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for people who care about the West

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.

I was taken aback by quotes, attributed to the director of an organization we once helped build: He is credited with describing community efforts at policy-making as "clumsy," and evaluations of movement decisions, which he was not a part of, as being problematic for the EJ Movement. I refer to the assessment that the EJ Movement made a mistake in choosing to be de-centralized. Movements are by their very nature de-centralized, sort of like the United States of America. It was a collective decision to be de-centralized. It was a well-discussed Movement decision to honor the principle of "We Speak for Ourselves." These decisions were efforts to ensure that no one person or organization would be the spokesperson for the entire movement, an attempt to support horizontal leadership rather than the same ineffective hierarchical model now revived with the rise of technocrats and consultants; who take it upon themselves to speak for others, propose to assess and negotiate for our communities without checking in and perhaps profiting from the work of others.

I was also puzzled by why the authors would make so much of the financial differences between organizations. Where would the civil rights and human rights struggles in this country and the world be if folks measured their success by their budgets? We all know that funding makes things easier, facilitates organizing, advocacy and the provision of jobs and services. This made me reflect on what the radical women of color group, "Incite," has written about in, The Revolution Will Not be Funded: The 501 (c) (3) Industrial Complex. Incite isn't doing well in funding either. Why would speaking for oneself dry up funds and who profits?

Dana Alston, now deceased, along with white allies and many others, worked with foundations to direct resources to the networks that represented many small community organizations and groups who did not have resources to be represented and be in the dialogue. The reality is that even those funding opportunities that were created by the movement have been withheld from us. For a time EJ funding created by the movement through the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) of the EPA was for many years not available to networks. The work of SNEEJ was instrumental in changing this funding issue.

Some private foundations continue to fund environmental justice, others have redirected their funding. The historical networks have all faced funding challenges. In economic hard times our programs are the first ones to be cut, just as the poor will also bear the burden of recovery.

The question that ran over and over in my mind was why you would construct our leaders as hopeless, drunkards, nationalists, reverse-racists, taking time off, giving up hope and moving to the suburbs. I was puzzled by your motives in what could have been a positive effort by a mainstream environmental newspaper in interrogating the state of the "color line," choosing instead to include a column sub-titled "personal problems." We do not need to defend anyone, but I do wish to contribute some information.

Lauro Silva, after he was interviewed, was hospitalized and is now recovering and healing. His daughter Milagro, who has a myriad of special needs from a birth gone wrong at the hands of our health system, also became critically ill requiring hospitalization. She, too, is now at home. Her mother, Dr. Magdalena Avila, spent much time at the hospital. She is Milagro's best nurse and considers whether she may have to step back from her duties as a full-time professor at the University of New Mexico (UNM). She fears that her daughter's medical needs may come to be considered too costly for the medical system evaluating her worth.

Avila, although never mentioned in the article, has long been an EJ activist. She lived for many years in Kettleman City, Calif.. She and a community group fought a successful struggle against a proposed hazardous waste incinerator in the community, where the mostly poor residents color continue to suffer health problems as a result of contamination. We support and honor this family's focus on personal and family health needs and their work for environmental justice.

With the resources available to this effort we wonder why no one followed up with the people interviewed to give them a first draft for comments or corrections. Bianca Encinias, along with Michael Sarmiento, from Los Angeles, form the leadership team that co-leads the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ). SNEEJ is a multicultural, multiracial network that represents over 60 organizations in the southwest and the northern states of Mexico that border the US.

SNEEJ and the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) were the only two networks that existed at the time of the First People of Color Leadership Summit. The Asian Pacific Islander Network (APEN) and Southern Organizing Committee (SOC) formed right after the first Summit. Many more have formed since.

To correct your writing, Bianca Encinias did not take a year-and-a-half off work. Rather, she took a 6-week maternity leave from her duties at SNEEJ, and continues to work and raise a family like most of the working class. She is also working on an advanced degree in Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico. As you know, maternity leave has been a hard-fought right for families in this country.

Julio Dominguez, another young person from the Mountain View community, is crafting a promising career and works hard to support his family. His parents still live in Mountain View. He began to work on environmental justice issues when he was in the ninth grade in high school. Currently he is working with others to build a new group that offers an alternative to the neighborhood association. There is a long history of activism and victories in this community. Why would you imply that he thinks organizing and being informed is unimportant and a waste of time? Should he be ashamed because he has chosen to live in a different, less polluted neighborhood? Isn't this what most Americans want for their families? Should we be disappointed or critical of Mr. Dominguez's success?

Richard Moore made an unfortunate decision to drink and drive, and in a tragic accident caused injury to a young man who is recovering. On the day of Richard's sentencing the young man walked into the courtroom with his family and was compassionate and forgiving. Richard does not need to be defended. He is paying, and will continue to pay, for this devastating accident. However, he continues to be a visionary leader. He is healing, re-habilitating, reflecting. When he is able, he will once again speak for himself. He will continue the work to which he has committed his life -- social and environmental justice. I believe this experience has strengthened him as a leader and a life partner. His family and friends all know about his trials and now, you too, know. I do not know why you chose the language you used; only you can answer why the few words chosen were condemning.

It is my opinion that the white folks fared much better and even got more play in your story. You mentioned Ms. Painter's husband, for example, rather than Dr. Magdalena Avila, who has a history with EJ. Is it because you are more comfortable with those who most look and sound like you or whose activism you prefer?

Ms. Painter's comments of feeling like an outsider in the community might give her and others insight into how a majority of poor people of color have always felt in this country. We do not go into white communities thinking that we are going to bring justice and become leaders in these communities. We go in, if at all, to do service, including teaching, but not to speak for you. You wouldn't or shouldn't let us, and neither will we let you.

The Environmental Justice Movement may have been institutionalized by Clinton's Executive Order on Environmental Justice, and then co-opted by government institutions and many who write, publish and have some control over resources. However, in communities throughout the US and the world people continue to organize in their best interest. And we collaborate in principled efforts with white allies.

I have not always been in accord with your perspective. I was hopeful and excited to read your series on EJ then disappointed. We have yet to deal with the color line a century later and every day we are reminded of who has the power to construct, to publish, and to disseminate information. So what is it that you fear - is it our leaders, our communities, our movement? Do you fear the unity of people of color? Do you feel excluded because you are not at the leadership of this movement? Is it xenophobia? Are you fearful of the power that we do have -- speaking truth to power, our lived experience, our sheer ability to survive, and our integrity? Or is it the threat that a multicultural, multiracial movement without whites in the leadership could exist? In the end, this series may provoke an interrogation process for mainstream organizations and funders, an opportunity for education and renewed discussion in EJ circles.

*For copies of these primary documents please go to: sneej.org. Most EJ networks may have them on their websites.

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 [email protected].