by Lois Gibbs

As we approach the 2020 elections, I am excited about the opportunities to engage in a broader pubic conversation about creating real social change. Elections provide us with opportunities to engage the public in conversations about serious deep changes that are needed, not only environmental and health but social justice issues across the board. Class, race, living wage, immigration policies, economic growth, climate change, environmental justice are all connected. We need to begin today to expand the movement and build bridges with other leaders, develop strategies and take advantage of the 2020 public conversation to move an agenda that is about people, protection, jobs, justice and so much more. Now is the time to plan and now is the time to build those bridges to work together for change.

Over the 38 years since the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) was founded, we have dedicated ourselves to broadening the base and strengthening the skills of the grassroots movement for environmental health.  Our goals are to raise popular consciousness about fundamental problems in the current system, provide a positive, unifying vision, and build a sense of empowerment by reinforcing the power of an organized group of people to create change.

The Kaleidoscope Movement is a formation of groups at local, state and national levels that are joined together around building and strengthening community.  The issues are varied, as are the class, race and geographical locations.  What is common is the desire for justice, to prevent harm to human health, the economy, environment and the ability of our children to achieve the American promise.  It is not anchored in a single political party or class of people, but rather inclusive, dynamic and strategic.

This is a movement that takes people where they are, listens to their concerns and builds power around their issues and concerns.  It is not D.C. or policy focused, rather it’s focused on people, values and strategic place/practice-based goals. For example, our definition of “environmental health and justice issues” is where people live, work, learn, pray and play.  Systemic change has come from this approach by building power at the local level.

The results historically have been very exciting.  By organizing one family at a time, one church at a time, one school at a time, and one neighborhood at a time, CHEJ and partners have been able to accomplish things that have been out of reach to groups taking a policy or regulatory approach to systemic change.  We have our supporters and grassroots activists to thank for this success. In fact, in most cases the policy has not kept up with the shifts in practices.  Our methodology for change is to bring people together, build power around issues people care about that are strategic and fit into a larger vision of change that is needed.

CHEJ does not bring people together to agree on a platform or policy agenda and then try to move groups into action.  Our approach, instead of top down, is to pick strategic issues that people care about and then move people directly into action from the bottom up.  Through this process the public conversations raise fundamental values and the work is based on solutions that are source based for a more permanent change in public opinion and in practice.

The victories of changing the “practice,” are unlike regulatory or policies based wins. These victories are not as likely to a slide backwards or are enforcement centered.  Consequently, they stay in place even when there is a change in elected representation or a decision maker.

Through these specific issue related efforts, CHEJ linked activists together to build a broad progressive movement.  While organizing, educating, and building the base, we actively teach people about the root cause of their problems and the need to become active participants in the governance of their communities and state.  Our work also helps activists experience the power of working collaboratively in local or statewide coalitions.

To continue to build a progressive movement, it is critical to find ways to remove the barriers between organized groups nationwide, identify common frames that can unite groups of groups, and take advantage of opportunities to flex this multi-faceted, multi-issued political muscle.

CHEJ works with diverse constituencies that focus on a single issue – such as nuclear disarmament activists, disease-related groups focusing on issues like birth defects or breast cancer, environmental justice leaders, firefighters, teachers, parents, faith-based leaders or toxics use reduction groups.  We are all learning to support each other, respect each other’s issues and underlying shared values, and appreciate the value of speaking with a unified voice.

2020 offers us all the opportunity to continue to not only learn about one another’s cultures, issues, and tightly held values but to advance them through public conversations this election year. We all win if we continue to break down barriers between diverse segments of the environmental health movement and building bridges to related social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, Health Care for All, living wage campaigns, building a new economy and so many more.

I believe that by investing in ground up activities across lines of issues, race, gender and geographic boundaries, we can create the world we want. I’m looking forward to this challenge this year with the many opportunities that will present themselves during all presidential election years.