Excerpt from the introduction to a panel discussion by Michelle DePass at the New School in New York City.
The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991, in Washington, DC, drafted and adopted 17 Principles of Environmental Justice that have served as a defining document for the grassroots movement for environmental justice. (See page 82.) On the 25th Anniversary of the Summit, the Tishman Environment and Design Center of The New School held a panel discussion on the themes of the Principles in New York City. In this issue we present excerpts from that discussion and two pieces from RP&E published in 1992.
In October 1991, over 300 Black, Latino, Native and Asian American delegates gathered in Washington, DC, for The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.
Many of these delegates are people we all know, work with and admire and this panel discussion is part of celebrating the anniversary of the summit, as well as an exploration into the ways that academia can contribute to the discussion, research and actions of the environmental justice movement.
Dana Alston, an advocate for environmental and social justice, and a co-convener of the Summit described its purpose and guiding ideals this way, and I quote:
“People of color gathered not in reaction to the environmental movement, but rather to reaffirm their traditional connection to and respect for the natural world, and to speak for themselves on some of the most critical issues of our times....This broad understanding of the environment is a context within which to address a variety of questions about militarism and defense, religious freedom and cultural survival, energy and sustainable development, transportation and housing, land and sovereignty rights, self-determination, and employment.” (For the complete text see page 90.)
These words of Dana ring true to this day and we really have to lift up and acknowledge Dana, who is not with us anymore, as one of the real pillars in terms of the environmental justice movement.
Delegates to the Summit exchanged stories of environmental racism experienced by their communities, which were routinely targeted for disposal of toxic waste, or the placement of hazardous industries. They noted not just the environmental impacts of these practices, but the human health effects like cancer, birth defects, asthma and miscarriages.
Delegates worked to also develop solutions and policy proposals to support a just and equitable approach to address the environmental crisis, the ecological impact of war, underground nuclear testing, the international waste trade and U.S. foreign aid and trade policies. Through a process of consensus building, they also penned and adopted the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice to guide the movement “to eradicate environmental racism and bring into being true social justice and self-determination.” (See page 82.)
Now we are gathered here on the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Principles, to explore the themes of the Principles and opportunities for achieving environmental justice across different social movements, the practices and multidisciplinary perspectives. Many of the concerns voiced by delegates to the Summit are still very real today.
In 2014 activists took to the streets, led by frontline communities, to advocate for global action on climate change in the People’s Climate March. In 2015, outside the closed-door meetings of the COP in Paris, we saw a growing unification of movements for climate justice, the deepening of transnational, solidarity movements across the globe and the creative expressions of people and communities determined to achieve solutions to the climate crisis in their own terms. Last year we looked on in disbelief when the news broke about the lead and other contaminants poisoning the water in Flint, Michigan—a community that is 56 percent African American. The fight is still very much on, they still have to use bottled water and there have been nine deaths and numerous lives that have been irrevocably harmed from the crisis in Flint. Tonight, and in recent weeks, our thoughts are with the tribal nations and their allies standing in solidarity in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline.
On this commemoration day, we are recognizing that institutional racism and a long national history of undervaluing certain people and places have left a persistent legacy of environmental injustices....
We’ve come a long way from the Letter to the Green Groups in the early ‘90s, when the environmental justice community held them to task, the big Environmental Groups, to say that, “You’re not addressing issues of environment and people.” Remember that the Environmental Protection Agency actually protects human health and the environment. It’s both! They created a federal agency, a bipartisan creation of the EPA to do both. Yet, there was this recognition by environmental justice communities that the larger institutions weren’t doing so.
Pipelines have been stopped by local activists in the past, and they can be stopped today. Technological advances and efforts to promote digital equity are supplying frontline communities and grassroots organizations with new resources with which to advocate for justice, health and wellbeing. Let us elevate dialogue on issues of race and the environment in the 21st century and concentrate on finding ways that we can contribute to a more equitable future.
Michelle J. DePass is Dean of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy, Director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center, and Tishman Professor of Environmental Policy and Management. From 2009-2013 she worked in the Obama administrations Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Prior to joining the EPA, DePass was a program officer at the Ford Foundation.