Crowning Women of Color and the Real Story Behind the 2002 EJ Summit
Robert D. Bullard
December 31, 2002, Atlanta, GA -- Now that the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit or Summit II is history, it is time to tell the real story behind this historic event and give kudos to those who made it happen. It might surprise some people that the brains and backbone behind the Summit II were a few hard working, fearless, and dedicated women of color. Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that men were not actively involved or did not play an important role in planning the Washington, DC meeting this past month.
As an ex-Marine, I know hard work when I see it. When a "few good men" were needed, they were nowhere to be found. And I never saw a group of women work as hard planning this four-day event that brought environmental justice leaders from around the world to the nation's capital. My hat goes off to my sisters for staying the course and for being there when our movement needed them.
Women chaired the Summit II and all but one of its key sub-committees. It is in the subcommittees where the real work occurred. Unfortunately, "when the going got tough, the tough got going." Untimely resignations from the Summit II Executive Committee and Planning Committee by some of the male EJ leaders left the bulk of the Summit II work on the shoulders of the women EJ leaders. It is ironic that the women solidified their leadership role in Summit II by default-when many of the men who had been in leadership roles walked away. The women probably would not have been able to achieve this level of visibility and power in an otherwise sexist, male-dominated society-which also extends to the environmental justice movement and Summit II planning-had the men stayed.
Women stepped up and rescued the Summit II planning, which had been stalled in limbo for a year under the sponsorship of the Environmental Justice Fund-a collection of six environmental justice networks. When the EJ Fund closed its doors in Oakland, rumors and whispers flew rampant from coast to coast that the Summit II was off. The October 2001, 10th anniversary of the 1991 Summit, was missed. With no sponsoring organization, how was it possible to have an international gathering of this magnitude? However, the Summit II, like the EJ movement, proved to be much larger than any one individual, organization, network, or fund. History also proved that the death of the Summit II was premature.
When the Summit II needed a new organization sponsor (after the EJ Fund was not in the position to host the planning), it was Dr. Beverly Wright (Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University), the Summit II lone co-chair (Dr. Wright became chair after several male co-chairs resigned), who went to Washington, DC to recruit a new sponsor. She sought out and pleaded with Reverend Adora Iris Lee and Reverend Bernice Powell Jackson of the United Church of Christ to serve as the new host and new sponsor of Summit II. In 1991, the UCC, under the leadership of Reverend Benjamin Chavis, sponsored and planned the First Summit, also held in Washington, DC. The UCC agreed to serve as the new sponsor and Summit II was given new life.
Dr. Wright also took charge of finding Summit II office space in the nation's capital. She was able to cajole the DC-based McKinney & Associates (a black female-owned public relations firm) into renting space to house the national office. A little over a decade ago, Gwen McKinney and her partners served as the public relations firm for the First Summit. The Summit II office was moved from Oakland to Washington, DC. The move made it easier to plan an on-the-ground event in the host city as well as fund raise since most of the private foundations supporting the event are located on East Coast.
Under Dr. Wright's disciplined leadership, the Summit II planning team began to take shape. On the recommendation of Peggy Shepard (West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.), Summit II planners had the good sense and vision to hire Zenaida Mendez, a New Yorker of Dominican extraction. In addition to wanting to do good a job for Summit II planners, Zenaida made it clear that she did not want to let her mentor Peggy Shepard down. In the end, she proved to be a more than capable manager, organizer, and fundraiser. It is in the fundraising department that the meeting planners were handed a jewel. Zenaida was able to raise funds even in the face of Summit II detractors.
A special effort was to have young people at gathering-a criticism leveled at planners of the First Summit. Bouapha Toommaly, a young Laotian American, was hired as the youth coordinator. She moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington, DC to work out of the Summit II national office. Under her capable leadership, the youth were given a separate budget and encouraged to develop their program priorities. Bouapha teamed with Torkwase Karame, an African American youth volunteer from Savannah, Georgia, to attract a record 200 youth and students to the meeting. Torkwase, a youth delegate on the Summit II Executive Committee, also provided energy, youth perspectives, and insights from the "hip hop" generation. Dr. Mildred McClain (Citizens for Environmental Justice) mentored the youth leaders as they planned their work.
Dr. McClain often used songs, prayer, and her uplifting personality to imbue the spirit of "harambee" (i.e., let us pull together) in closed-door sessions and open meetings. Her repertoire of movement songs is limitless. Dr. McClain's Harvard doctorate is camouflaged by her grassroots community based work around federal facilities and her concern for communities impacted by radioactive waste.
Peggy Shepard chaired the program committee along with Pam Tau Lee (Asian Pacific Environmental Network) and Beverly Wright. These three women, while neglecting their own children, spouses, and families and nursing sick parents and friends, generated over 120 workshop proposals. Several dozen workshops and hands-on training sessions were merged. Women chaired, moderated, or presented in over half of the 86 workshops and training sessions.
Donele Wilkins, who heads Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, chaired Summit II Outreach Subcommittee. Under Donele's capable leadership, the Summit II delegation swelled from a planned meeting of 500 to over 1400 attendees. Cipriana Jurado Herrera added an international flavor to the outreach. She chaired the International Sub-committee. Cipriana is the director of nonprofit Center for Worker Research and Solidarity (CISO) based in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She has worked on and organized around environmental and economic justice, worker rights, and women rights issues on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. She made her way from Mexico, although six months pregnant, to attend the Summit II. International delegates came from more than a dozen foreign countries throughout North, Central, and South America, Pacific Islands, Asia, and Africa.
A year earlier, some Summit II planners questioned the 500 number as being overly ambitious. Individuals who fell in this camp were dead wrong. A "bandwagon" effect took shape the closer we got to the Summit II and when it became readily apparent that no amount of rumors or gender, ethnic or class conflict would block the Summit II. The "Little Red Hen" parable, which we all read as children, was very appropriate in Summit II planning. Moving toward the prize with laser focus and a no nonsense work ethic proved to be an unstoppable strategy.
The honoring women event was the brainchild of Dr. Wright. She made it clear to all that the Crowning Women Awards Dinner was going to happen, even if no other food was to be served at the Summit II. Some people took this as a joke. But those of us who know her knew it was no joke or idle threat. Because of limited funds for food (the bulk of money raised was allocated toward getting grassroots delegates to the meeting), Reverend Adora Lee shared a dream (nightmare) she had of "food fights." There were no "food fights" and the long-overdue Crowning Women Awards Dinner proved to be the highlight of the international gathering.
The tenacity, arm-twisting, and leadership displayed by Adora, Bernice, Beverly, Bouapha, Cipriana, Donele, Gwen, Mildred, Pam, Peggy, Torkwase, and Zenaida should be immortalized in Hollywood (we are still waiting for an EJ movie by and about people of color). These women are all "sheroes" and deserve a crown-along with the other twelve women that were honored at the Summit II Bread and Roses Awards event.
Robert D. Bullard served on the Executive Committee for Summit II. He also directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.