Leslie Fields finds a calling in environmental justice

"You have to decide to make the investment," says African-American attorney Leslie Fields, who directs the Sierra Club's environmental justice program, with an annual budget of about $1 million. Although other big greens have also changed the way they work, the Sierra Club is the only one with a substantial environmental justice staff. "We have done the most, I have to say," says Fields. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that."

Fields came to environmental justice through her commitment to civil rights. After graduating from Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for a few years, she moved to Texas to become a legislative counsel on environment, health and safety. In 1992, she spent a week researching the Texas Clean Air Act in order to fight a synthetic rubber plant across the street from an elementary school "filled with black and Latino kids. It was ghastly. The kids were sick, everyone's got an inhaler. ..."

To learn more about environmental issues, she began attending the local chapter of the Sierra Club. She enjoyed the work -- battling landfills, refineries, effluent in streams, lead and nuclear waste -- and was eventually hired by the Texas Commission on Environmental Equity. Later, she worked for Friends of the Earth, where she fought Shell and Chevron from Nigeria to Ghana: "the same issues, the same companies bedeviling the same kinds of people."

In 2004, she got the job with the Sierra Club. Fields, who is also a law professor at Howard University, directs her staff from Washington, D.C. In Flagstaff -- the only Western outpost-- Andy Bessler and Robert Tohe work to preserve tribal sacred sites, protect water sources, halt further uranium mining and clean up its legacy. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Darryl Malek-Wiley works on restoring wetlands, fighting illegal dumping, and cleaning up the 150 petrochemical facilities and refineries between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Other offices are based in El Paso, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis, Charleston and Puerto Rico.

"Our prime directive is to work at the community's request. And these initiatives are created by the communities and the local Sierra Club chapters," Fields says.

But what if the community itself is divided? In September, the Hopi Tribal Council voted unanimously to (symbolically) ban the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Grand Canyon Trust from Hopi land. The council charged the groups with depriving the tribe of "markets for its coal resources" because of their role in shutting down the Mohave Generating Station, which purchased Black Mesa coal from the Hopi tribe. Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. followed suit. On the surface, it seemed like a classic example of a local community defying outside special interests. But in fact, many of the leaders of the anti-coal movement are themselves Hopi or Navajo, and have long accused the coal mines and power plants of environmental injustice.

It just shows "how tough these issues are," says Sierra Club staffer Bessler. "The Sierra Club doesn't tiptoe around the tough issues. People need to know the intricacies of the problems where there are no easy answers."

"When you work with communities, you can only support and inform, and get their voices heard in the decision-making process," says Tohe, a Navajo and longtime community organizer. "If you bring their voices to the table, that's the best thing you can do, and your time is well-spent."

The Sierra Club won a big EJ victory with the 2008 closing of the Asarco copper smelter in Texas, which released lead, arsenic and cadmium into El Paso and across the border into Juarez -- a bi-national effort that took many people years to accomplish, says Fields. The Flagstaff EJ staff also worked hard on a proposal to create a green economy in Navajoland, approved by the tribal council in July of 2009.

Fields is building on the work of Robert Bullard, African-American author of the groundbreaking 1990 book on environmental justice, Dumping in Dixie. He and other scholars had to "invent our methodology along the way, showing this is not an isolated case about one community, this is institutional" as they created a body of scholarly work to measure environmental racism.

The Environmental Protection Agency -- now headed by Lisa Jackson, an African-American -- announced last summer that it would consider the disproportionate impact of hazardous waste recycling plants on people of color, a situation that has actually worsened over the past 20 years, according to a study by Bullard and others released by the United Church of Christ in 2007.

"Environmental justice is in the lexicon, but we're making it up as well go along," says Fields. "It's changing and you can be changing it. It's messy and unstructured, relentless and global. It's really a different animal from 20 years ago, but the systemic stuff remains. People have to get sued to change; that's part of the process."

This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.