Counting Heads Is Not Enough To Address Environmental Justice

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Alonzo Spencer CHEJ's BOD Chair



Today in the Washington Post was a front page news story that talks about how the large environmental organizations are not diverse enough.

This is the same story written many times beginning in the late 1980’s. It sparked a national conversation and action that lead to the first Environmental Justice Summit in 1991 and in 1994 Bill Clinton signed an executive order Environmental Justice Act. The story talked about counting heads (non-white) on staff, in decision making positions and members of the Board. That story is not new and I believe is way too narrow of a focus.

The large environmental organizations have brought more diversity to their staff and their board, then was the case in 1990, but they are still a far cry from being diverse. However, I think just counting people of color within an organization is not the only or even the best measurement of their efforts to address the multitude of issues within the context of environmental justice.

One point that the Washington Post article raised, I think is at the heart of the issues. “Today, minority communities — black, Latino and Native American — along with low-income white neighborhoods still bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution. They are in the shadows of petrochemical plants and coal-fired power plants, the nation’s greatest source of stationary pollution, according to the Congressional Research Service.” A diverse group of staff and board members will not change anything unless the large green organizations decide to makes a radical shift in their missions, goals and resource allocation.

It is a fact, detailed in a NCRP report that, environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the grassroots community-based groups that are most heavily impacted by environmental harms. Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2% of all environmental groups, yet receive more than 50% of all environmental grants and donations. This makes it even more imperative that large organizations need to not only change the ethnic makeup of staff and board but also move significant resources to reflect their commitment to the field. The report makes the simple but profound argument that the current environmental funding strategy is not working and that, without targeting philanthropy at communities most impacted by environmental harms, the movement will continue to fail.

In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights — have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

Robert Garcia said in the Washington Post article, “The values of the mainstream environmental movement don’t focus on the needs of people. They focus on clean air, water and climate.” I agree with Robert Garcia, who founded and provides counsel for the City Project in Los Angeles and would add why are they not investing in communities on the front lines?

Alonzo Spencer, CHEJ’s Board Chairman, lives with a hazardous waste incinerator that has been out of compliance more often than in compliance. His community was designated an Environmental Justice Community by the US EPA in the 1990’s. Other than CHEJ, his neighborhood has no skilled national group helping them. Where are the lobbyists that are needed to change the laws, not at the national level but at the state level?

In Ohio if you are out of compliance (not obeying the law) but you have a plan or schedule to come into compliance, you are considered in compliance. I know this because that is what the appeals court ruled when CHEJ took the case as far up as we could. So, in reality the facility never really needs to be in compliance they just need to keep putting together plans that say they will someday comply with the law. Yes, it is a fence line problem but it is also a climate issue given they release more than permitted of chemicals that impact climate and discharges contaminate the Ohio River and other sources of water.

Alonzo’s community has the highest rate of cancer in the state. Their elementary school was closed, which was a necessary action because the top of the stack of the incinerator was almost level to the school windows due to it being built below the bluff where the school stood. The local taxpayers had to pay to move the children to another school. A low-wealth county, spending money they don’t have to keep their children safe.

Or where are the resources to assist communities in Corpus Christi, TX? Along refinery row, all the industries say they are in compliance, and maybe they are, but when you have miles of refineries collectively the air is not breathable. Who lives there? Suzie Canales, another member of CHEJ’s board who tells the story about how the city charter designated section of the city specifically for African Americans and Latino’s to live. If you were Latino or African American family you could not purchase property outside of the cities designated area for your ethnic group. Therefore, homes were purchased near the refineries because they were not permitted to buy other properties. Now the properties are not only unsalable but a health risk to families who live there.

The conversation about environmental organizations and environmental justice really needs to be about resources and assistance to the front line communities rather than head counting. Someday, maybe all of the Green Groups would be diverse, but that alone will not translate into playing an active role in bringing real aide and justice to front line communities. There needs to be diversity, resources and a core commitment to solutions and necessary actions that come from the people who are impacted.