Green Tips: Understanding Environmental Justice

Green Tips | February 13, 2020

Air and water pollution, and the increasing effects of climate change, plague all parts of the United States, but disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities. Low-income groups and people of color are working and living in the nation’s most polluted environments. These injustices have long been ignored by policymakers, with little action taken to relieve communities of the harmful environmental conditions they are living in. The environmental justice movement, which emerged in the 1980s, has led the fight to increase attention and action to these pressing issues. 

In recognition of Black History Month, we’re sharing information to foster understanding of the concepts that undergird the environmental justice movement, as well as the prominent black thought leaders who have led and are leading the movement. Looking at some of these achievements reminds us of the many ways individuals can make positive change and inspire others to do the same.

What is Environmental Justice?

Government documents have proved that minority neighborhoods were exclusively selected as spots for toxic waste and pollution, meaning that discriminatory practices were the reason for public health issues in communities of color across the United States. While siting fossil fuel power plants, heavy manufacturing, and waste facilities in communities of color and low-income communities is still an issue, it is thankfully less common than it used to be. However, the legacy of environmental racism means that these communities still face worse health outcomes than whiter and wealthier communities.

The traditionally white-led environmental movement that started in the 19th century and bloomed in the 1960s was not focused on environmental justice. Through the leadership of many brave men and women on the front lines of these issues, the national environmental movement has finally begun to acknowledge environmental racism and injustice. To understand how the environmental justice movement began, we are highlighting three key visionaries from the field; however, we understand this list is not exhaustive.

Dr. Robert Bullard

Dr. Robert Bullard is known as the father of the environmental justice movement, with his long history of fighting for safe environmental conditions in underserved communities. Bullard worked on the landmark case, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Inc. (1979), in which an African American community in Houston rallied against the establishment of a landfill in their neighborhood. Through his research, Bullard discovered that African American neighborhoods in Houston were disproportionately chosen for toxic waste sites. This experience prompted Bullard to begin his activism against environmental racism. He continued to win cases such as Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT) v. Louisiana Energy Services (LES) which resulted in the protection of thousands of Americans. Today, Dr. Bullard has been recognized through numerous awards for his work and leadership.

Rev. Benjamin Chavis

Remembered as one of the first leaders of the environmental justice movement, Rev. Benjamin Chavis helped galvanize communities and spread awareness of discriminatory toxic waste management. Due to his efforts, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published a report detailing how race was the principal predictor of hazardous waste site locations. It also found that the decisions for placing these waste facilities in communities of color were intentional acts made through government land-use policies. This study was critical in bringing environmental justice issues to the forefront, and beginning a national movement to address these injustices. Rev. Chavis has continued to advocate for these causes to make sure that everyone can enjoy a safe environment. 

Mari Copeny

Mari Copeny is best known in her hometown and across the United States, as “Little Miss Flint”. This title honors her efforts to advocate for and bring nationwide attention to the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2016. At 8 years old, Mari was frustrated with the lack of government action to decontaminate Flint’s water supply and decided to write a letter to President Obama. Not only did the President respond, but he also agreed to visit Flint to understand the extent of the issue and meet Mari himself. That meeting with President Obama was only the beginning of her achievements. Today, at 12 years old, she continues to fundraise and donate resources for those without access to clean drinking water. 

What can you do?

Even with the substantial progress that advocacy groups and organizations have made, environmental injustice is still prevalent in the United States today. The first step you can take to help make a change is to learn about the issues from the affected communities themselves. Additionally, by becoming knowledgeable about these important issues, you can help spread awareness to friends and family. Increased awareness and support can help drive the environmental justice movement even further. Finding an environmental justice-focused organization in your region is another great way to get involved with local issues. Try subscribing to a few organizations’ newsletters to receive regular updates. Volunteering your time or making a charitable donation are also meaningful ways to help the environmental justice movement. Lastly, staying up-to-date on key legislation that impacts overburdened communities matters, as you can use your voice to advocate for urgent issues to your elected officials. You can make an impact.

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