People, planet, and the path ahead
Sierra Club president Aaron Mair speaks for environmental and social justice at the Detroit March for Justice in October 2015. Mair is the first black president of the group in its 124-year history.
Rex Larsen / AP Images for Sierra Club | Caption

Flint effect? Environmentalism shifts to racial justice, inclusion.

Patterns of thought

The EPA releases new environmental-justice initiatives against the backdrop of a wider trend: Black and Latino Americans are increasingly active on green issues.

​​Sitting around a U-shaped assemblage of tables, a small band of workers for the NAACP is girding for a communications battle: They’re talking about the “false narratives” that will emerge in the public square, and how to defeat them.

The issue in question isn’t criminal-justice reform or racial discrimination in the drawing of legislative districts. Instead, the theme is all about the environment – and how to encourage more African Americans to see issues like energy policy and climate change as central to their civic life.

Jacqui Patterson, the organization’s environment director, stands before the group and reads an item off her false-narrative list: “Solar is bad for communities of color.”  Essentially, the argument is it’s an expensive power source for well-off white people.

“How would you counter that?” she asks, looking around the room for responses.

One of the participants chimes up that the message tends to come from an energy company or utility with an interest in maintaining the status quo – and claiming that minority pocketbooks stand to suffer. She proposes “going after the messenger a little bit.”

“OK, now you're speaking for us?” she asks rhetorically. “They don't speak for us.”

The workshop here is just one window into a growing trend of connection between non-white Americans and environmental issues such as clean energy and climate change. It's fueled partly by recognition among black Americans, Latinos and other minority groups that things like extreme weather events – think Hurricane Katrina – can be as devastating as other problems. It's also driven by an environmental movement reaching to broaden beyond its image as a bastion of a largely white and well-off elite.

And it has gained momentum from instances like the water crisis in Flint, Mich., where communities of color have borne the brunt of policy failures.

The rising focus on environmental justice, the term for such disproportionate impacts, was punctuated this week as the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled new efforts and policies to address it. The steps are, in part, aimed at responding to criticism that the EPA caught for its role in the Flint crisis.

'Life or death issues'

The NAACP, for its part, is becoming increasingly passionate about green issues. It sees the environment as closely intertwined with health and economic opportunity for black Americans. The data back that up. For example, blacks and Latinos are twice as likely to live near chemical facilities and industrial pollution sites than whites, according to the Center for Effective Government.

“These are life death issues for our communities,” says Ms. Patterson at one point in the seminar on this October day at NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.

In addition to what groups are doing on their own, such as Patterson’s own team expanding its staff, organizations are also deepening alliances and conversations with one another. The NAACP event had a pair of partners in non-profit environmental law organization Earthjustice and advocacy group VoteSolar.

“We are seeing a lot of changes both within the movement as a whole and within the organization,” says Jennifer Allen, national director of Chispa, an environmental group that caters to the Latino community. “There’s an understanding of what equity means and justice, because climate change doesn’t just hit all communities the same, in the same time in, the same way.”

Another part of the shift: Philanthropic foundations also are using cash to steer green groups toward environmental justice.

“Foundations are getting serious about this and saying, OK, we’re not funding you if you aren’t actually doing sincere work,” says Jeremy Orr, environmental justice coordinator at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “So you’re seeing foundations pull funding or in turn funding organizations that are actually doing [environmental justice] work.”

Mr. Orr would know. His position is funded by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, a philanthropy based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Other environmental organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund, have tailored programs for the Latino community and other local groups to expand their networks.

Broader than party politics

In the short term, at least, this trend promises to boost Democrats, though the groups contend that’s not their goal – they’d love it if Republicans championed these policies. But the Republican Party nationally has opposed efforts to address climate change and other environmental measures in Congress.

It’s also a political effort in the truest sense by trying to enhance civic involvement. By law, nonprofit groups cannot explicitly support or oppose candidate. But they can advocate on issues, as has been the strategy at Chispa, which is tied to the League of Conservation Voters. Many of the group’s efforts, led by community members, focus on local matters such as school board policies.

Ms. Allen says she wants to build engagement on environmental issues within the Latino community of which she is part. Increased visibility can mean greater influence, even for many Latinos who can’t vote because of their immigration status, Allen says, adding that spending money in the last weeks before elections “doesn’t get at the underlying tensions.”

Those tensions are now being acknowledged at the federal level, as the EPA announced its new response to environmental justice concerns Thursday. The plan aims to enhance its current work to reduce disparities in lead, drinking water, air quality, and hazardous waste sites among communities of color through 2020.

It's not the first time the EPA has developed an environmental justice program. But the Flint fiasco and complaints from the US Commission on Civil Rights that the agency has been slow to process civil rights claims from minority neighborhoods about pollution exposure have highlighted shortcomings.

“The agency has a lot to prove,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Grist, which first detailed the four-year plan. “And we are going to do that.”

Pressure on green groups

Just as the federal agency is responding to pressure from outside, the impetus for a more inclusive definition of environmentalism also comes in some cases from watchdogs. Green 2.0, a pressure group, is coaxing environmental organizations to diversify their staff at a time when some of the movement’s white, wealthy linchpins are aging.

Many environmental groups have been slow to release diversity information. Sixteen of the 49 organizations tracked by Green 2.0 haven’t revealed such data, nor have 28 of 40 philanthropies that fund such groups.

At the same time, though, some have made progress. The Sierra Club, the first to comply with Green 2.0, named Aaron Mair its first black president in its 124-year history in 2015. It’s also one of the major national environmental groups in Orr’s Michigan coalition.

“We’re at the beginning of it,” says Orr. He’s dressed in a blue plaid button-down shirt at a trendy cafe in midtown Detroit.

The coffee shop isn’t far from Orr’s office at Wayne State University, where he splits his time at the school’s law clinic and the partnering Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

Orr says environmental justice hasn’t historically been prominent for the movement because its bulk of white activists don’t face the same issues as communities of color. And governments, he says, have been slow to take up environmental justice because the term itself means correcting systemic failings they’re not keen to acknowledge.

Orr got involved with environmental work while doing church-based community organizing in Kalamazoo, Mich., on the state’s west side. He noticed that people prodding the EPA to clean up the site of a former paper mill were all white.

“When I saw that, I was blown away … I would be in these spaces where I was the only person of color,” even though the neighborhood near the site was majority black and Latino, he says.

Speaking the right language

There were some growing pains when national groups started making inroads in communities of color, much of it owing to language. The term “minority community” doesn’t make sense when the neighborhood is mostly black or Latino, explains Orr. The people he represents don’t like being called poor, either, so he uses “lower SES” (socio-economic status).

Even the word “vulnerable,” a favorite of some environmental organizations, has negative connotations of powerlessness, says Allen of Chispa.

Heydy May knows the challenges of bringing green issues to life for urban Latinos. When she’s not at her day job as a spiritual healer, she’s in local Las Vegas living rooms helping residents see the connections between their environment and their well-being.

“First what they feel is ‘Why is this lady telling me what to do in my house?” Ms. May says with a laugh. “Once you make them feel comfortable and once you make them feel they’re doing something good for their kids, then they get involved, then they get comfortable. Then they’re conscious.”

May is a pollution refugee herself, having fled smog in Mexico City and Los Angeles only to find it rising in Las Vegas as well. In her new hometown, she began hearing environmental groups campaigning against the congressionally approved idea of storing the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

But one thing stood out to her: “I never saw anything in Spanish before.”

Now Chispa’s Las Vegas chapter, with May’s help, is adding some linguistic diversity. But the novelty of it – speak to Spanish-speaking residents in Spanish! – also points to past failings of the environmental movement and how far it still must go to accommodate all Americans.

“I think that the United States really is a multicultural place and that environmental organizations should try to do things in every language,” May says. “It’s not only here in Las Vegas, it’s all over the states. The environment should be for every group."