Excerpts from a panel discussion at The New School in NYC.
Dr. Ana Baptista grew up in the Ironbound community in Newark, New Jersey, and was the director of Environmental and Planning Programs for the Ironbound Community Corporation where she oversaw a wide range of environmental justice, community development and community-based planning for the Ironbound community. She is Associate Director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center, Chair of Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management at The New School, and Assistant Professor of Professional Practice.
DePass: Can you talk a little bit about some of the changes that you’ve seen in the arc of what you’ve been talking about with frontline communities over the past 20-25 years, to strategies that they are employing now?
Ana Baptista: In 1994 when President Bill Clinton signed the Executive Order on Environmental Justice, there were four states that had explicit environmental justice policies in the country. As of 2015, all 50 states have some version of an environmental justice policy. You would think that would be a huge victory, and that we would be celebrating. Except for the fact that if you really look at what these environmental justice policies do, what the substance is of these policies and the actual output of them, it’s very little in terms of what you see on the ground. A lot of it is symbolic.
Even in the realm of environmental regulations, we haven’t made very big strides because to this day, if a company comes to the City of Newark—for example, the Hess Corporation—and they want to build a huge megaplant, they will still, to this day, get their permit. Even though we know all this data and all this science, and even though we have an environmental justice policy on the books, there is still not an affirmative stance on disproportionate impact. So, we still have a long way to go.
I grew up in Newark, in a place called Ironbound. Seventy-five to 85 percent of the City of Newark is people of color and it’s highly segregated. I was an immigrant kid in the city, and I went to a school that was 95 percent Black and Latino and I didn’t speak English. So, I got a very different introduction to America than I think lots of other kids did. You walked outside your door and you could taste the air, you could smell the sewage, you could see the air pollution. The incinerator was a couple of blocks from my home. Today, my parents and my family still live there, right across the street from the local elementary school—a building that was 160 years old then and where still today, every three to five minutes we have to stop talking because of the jets that are flying overhead.
My parents’ attitude was “You know you’re an immigrant kid, so your goal should be to get out. Go to school, get an education, and get out.” So, that’s what I wanted. But my parents were also really involved in protest movements at the time: protesting waste incineration, tire incineration, sewage sludge incineration. So that was my first introduction to this thing called environmental justice, protesting and getting involved and empowered for the first time.
Resistance was really important because it’s a way to be heard and be seen. To be recognized as dignified human beings and dignified places. Because a lot of the dumping that happens is also a stigmatization, saying that you are less than, you know? Your community is not as valued as other communities. You’re invisible. Our community was always the place that’s somewhere else. It’s where the something else goes. It’s where your trash goes, where your sewage goes, it’s where everything that you don’t want goes. That’s also where the people that you don’t want go. Prisons, people of color, public housing. It’s where anything marginalized goes.
So, resistance was also a form of self-determination and of self-recognition. But, how do we go from just fighting all the time, what we don’t want, to having a vision for what we do want? And how do we actively and affirmatively build that for ourselves rather than waiting for someone to come and do it for us? Or just continuing to struggle to just resist constantly.
[After I graduated from college]I decided I want to go back to my community. I want to give back, and study urban systems and urban planning. So, I went back home, actually, to do my Ph.D., which was a wonderful gift. My parents thought I was crazy, and were like, “You’re coming back?”
So, when I came back to the community, I saw this evolution of EJ. I saw that EJ was building a movement of political organizing and community organizing that was based on planning and envisioning what we wanted. What does our future look like? How do we build it from where we are? That was really rewarding because I got to see, first hand, the value of community innovation even though it was at a small scale. It was like people testing things out, and people taking risks. Seeing how they can not just deal with creating environmental regulations but also community innovations.
It’s going to take a lot more work from various different sectors to develop EJ solutions on many fronts, including housing issues, the segregation in our cities, the complete collapse of our infrastructure in our cities, and disinvestment in cities. How do we rebuild our communities systemically? When I started out there were all these pockets of people doing little things, but there were no national or transnational networks or solidarity networks that were innovating and that were sharing and creating models for how you do that work. So, I’m really invested right now, still building community development, community work in Newark linked to those networks. And also looking at models for how we can report that same type of community in areas throughout the country. Sometimes in solidarity to people in other parts of the world.
The best examples that I’ve seen since then of trying to [move beyond symbolism] are states that have tied environmental justice and climate justice to economic policies, housing policies, transportation and public sector investments. How do we drive investment? How do we open up opportunities and access in a different way? Not just narrowly within the realm of the environment regulations.
The New York Renews Bill is a really good example of doing this affirmatively. Saying that, “We have environmental justice communities, and that means we are going to invest in those communities.”
If we are really going to do anything on climate change, if we’re really going to do anything on racial and economic justice, then we have to see ourselves as part as a collective.
How are you connected to your place, and space? Are you connecting back to it? Also, how are you connecting to this community of people and communities of institutions and organizations that are mobilizing, that are actively struggling, and that are actively innovating? There is so much richness out there.
I really want to encourage students to find those places, find the frontlines, listen to those stories, and connect to some kind of collective action and collective movement and solidarity and mutuality. Because I think that as long as we are kept in these little individual boxes, where we’re just making money and accumulating things and extracting things and increasing our own privilege, then we define success in the way the dominant discourse defines success, which is to continue to propagate injustice. But we can, again, reimagine what that could look like. What does regenerative economy look like? How am I a part of that? How are communities all across the country doing that? How do I become a part of that or generate that in my own community?
Everyone is captured with Standing Rock, and what’s happening with Standing Rock, but these points of resistance and blockade are happening all over the world. In communities where you come from, or where you’re living now, there is some form of resistance, some form of innovation that is happening. n