People of color seek an environmental message that includes them
Published May 03, 2013
It is easy to dismiss the environmental movement. It seems that so many of the messages that come from environmentalists are related to things that are defined as White or ideas that are not of any concern to African Americans. It may also seem like the environmental movement is trying to “unring” a bell, making the behavior attached to protecting the environment from human harm inaccessible and unrealistic.
The environmental movement categorizes the natural world’s existence over people. The goal of protecting the planet and not people is troubling for communities of color. Given the historical events that have shaped the perspectives of people of color, it is understandable that any organizing to save the polar bears without regard for Pookie and Ray-Ray will be met with resistance or even worse silent indifference.
When the message is that your existence is not as important as the trees, it is a bitter pill to swallow. In light of the importance of trees within the environment, in the hands of racist mobs, trees have been symbolic for oppression and murder. Ignoring this back-story creates the disconnect that exists between communities of color and the environmental movement. When too much of our community is gripped by violence, a discussion about the plight of the polar bears is moot.
Former advisor to President Obama, Van Jones, points out that there is a connection between Pookie and the lives of polar bears. The connection is the environment. Environmental pollutants that create climate change impact polar bears and disproportionally impact communities of color. The solutions are different, but to the degree that one can survive, the other must survive.
I am an activist. I always have been an activist. My activism in food and agriculture developed out of my concern for my son. My son developed food allergies at a very early age. He is allergic to all dairy product, shellfish, eggs and peanuts.While trying to find the best food for him, I learned about the food system. I learned how food was grown, who grew it and how it arrived in my urban community. What I discovered was disturbing: food was grown using industrial chemicals, modified by injecting herbicides or pesticides in the genetic structure.
I learned that people who grew my food were not paid fair wages and often cheated out of wages or injured while doing the backbreaking work of processing food. Much of this food was grown in ways that pollute the air, land and water of the rural farming communities.I learned that small family farmers were as likely as I was to not have access to healthy food, even though they lived on the land where food was grown. I learned that farm workers did not make enough money to buy food that they harvested.
I wanted food that was free from chemicals, toxins and exploitation. I wanted food that was healthy.
My activism was further transformed when I realized the food that I wanted for my family was not available in my community. This was the beginning of my 15-year quest to bring fair, just and healthy food to everyone.
For African Americans to fully appreciate the environments impact on health, the definition of the environment must include more than the natural environment. The natural environment is important, but the built environment is equally as important when examining the health impacts of communities of color.
While some environmental messages are culturally biased in favor of dominant and privileged world views, the issues raised impact communities of color disproportionately. The impact of the climate change, civil wars and poverty deepens the complexity of the issues for people of color.
The translations of environmental messages occurs when those messages are anchored informed by the historical trauma experienced by people of color. This is the only way that an environmental narrative will reflect the intersections between race, class and gender.The impact of the environment on health cannot be underemphasized. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services Environmental Justice strategy “…poor air quality, disproportionate exposure to hazards in the workplace, unhealthy housing conditions (e.g., mold, dampness and pest infestation), and the lack of safe areas for physical activity have been linked to chronic conditions such as asthma and other respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
The built environment can also pose threats to the mental health of individuals, families and communities.For example, studies have shown that housing and neighborhood quality (e.g., condition and functioning) are associated with increased psychological distress and depression. Developmental disabilities have also been associated with prenatal and childhood exposures to environmental toxicants. Environmental disasters, both manmade and natural, are linked to adverse mental-health outcomes such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.It is my hope that this column will bring you valuable information that will allow you to make greener choices that protect your health. In the coming weeks, I will highlight the people that are working to green our communities and economies.Hopefully, these columns will engage you in the movement to build an environmentally just and sustainable world.