Backyard Talk

One Step Forward, So Many Steps Back

By: Kara Hoisington
In 2019, data of all police killings in the country compiled by Mapping Police Violence, black Americans were nearly three times more likely to die from police than white Americans. The recent murder of George Floyd finally sparked the flame for Congress to address this form of systematic racism police departments impose. Democratic lawmakers in Congress introduced legislation to address the excessive abuse of power used by police officers and make it easier to identify, track, and prosecute police misconduct.
Civil rights activists have been pushing this agenda for decades. If it took our country this long to wake up and see the light – how long will it take to address systematic racism in environmental policies?
On June 4th 2020, President Trump signed in an executive order allowing emergency authorities to circumvent environmental review of major projects. This could fast-track the approval of major highways, pipelines, oil and gas projects, and other polluting industries which disproportionately affect people of color. Erasing requirements in environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, Trump’s order blocks such communities from fighting back against unwanted projects.
If police brutality doesn’t kill people of color, toxic pollution will. This executive order bars communities first amendment rights to speak up and say no! Here at the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice we serve to amplify your communities voice past the thick wall of pollution.
Written by Kara Hoisington, CHEJ Summer Intern.

Homepage News Archive

The Intersection of Climate Change, Environmental Injustice and Racism

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor by police and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on minority communities has largely brought to light the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in our society. The effects of industrial pollution and extreme weather events due to climate change are often also brought specifically upon minority communities. In the attached article, Yale Environment 360 interviews Elizabeth Yeampierre, the co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, to further discuss the deep intersection between environmental injustice, climate change, and racism and how we can build a movement to help combat them together. Read More

Homepage News Archive

Discrimination in Nature: A Story of a White Woman Calling the Cops on a Black Man Birdwatching in Central Park

By law, the access to public parks and lands is currently universal to all people in the United States. However, many black citizens are deterred from visiting parks and enjoying nature due to racism engrained in society and stereotypes involving the demographic of people engaging in many activities involving nature (e.g., hiking and camping). This phenomenon can be disturbingly seen through the recent harassment of Christian Cooper, a black avid birdwatcher in Central Park, by a white woman who called the police on him on May 26th. The story of Christian Cooper further exposes our society for engrained racism and discrimination, specifically in regards to how different races associate themselves with the natural world. Read More

Backyard Talk News Archive

Hurricane Victims Don’t Have the ‘Complexion for Protection’

Millions of Puerto Ricans are still without water, food, electricity and shelter, four weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island. With waterborne illnesses on the rise, a full-blown humanitarian crisis is on the horizon.
“Raw sewage continues to be released into waterways and is expected to continue until repairs can be made and power is restored,” the EPA warns in a memo.
When the agency issued this statement, eighty-four percent of Puerto Rico was without electricity, and sixty percent of water treatment plants out of service.
“Water contaminated with livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants can lead to illness when used for drinking, bathing, and other hygiene activities,” the EPA says.
To make matters worse, Puerto Rico is home to 21 Superfund sites – the nation’s most deadly depositories of toxic chemicals. The island also has a five-story-high coal ash dump in Guayama that was hit by the storm.
Floodwaters have already mixed deadly toxins from these sites into nearby waterways, which residents are forced to use to bathe and drink. In a desperate attempt to save their own lives, some Puerto Ricans are drinking highly contaminated water from wells that were once sealed to avoid exposure to deadly toxins.
Families who have lost everything now must contend with the possibility that their groundwater is tainted with poison.
The Complexion for Protection
On the same day the EPA issued its warning, President Trump took to Twitter to complain, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders… in P.R. forever!”
First, Mr. President, a reality check. The devastation caused by major storms takes years, not weeks, to repair. FEMA is still at work in New Orleans, twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, and in New Jersey and New York five years after Hurricane Sandy. EPA cleanup of contaminated sites takes even longer.
Second, a political check. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and have been for more than a century. They serve in our Armed Forces and pay taxes, even if they weren’t allowed to vote for you – or any candidate – for President, and have no representation in Congress.
As Puerto Rico’s Governor, Roberto Roselló, wrote in his response to Trump’s Twitter tantrum, “The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation.”
This is discrimination, plain and simple. When President Trump visited San Juan, he threw paper towels at a crowd of suffering people and scolded them for busting his budget. They weren’t amused by his theatrics.
They, like the Houston residents who live near waterways fouled by toxins from the San Jacinto Superfund site, are people of color – apparently not the right complexion for protection.
Dismissing the Victims
Dismissing victims is not unusual for this administration and for the EPA. The agency’s new chief, Scott Pruitt, spends his time on the road meeting privately with corporate CEOs responsible for these toxic waste sites. He then takes their wish-lists back to Washington so he can draft new ways to roll back the environmental protections they loathe.
But local community leaders, with few exceptions, have not been given the opportunity to talk with Pruitt.
Congress passed legislation in 1986 directing EPA to pursue permanent remedies or cleanups that conform to stringent standards. Although permanent cleanups cost more at the front end, they save money over the long term, as evident by the disruption of buried waste from storms like Harvey, Irma, Katrina and Sandy.
So, why won’t the EPA enforce the permanent cleanup of these sites to avoid future cleanup costs as well as protect the community?
Because the people who live around most Superfund sites are poor and of color and are considered not worth the investment.
This is even more the case in in Puerto Rico, since lawmakers in D.C. feel no accountability to the island’s citizens, who are separated from the mainland and denied the right to vote.
The EPA Told Me So
How do I know this?  An EPA regional representative recently told me they were not going to spend millions to clean up a site when the surrounding houses are worth $60,000. It doesn’t make cost-effective sense, he said; we’ll just try to contain the waste.
Yet these houses are people’s homes; inside are human beings raising their families, having backyard picnics and celebrating birthdays. The homes are their American Dream. How dare these government officials devalue their neighborhoods because they are not wealthy!
These families pay taxes, contribute to society and deserve every protection available from our government, regardless of their wealth, language or the color of their skin.
I fear that families that have already lost so much in this summer’s severe hurricanes will suffer even more in coming months because of the color of their skin and the level of their income.
And as they try to clean up the mud and debris and rebuild their lives, families must also worry about how much chemical residue is in the mud they and their children have been exposed to.
They Don’t Care, So We Must
There is no question in my mind that the Trump Administration does not care for victims, whether in Houston, Miami or San Juan. So we have to take responsibility to compel the administration to act and hold them accountable.
We have to force the government to protect people living near Superfund sites by permanently cleaning them up, and to give Puerto Rico’s people the equal treatment they deserve.

Backyard Talk

Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. left many legacies – as a crusader for civil rights, voting rights, religious harmony, peace and economic justice. As we reflect on his legacy, I was struck by a story written by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post that talked about how “timeless” King’s economic message was (“to our society’s great shame”) and how much further we still have to go.

In the weeks before his death, King was preparing for a march on Washington as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, and he formulated a speech called “The Other America.” Although not as well known as King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s much that still rings true in this speech five decade later. Robinson quotes King’s speech given in New York City in March 1968:

“One America is flowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality. That America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits … But as we assemble here tonight, I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America, and that other America has daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In that other America millions of people find themselves forced to live in inadequate substandard housing, and often dilapidated housing conditions…

“In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education … because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out.

According to Robinson, the problem was structural as he quoted King further: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

Robinson states that King continued this theme eight days later when he addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis: “Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are the facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and full-time job getting part-time income.”

According to Robinson, King explained the shift in his focus:

“Now our struggle is for genuine economic equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?“

Robinson concludes with “What King saw in 1968 – and what we all should recognize today – is that it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality.”

To read the Robinson’s article in full, go to

To read King’s Other America speech in full, go to