gives several reasons for the letter. Toxic waste facilities are located primarily in communities of color; this was documented in 1987 by the United Church of Christ's Committee on Racial Justice, led by Ben Chavis. But the big green groups showed no interest in cleaning up those polluted neighborhoods and didn't consider the work "environmental."

At the same time, in the Southwest, the big conservation groups had a history of siding against Chicanos on grazing and other issues. "There were a lot of examples of conservation groups pushing legislation that would impact our life and livelihood without consulting us," Moore says.

Perhaps the final straw came when Moore approached Earth Day organizers to become a part of the event. They told him that the issues he was working on -- groundwater contamination caused by feedlots and other petrochemical facilities, uranium mining, sewage plant odors, sheep and cattle grazing -- just weren't relevant.

"Our definition of the environment is where we work, live and play, where we pray and where we go to school," Moore says. "And we're not about NIMBY -- we're about not in anybody's backyard, or country."

Not guilty!
O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson
Feb 04, 2010 12:48 PM
Thanks for making the liberals feel guilty again, and by using their own foundation funding (see end of article) to do it as well. It's like peeing in their little sandbox and having them ask "Please sir, may I have another?" because they enjoy wallowing in their racial guilt and being diverted from real issues so much.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have long since moved past the fake guilt and political correctness of the big foundation funded groups to actually do something effective.
Not Guilty!
Joe Namath
Joe Namath
Feb 07, 2010 07:15 AM
"the rest of us have long since moved past the fake guilt and political correctness of the big foundation funded groups to actually do something effective."

So, um, what have you done except write comments that don't make any sense? Whatever it is, I'm sure we're all in your debt.
Tim Sowecke
Tim Sowecke
Feb 21, 2010 06:22 PM
SWOP certainly named the "elephant in the room" of the environmental movement. This article should definitely not be construed as shameful, but a source of inspiration -an impetus for the movement to develop new methods premised upon inclusiveness and dialogue rather than shame and proselytization.
The challenge to the "Big Greens"
Marla Painter
Marla Painter
Apr 01, 2010 10:42 AM
You mentioned only nine groups. Who was the 10th group?
The 10th Group
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson
Apr 01, 2010 11:32 AM

Izaak Walton League was the tenth group. They would not respond to our calls and queries, so were not included in the list, The Big 10 Responds.

The challenge to the "Big Greens"
Marla Painter
Marla Painter
Apr 01, 2010 03:43 PM
Izaak Walton League. OK.

The organization I worked for at the time- Rural Alliance for Military Accountability(RAMA), which worked on the impact of the military and the military nuclear complex on rural/wild lands and people-was sent the same letter that was sent to the Big Ten at the time. We had a multi-racial staff and board and a budget of $250,000. We worked primarily in poor and communities of color. After the letters were sent to the foundation/funder world, our funding dried up because we were "suspect". We were a multi racial organization working on environmental justice issues. Some of our staff were involved in the original meetings in DC that "founded" the EJ movement.

Now I wonder, how many other smaller organizations were unjustly included with the large, white mainstream environmental groups that were labled racist by SNEEJ at the time? That letter wrecked a really great organization that was doing good work in low income rural America.