Environmental Justice Summit Ushers in New Day for Women
Washington, DC, October 29, 2002 - It has now been over a decade since the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington, DC. The 1991 gathering brought African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian and Pacific Islander Americans together around environmental and economic justice. The first two days of the historic four days meeting was restricted only to people of color delegates so that they could meet, learn, discuss their common struggles, and "unpack" the baggage left by the various forms of racial oppression. The second two days of the meeting was open to all racial and ethnic groups, including whites, who came to the nation's capital to discuss strategies to dismantle and eradicate environmental racism.
The unfolding events at the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership, also held in Washington, DC, on October 23-27, is a good indication that the environmental justice movement is growing, maturing, and ushering in new leadership. The gathering was planned for 500 people. Over 1,200 delegates (voting members) and another 200 non-voting participants showed up for the four-day meeting. The environmental justice movement is the fastest growing segment of the environmental movement. It is by far the most ethnically and culturally diverse mass movement in the United States.
Women leadership is the engine that drives the grassroots environmental justice movement, a stark difference from the mostly white male-led mainstream environmental movement. A woman chaired the Summit II. Women chaired most of the standing subcommittees that planned the meeting and chaired a majority of the sessions where the real work took place. Women elders, seasoned veterans, and young women made their presence felt in the public meetings and behind the scene. And for this important work, twelve "sheroes" in the EJ movement were singled out and honored at a special dinner.
Summit II was about leadership. It was not organized as a mass meeting. The organizers assembled three generations of environmental justice leadership--elders, seasoned veterans, and young warriors. Through hard and long negotiation, the environmental justice leaders were able to begin an open dialogue to unmask and bridge the racial, cultural, language, gender, and age gaps-that keep the various groups divided and fighting each other-and to forge new relationships and principles for working together.
The leaders agreed not only to work against institutional racism-but also agreed to work just as hard on eliminating ageism, sexism, and paternalism within the environmental justice movement. These are all positive steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, much work is urgently needed to undo the legacy of mistrust, internalized oppression, and ethnic conflict that exists in the environmental justice movement and the larger society. Sweeping it under the rug will not make this reality disappear.
Over the past two decades, environmental justice and environmental racism have become household words. Out of small and seemingly isolated environmental struggles emerged a potent grassroots community-driven environmental justice movement. Many of the on-the-ground environmental struggles in the 1960s and to the present day have seen the quest for environmental and economic justice become a unifying theme across race, class, gender, age, and geographic lines.
Today, a dozen environmental justice networks exist that were not around in 1991. Some leaders chose to develop place-base networks. Others chose to develop ethnic-based networks. We now see an increasing number of community based organizations, environmental and conservation groups, legal groups, faith-based groups, labor, academic institutions, and youth organizations teaming up on environmental and health issues that differentially impact poor people and people of color. Environmental racism and environmental justice panels have become "hot" topics at national conferences and forums sponsored by law schools, bar associations, public health groups, scientific societies, professional meetings, and university lecture series.
In just a short time, environmental justice advocates have had a profound impact on public policy, industry practices, national conferences, private foundation funding, research, and curriculum development. Environmental justice courses and curricula can be found at nearly every university in the country. Groups have been successful in blocking numerous permits for new polluting facilities and forced government and private industry buyout and relocation of several communities impacted by Superfund sites and industrial pollution.
Environmental justice trickled up to the federal government and the White House. Environmental justice advocates were key actors who convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under the first Bush Administration) to create an Office on Environmental Equity. Many of the policies, programs, and initiatives that were begun under the first Bush administration were continued and expanded under the Clinton Administration. Summit leaders continue to press their issues in the current Bush administration. Clearly, environmental justice is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It's just about justice.