Sixth Wave of African American Environmentalists

For weeks, I have been thinking about environmentalism among African Americans. And oh out of that reflection, I feel the power of a people who can make so much out of almost nothing. Isn’t this how it has been for centuries? Isn’t this true for environmentalism by and for Africans and African Americans in a white world?

Some might think that it all started on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in this narcissistic 20th century world. Not so. There have been waves of African American environmentalism.

The first wave . . . Ancient Africans who I wish I could make famous today times 10 reality tv, worked the land in places like Ghana and Botswana before white colonialist gave those countries a name.

The second wave . . . A stolen assaulted people, an African people–treated as a monolith yet so diverse in cultures including language. They became, through struggle and hardscrabble, African Americans. Whites used their expertise in the cane, cotton, and tobacco fields. African Americans were the experts with expert experience framed by the brutal realities of enslavement. Stolen and holding their pride in their knowledge of nature.

The third wave . . . Before environmentalism part of the American lexicon, African Americans were just in nature. George Washington Carver, an African American scientist, best known for all the ways to use the peanut, spoke tenderly of nature. He wasn’t using the word preservationists back then but he knew nature.

And even faced with segregation in the first half of the 20th century, we became boy scouts . . . girl scouts. We also squeezed what limited resources the Cooperative Extension Service (United States Department of Agriculture today) and made a way out of no way.

The fourth wave . . . Benjamin Chavez, Robert Bullard, and Dorceta Taylor, and many others with famous names and names we will never know carried us on their shoulders into the late twentieth century with a BANG. We called for environmental justice. Many fought environmental racism. Our pioneers and environmental s/heroes stood up against powerful corporations and corrupt governments to save our children. We fought against that foul garbage dump. We stopped that industrial plant from dumping waste into our neighborhood. Poor people with few resources recognized the environment was deforming and killing babies who could never be born. Marginalized people recognized that too many were diagnosed with cancer at high rates in toxic places.

The fifth wave . . . Over the last ten years or so many have emerged . . . I am afraid to name them all because I might leave someone out. And that would be a shame. They put their shoulders to the plow and there is change.  So to honor the impact of so many, I ask you to name them. Whisper or shout the name of an African Americans past and present who so transformed you, redefined you in such a way that the meaning of nature has changed for you. Speak those words, those names because that is a our power in a world where abuse in the form of words and actions tries to steal from us, steal nature from us. Words.

The sixth wave . . . I see you. So many young people including children embracing nature. I close and suddenly open my eyes. And as I sit in a field of wild flowers, I watch our children dance in circles, kicking their feet and raising their arms. And I am ready for this next generation of African American environmentalists! Here they come . . . wait they are here.

 

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In Conversation with Philip O’Neal of Green DMV

GREEN DMV is a non-profit that promotes clean energy and green jobs as a means of diminishing poverty in low-income communities in the United States.  Philip O’Neal and Rhon Hayes are the co-founders.

Dianne: Philip, let’s start by writing poems that includes themes of nature.  I’ll write one too inspired by your verses.

Philip:

Winter’s magic in grandma’s garden, deep roots, moments of loneliness, feeling forgotten, and silenced.

While Grandma, warm, weaves her basket with the thoughts of strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and egg-plant.

D: I like it. Grandma! Fruits and vegetables. Here’s mine . . . borrowing some style from ee cummings . . .

i dream

of stark trees through

eight window panes in a row

like sentinels

waiting

first glance desolation

future

spring hides under brown, grey, and silver bark

leaves wait for warmer days to unfurl

winter is not desolate

breath exhaled

spring

D: We spoke–a short conversation–for the first time a few weeks ago. I would like to know more about you.

P: I was born and raised in Elizabeth City, NC. Attended Elizabeth City State University. I’m married to my beautiful wife of 7 years Danielle, with one son Logan and a little princess on the way in May. Danielle and I lived in Atlanta for 4 years, before moving to Washington DC in 2004.

D: What led you to become an environmentalist?

P: The first person who made me realize I was an environmentalist was Dr. Robert Bullard, a long time educator and environmental justice activist who teaches at Clark-Atlanta University. In 2007 I heard him speak on a panel at a Congressional Black Caucus forum on Climate Change. A statement that I will never forget is when he said. “If you drink water, eat food or breathe air. Or any two out of the three, then you’re an environmentalist”

D: Ah yes, Dr. Bullard! He has clearly influenced your thinking. Any other influences?

P: I can’t pick one person that has been the greatest influence in my efforts. But I feel that my thinking was cultivated from academics such as W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. Julianne Malveaux, civil rights leaders such as Dr. King and Gandhi, to environmental leaders past and present from Dr. Bullard to Al Gore. Between each name, I can fit a hundred or more names, it’s that many! I represent the sum of many individual ideals mixed in with my own little individual flavor.

D: How did you and Rhon come up with the idea to launch greendmv.org?
P: It kind of organically happened, (no pun intended). I call it strategic intuition. We knew the green movement was going to be the next boom, and we knew historically low-income communities and communities of color typically don’t get the information early enough to take advantage of ground floor economic movements. So we made it our mission to insure the left out communities of the past, would be locked in the green economy of the future.

D: Tell me about the contributions of others working for and with Green DMV.

P: We have relied heavily on volunteers. For the first 2 years, Green DMV was funded from our own pockets. After out first two grant requests were denied, we just found creative ways to get things done, like organizing volunteers and making our organization attractive to supporters. Since then, we’ve received support from Home Depot, Whole Foods, Giant Foods, City Governments and more.

D: Yes, the hard work in environmentalism relies heavily on the work and good will of volunteers. Another question: why do you think clean energy and green jobs are important?

P: Environmentally, this is the most important work that needs to be done. Economically, because these are the jobs of the future. If you take a look around, it’s very rare that you see a solar panel on a person’s home. Now let’s take a look in the future. It will be very rare not to see solar powered home. Between now and then, somebody has to do this work and currently the workforce doesn’t exist to supply the demand of all those projects. Somebody has to train and hire this new workforce. So why not train the people who have had barriers to employment for this new industry?

D: How can environmentally conscious energy and jobs change our lives here in the United States?

P: A new industry will be created to boost our economy, which will support jobs in both metropolitan and rural cities and towns.

D: What is our responsibility as individuals and a nation to the rest of world when it comes to protecting the environment and its resources?

P: All I ask is that we be conscious of little negative acts. That’s all. If you can just ask yourself a question, “Am I doing the right thing?”, even if you do the wrong thing after that, I’d be happy.

D: Could you share something about Green DMV’s latest initiative?
P: In partnership with the District of Columbia and AARA, GREEN DMV is taking on the daunting task of educating the entire faith-based community of Washington DC, to take part in the efforts to fight poverty and pollution in our Nation’s Capitol. We’re calling this “The Green Faith Initiative- One Green City Through Faith.” The church is the backbone of the community and there is no way we can inform poor communities effectively without the support and efforts of the faith-based community.

D: Do you spend time outdoors? What is your favorite activity? Do you hike? If so where? A favorite park?

P: Honestly, My favorite activity is doing spontaneous things with my family. Living in Washington DC, there’s just so much history and things to do.

D: How is Barack Obama doing concerning the environment? Michelle Obama?

P: Well, President Obama just isn’t the first black president; he’s the first green president. Approving 500 Million dollars for Green Job Training, he get’s it and now after the State of the Union Address, he’s focusing on getting them all employed in the green sector. Michelle is focused on the greening of our bodies with the Let’s Move initiative. She’s ensuring that we have healthy schools and fit kids.

D: Thank you, Philip. I look forward to ways Green DMV will continue to change the green economy.

Photos Courtesy of Green DMV

Lunch with Sierra Club’s Rita J. Harris in Memphis

What a great afternoon. I spent time with Rita J. Harris, the Regional Representative and Environmental Justice Organizer with the Sierra Club. We went to Boscos Restaurant & Brewing Company and her office, both in Memphis.

The Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships is part of the Sierra Club. Over our meals of salad, shrimp, and artichokes, Rita shared about her work at the Sierra Club.

Dotted all over Memphis are industrial companies polluting the environment and people. As a result, residents, particularly the impoverished, are exposed to air and water pollution. Carcinogens in pollution have long been shown to cause cancer, miscarriages among women, and deformities in newborns.  In addition, the many waterways including the Loosahatchie River and McKellar Lake are sources for catching fish, fish often poisoned by chemical pollutants like PCB’s and mercury. When people eat fish that looks seemingly healthy, they are ingesting these poisons.

Rita and Dianne Outside Boscos

Rita is passionate about environmental justice, fighting to protect marginalized people and the fragile environment. She works with citizens in monitoring air pollution levels, seeking to pass laws to regulate environmental inequities, and checking that the groundwater piped into homes is safe.

In the short history of environmental justice in the United States, we have environmental heroes including Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard who have served in the community striving to eliminate environmental racism. I count Rita among them.

She responded saying, “I know there are many others, and the fight for environmental justice has been brief if you compare the time it has existed with the long history of the Sierra Club, or other efforts that are over 100 years old. The EJ movement began back in the mid-1980s, but there are many EJ activists, community fighters, and I probably fall short in their shadows.”

Photo by Dianne Glave

Elizabeth D. Blum on African Americans and the Environment

I have known Ellizabeth D. Blum for several years now. Like many who know her personally, I call her Scout; I’ll have to ask her the origins of her nickname. Elizabeth and I put our heads together on many an occassion as the sub-discipline of African American environmental history began to evolve back in the 1990s. She is an associate professor in the History Department at Troy University. Read her book titled Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism. Read what she has to say . . .

As an academic, I often have to deal with misconceptions about African Americans and the environment.  One of the most persistent, and most harmful, is a common belief that the environmental justice movement that emerged in the 1980s was “new” and radically different from the “mainstream” environmental movement.  According to these themes, “mainstream” environmentalism focused too exclusively on the concerns of white preservationists – they pressed for parks and protected the spotted owl.  Environmental justice brought the plight of minorities, urban areas, and the health effects of pollution to a lily-white movement, and connected it to the civil rights movement.  Robert Bullard and Dorceta Taylor, two of the foundational authors of the environmental justice movement, propounded these theories beginning in the mid to late 1980s.  Environmental justice activists, including Bullard and Taylor, had vested political interests in these views.  The more “new” the movement looked, the more likely it was to receive much-deserved attention from politicians.  Unfortunately, although additional scholarship has added much to the picture, this simplistic image of environmentalism is one that has stuck.

My point is not that environmental justice advocates are bad or even wrong about the connections of race and class to environmental harm – to the contrary, I have long been a proponent of environmental justice.  My point is that by ignoring history, we ignore the deep roots of a movement and marginalize some of the key players, namely African American women.  African American women have been pivotally involved in urban, civil-rights-connected environmentalism since the late 1800s.  They formed clubs and organizations and worked to clean up cities for health and aesthetic reasons.  They saw their work not as “environmentalism,” but as a part of their ongoing struggle for civil rights.  African American men, especially elites like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and other literary giants of the Harlem Renaissance made explicit connections between the poor treatment of human beings under slavery and the poor treatment of the land in the south.  To heal the land, they believed, African Americans needed to be free and equal.  In other words, the ideas of the environmental justice movement aren’t “new” – they’ve been around for around 100 years.  Certainly, that fact makes their ideas no less important or valid.

Another part of the problem here is that academics simply aren’t very good at getting their messages out to a larger public.  That’s our fault, and a longstanding one.  We tend to speak to each other and not to the general public.  However, even within the academic community, some of the excellent historical works out there are not seeping into other fields speaking to environmental justice.   Academics need to start talking to each other, and communicating with the general public in a more constructive way to break down these myths, and give historical actors some of the credit they deserve.

 Elizabeth D. Blum