Last week a friend and I drove out to The African American Museum in Dallas to listen to a talk on environmental justice (EJ). “Why does green look so white in DFW?” was an event for organizers of color to discuss challenges they’ve faced in (albeit well-meaning) environmental activist circles when they try to draw attention to the disproportionate affect pollution has on communities of color.
Many members of the panel had personal experiences with environmental injustice. Panel chair Cherelle Blazer, an environmental scientist and Sierra Club organizer who grew up in Cancer Alley in Louisiana, spent her afternoons having tea and cookies with a stay at home uncle that, she later learned, was dying from cancer. Al Armendariz, a former EPA Regional Administrator who lived in El Paso near the Ascaro lead plant, described the metallic tingle he regularly felt in his mouth after a day out playing in his neighborhood. Both also discussed the issue of representation, and the irony that while communities of color are the group most affected by degraded and polluted environments, they are the least visible in national environmental and climate change movements.
Some discussion was given to the role of outside environmental groups that seek to work in a neighborhood of color. A few audience members, also local activists of color, spoke up on this point. The figure of the ‘white savior’ environmentalist that wants to help is a problematic one. On the one hand, financial and social resources and visibility for the problems of EJ in low income communities of color mean these partnerships can be valuable. On the other hand, the ‘help’ offered, if it is intermittent, at odds with what community members want, or pursued with its own separate agenda, becomes distracting at best and harmful at worst.
A critical point raised by both Clarice Criss, a field manager for color of change, and Kebran Alexander, the NAACP Health Chair, was that preventing the location of new toxic sites in vulnerable remains a challenge yet unmet, because the mechanisms and processes that allowed the city to look the other way have yet to change. They discussed the lead contamination of the neighborhood adjacent to the RSR Corporation factory in West Dallas, and of a recently identified Superfund site in south Dallas, and asked (hypothetically) whether anything has changed in city zoning practice to prevent industrial facilities from locating in vulnerable neighborhoods (it is unclear that is has). Kebran also pointed out that there is a lack of awareness and acknowledgement in white communities that they benefit explicitly from the displacement of waste and industry of all types into outside neighborhoods.
EJ is a difficult topic to talk about, and the stories aren’t pretty. As an organizer in Austin, who spent two summers fighting the state on a chemical in laundry detergent, once told me–sometimes the issues are so big and the problems so many, you take the momentum where you can. This was my first experience with EJ leadership in the DFW area, and it gave me a lot to mull over. It was good to see a battle-scarred but nevertheless unflagging group of activist veterans, who do so much to bring visibility to environmental issues in DFW, have the space to talk through some of their experiences.
For more information:
1.On Mining in El Paso: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122779177
2. On a Superfund Site in South DallasDallas: https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2018/12/04/southern-dallas-toxic-superfund-site-answers-remain-years-away
3. On a Lead Smelting Superfund Site in West dallas: https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.Cleanup&id=0602297#bkground
4. On Downwinders at Risk, the organizing group hosting the panel: https://www.greensourcedfw.org/articles/downwinders-root-branch-dfw-activists
Header Image: Landscape by Thomas Cole, 1825.