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."

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