“What we learned as we were building the international climate movement… was that the movement is not white and upper-class… The folks that were being affected the most, were the ones who have been marginalized.” [caption id="attachment_1764" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Image created by Burt Vera Cruz"][/caption]That’s what Phil Aroneau, Founding Coordinator of 350.org, told a packed room during the breakout session at the Take Back the American Dream conference last Tuesday. The session, Clean to Green: How Activism Can Create Jobs and Save the Planet, explored the intersection of race, economics and the environment and how “green” issues disproportionately affect communities of color.According to Jacqui Patterson, Environmental and Climate Justice Director for the NAACP, many people of color are stranded in “food deserts.” Food deserts occur mostly in low-income urban or rural areas where it’s typically easier and cheaper to purchase a fast food burger than fresh produce.This is certainly the case in East St. Louis, IL - a predominantly African-American city where access to affordable fresh vegetables is limited and the concentration of corner stores that sell liquor and processed or fatty foods is extremely high. There, many residents who want affordable produce are forced to travel nearly 15 miles to the predominantly white suburb of O’Fallon, IL. And for residents without access to personal vehicles, this is no simple feat.Heather Wooten, Senior Planning and Policy Associate with Planning for Healthy Places, says that food retail has a big part to play in terms of how people are able to make choices in their community. She explains that today's lack of choices in these food desert zones is attributable to the suburban housing boom following World War II. Wooten says, during the time when people began migrating to the suburbs, there was a major consolidation movement in the grocery industry that catered to this new demographic, creating a new retail model that required large stores with large parking lots. It was a model that would be hard to fit into the urban landscape, creating a window of opportunity for other businesses."The fast food restaurants, liquor stores and convenience stores on the other hand are small, can fit almost anywhere, they have a price point in terms of the products they are offering to communities that match with the purchasing power that people are able to spend on food in urban communities. So you have these two trends happening simultaneously - the proliferation of fast food restaurants in some of these communities and at the same time, the leaving of the full service grocery store."Food deserts are just part of the problem. According to Jacqui Patterson, 71% of African-Americans live in counties that are in violation of air pollution standards; and, 68% of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal fire power plant. These plants emit everything from lead and mercury to arsenic. This, in turn, has lead to higher rates of birth defects and respiratory diseases from being exposed to these toxins on a regular basis. Specifically, exposure to mercury has been linked to serious birth defects such as muscle weakness and damage to hearing and speech. In severe cases the condition can lead to insanity, paralysis and even death.Even though nuclear power is touted to be cleaner than coal, the reality is that nuclear power disproportionately affects communities of color - from the mining of uranium on Native American lands, to the targeting of African-American and Hispanic communities for new uranium enrichment facilities to the targeting of black and Hispanic and Native American communities for so-called "low-level" nuclear waste disposal sites. All of the sites proposed for "temporary" and permanent storage of high level nuclear waste (nuclear reactor fuel rods) have been Native American lands, with over 60 Native communities having been targeted.But not all is grim.In the early 1990s, Louisiana Energy Services (LES) tried to build a uranium enrichment plant in a very rural, extremely poor, 97% black community between the small towns of Forest Grove and Center Springs in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana. They were stopped in 1997 after a local group -- Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT) -- fought them and won the only court victory where a polluter's license was denied on the basis of environmental racism.Today the fight continues. Across the country people are working on a variety of issues and projects to ensure a just and sustainable future. There is a growing movement for clean energy, climate solutions, and environmental justice, especially where those issues intersect with race, class and ethnicity.
Aaron Tanaka is a young pioneer leading the way to bring the issues of race, class and the environment to the forefront. During the “Clean to Green” session Aaron, a Green for All Fellow, laid-out the numerous member-led campaigns he has helped launch as an Organizer with the Boston Worker’s Alliance. These campaigns serve as not only inspiration, but as Do-It-Yourself models for empowering yourself or your neighbors to create community-sourced solutions to social, economic and environmental problems.The BWA is a union of 300 under-employed and unemployed workers focused on creating green jobs and breaking the “cradle-to-prison circuit” that plagues many low-income communities. Members are currently working on 4 campaigns -CORI Reform, Green Jobs, Economic Justice and Civic Engagement.Through the CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) Reform Campaign, the BWA has worked to end the employment barriers faced by members with a past court record. The 5 year campaign succeeded in helping Michigan become the 2nd state in the country to ban the criminal record question from initial job applications, and in narrowing the time period in which employers can ask about prior convictions.Aaron believes these landmark reforms are the first steps in reversing the crisis of over-incarceration, policing and violence in low-income neighborhoods.In 2008, the BWA launched a Green Collar Jobs Program to ensure that new jobs in the growing Green Economy were good, CORI friendly jobs that were available to communities of color. Part of the work of the Green Justice Coalition was launching the Campaign for Home Weatherization and the Boston Recycling Coalition. The Campaign for Home Weatherization is a member-led campaign to create good green jobs through increased home weatherization opportunities that reduce heating bills and lower global warming pollution. The Boston Recycling Coalition also seeks to explore job creation opportunities by increasing the city’s recycling rates.These are the types of initiatives and programs called for in the Contract for the American Dream. They have shown success and have improved people's lives on a small scale. Our hope is that we can turn these successes into nationwide programs that transform our economy, our environment and our communities.