MOVING BEYOND THE BARRIERS

Dana Alston

Speech Delivered at the
First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit
Washington, DC
October, 1991

Many would not envy the responsibility I have here this morning. Out of the 300 delegates that have come here, it was I who was selected to respond for us, the delegates - not to react to the environmentalists who have come here today. Our movement is not a reaction to the environmental movement. We have come here to define for ourselves the issues of the ecology and the environment. We have to speak these truths that we know from our lives to those participants and observers whom we have invited here to join us. We have come for you to hear our understandings from our mouths directly, so there will be no confusion and no misunderstandings.

ENVIRONMENTALISM AND THE CRITICAL ISSUES OF OUR TIME

For us, the issues of the environment do not stand alone by themselves. They are not narrowly defined. Our vision of the environment is woven into an overall framework of social, racial and economic justice. It is deeply rooted in our cultures and our spirituality. It is based in a long tradition and understanding and respect for the natural world. The environment, for us, is where we live, where we work and where we play.

The environment affords us the platform to address the critical issues of our time: questions of militarism and defense policy; religious freedom; cultural survival; energy and sustainable development; the future of our cities; transportation; housing; land and sovereignty rights; self-determination; and employment. We can go on and on.

We understand nuclear development and militarism. Native people die at every single level of nuclear development from the mining of uranium at the beginning of the process to the processing of nuclear material. The Havasupi have told us about their struggle with uranium mining. The Native Americans for a Clean Environment have spoken about Sequoia Fuels. We understand underground nuclear testing and its environmental and health impacts from the Western Shoshone. We know about the ultimate end of this nuclear process, i.e., the targeting of Native land for the disposal of nuclear wastes.

We understand the issues of transportation. We all saw the earthquake in San Francisco and we saw the highway entrance ramp collapse. That highway goes through the middle of a black community. We all know where all the highways go through around the cities in this country; they go through our communities. So the Clean Air Alternative Coalition in the Bay Area has built a multiracial movement to deal with where they are going to rebuild that highway.

We know these things from our daily lives. We know the issue of the environment is a housing issue. We know what Marjorie Moore has told us -- we realize that black and Latino children who have been poisoned by lead. But the media didn't want to talk about that too much, until they found out that white children also had lead poisoning.

We know about how racism works in this country. We have heard the delegates about the boycott of Levi Strauss and how Latino women have been crippled by making Docker Jeans. When they were so crippled and they couldn't work anymore, the company closes down with no notice. The workers come back from Christmas vacation to find out that they don't have a job. After asking the company before Christmas, "Are you going to close?" They were told, "Oh, no." So the women went out and bought Christmas presents, bought the trees, celebrated the holidays with their family, only to come back from the Christmas holiday to their gift - a pink slip. And that company then moves where? To Latin America, where they crippled and poison there.

ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT RESTRUCTURING

We realize that the environmental movement is restructuring, floundering, and in some sense searching for a new vision at this time. Environmentalists know that the majority of this society has clearly said that the environment is one of the chief concerns in their lives. But the environmental organizations haven't been able to come to grips with how to tap into all of that concern. So there is an attempt to merge several movements with the environmental movement.

There is an attempt to merge the population movement with the environmental movement. Population is a fast-growing issue. But when we're talking about population control, whose population are they talking about controlling? We have experienced this population issue before. We experienced them in the 1970's . People of color do not look at population issues in the same way. When you come to talk to us about population, you have to understand that black women in Harlem and throughout the South have been the victims of sterilization without consent. Latino and Asian people represent the statistics that has been put together by the population movement, and used by the right wing to institute repressive immigration legislation. We would like to see some population folk go and talk to our Native American brothers and sisters about limiting their population growth, knowing that they have been the victims of genocide.

We have had to confront in the past advocates of eugenics who want to control population to create a pure, white, strong, highly intellectual race. So be very careful before you start pushing population issues in our communities. You might be liable to get your feelings hurt. Because when you raise population issues you must understand the historical role of racism in this issue.

Now we also have an attempt to merge the environmental movement with the peace movement. We understand this to be a good thing because we see the role of militarism and defense policy in this issue clearly. When the East and West power struggles were going on in the past, the wars generated from that tension were fought among peoples of color around the world. When people of color went to the peace movement and said, "Yes, we would like to talk to you about peace and war but we also would like to talk to you about South Africa." And they said, "Oh, yeah, that's a terrible situation, but you really need to understand this weapon system." When we wanted to talk about Central American and Grenada, they said, "Yes, yes, okay, okay - but right now we need to talk to you about Star Wars. You need to educate your community about Star Wars." Today, an even harder question would be: "What about justice for the Palestinian people?" When we talk about building a coalition, our concerns also have to be brought to the table and dealt with.

We all understand the impact of underground nuclear testing on our environment. We have heard the peace movement speak to the ramifications of underground nuclear testing. But as I hear the environmentalists and the peace movement talk about this issue, and we see their films and their literature, we can visually see what is happening. Never do we see the issue of race come out of their mouths, the fact that the Soviets tested their bombs in an Asian republic among Asian people. The British tested their bombs on aboriginal land in Australia. The French tested their bombs in Algeria and in the South Pacific. The U.S. is testing their bombs right now on western Shoshone land here in the United States. This is the legacy of colonialism and racism, but you don't ever hear that come out their mouths.

Our brothers and sisters have been sharing with you today tales about the targeting of our communities for waste and poison and hazardous industries. As it gets more difficult to place wastes here in this country, there is an attempt to move them around the world. And where is it going? The same places that it has been going here: where people are poor; where people are powerless; and where people are not white - in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, in the Middle East. It is the same pattern.

CHALLENGE TO ENVIRONMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS

What should be the basis of our relationship with the environmental movement? I agree with our guests about what is needed for the basis of the partnership. The Gulf Coast Tenants Organization and the Southwest Organizing Project sent letters to many environmental organizations. The Southwest Organizing Project's letter was signed by hundreds of people and sent to all the major environmental/conservation organizations with a challenge. In that challenge was more than just a diversity issue of how many people you hire and who is on your board. Now, that is an important thing, but in the lineup of priority issues in that challenge, diversification is toward the bottom. The issue of diversity is one that environmental organizations and the media could get their hands on.

The real basis of the challenge is how some of the actions and the policies of environmental organizations have a drastic impact on the economic, social and political life of our communities. We know that the boards of directors of some of the environmental organizations are the very companies that we are struggling against. I had to struggle long and hard to decide whether we were going to name some names today. But the sister from Hawaii who really touched me and moved me told us that her delegation traveled 15 hours on a plane to get here. So I cannot really leave this room without telling some truths here because I need to be able to look that sister straight in the eye.

We know that the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society has Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) on their boards. And that we know that one of the chief perpetrators of environmental injustice in this country is Waste Management, Inc. We know that Waste Management, Inc. placed the largest hazardous waste landfill in the U.S. in Emelle, Alabama - a community of poor black people. We know that Waste Management, Inc. is trying to site this incinerator in Kettleman City, where folks are struggling in court charging environmental racism. Three existing and two proposed WMI hazardous waste incinerators are in neighborhoods composed predominantly of people of color. We know that Waste Management, Inc. has a hand in the destruction of the South Side of Chicago. We know the company well. What we don't know is why they're on the boards of The National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society. It's your actions and policies that we want to deal with. It's important that our brothers and sisters get hired to work in your organizations, but it's what you do and how you do it that's most important to us.

Now we have to talk about some of the real big ones, i.e., the World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy. Raising money to save the rain forests is important because they are the lungs of the world. But what we cannot accept are these organizations going into "debt-for-nature swap" agreements under the premise of helping developing countries reduce their debt and preserving the rain forests and biodiversity. These agreements are made with total disregard for the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries. These swaps are made without the participation or permission of the true owners of that land, the people who have lived as one, in true harmony, with the land for centuries.

Here in the United States, the Nature Conservancy buys huge tracts of land in the Southwest, displacing Chicano and Native American peoples' abilities to continue to live and draw sustenance from land where they have lived, worked and played for decades. Again, this is done without their permission or their participation. It's just not overseas, it's right here at home.

On the issue of biodiversity, we are dealing with the practice of organizations, corporations and universities going into developing countries and acquiring rare plants and flowers. These are needed for a cure to cancer and a cure to AIDS. We have no quarrel with that, but that is not the issue. The issue is that of a new colonialism, just like they came from the North and took our diamonds, our gold, our uranium and everything else. Now they are coming to take the plants and the flowers with no compensation. It took 10,000 years for indigenous people to understand the connection between specific plants and specific illnesses. The scientists are saying, "It's going to take us a hundred years to test all these plants and find out what indigenous people already know. So now they are coming to get the intellectual property (what people know in their heads), again without compensation.

BASIS FOR A JUST PARTNERSHIP

We are interested in making a partnership and a relationship. But as resources become available from foundations and donors, we have to understand that environmental organizations might go out in the name of working with us and raise a lot of money. While our organizations continue to struggle over every penny and every dollar, we need the resources to build and sustain the capabilities of our own organizations. These organizations are self-determined, deeply rooted in our communities, and truly capable of dealing with our issues.

What we seek is a relationship based on equity, mutual respect, mutual interest, and justice. We refuse narrow definitions. It is not just ancient forests; it is not just saving the whales or saving other endangered species. These are all very important. We understand the life cycle and the interconnectedness of life. But our communities and our people are endangered species, too. We refuse a paternalistic relationship. We are not interested in a parent-child relationship. Your organizations may be or may not be older than ours. Your organizations definitely have more money than ours. But if you are to form a partnership with us, it will be as equals and nothing else but equals.

We have learned these lessons from past movements. The women's movement, for example, seemed unable to come to grips with diversifying themselves. They were unable to really work across race lines, across class lines, and were unable to bring men into it. To create structural change, you cannot do it from a narrow part of the population. We have leaned this. We have learned this from the peace movement, who still have problems with dealing with justice issues.

It takes all of us. We have, for the last 10 years, worked on this challenge. First we were real nice and we tried to talk. Then the letters came out from the Gulf Coast Tenants and the Southwest Organizing Project to the environmentalists. It wasn't until the newspapers said "environmental racism" that we started getting more attention. But we have spoken on this; we have written extensively on this; we have laid out what is needed for a just partnership. So, gentlemen (representatives of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council), the only thing I have to say is, it is up to you who have come here today and laid out your understanding, to challenge your brothers and sisters on this. It cannot continue to be our role alone to keep raising this issue and keep going through a lot of changes about it. We will continue our challenge from the outside. You must confront the situation within yourselves and your colleagues.
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Reprinted from Charles Lee, ed., The "First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit: Proceedings." New York: United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1992.