Working with environmental justice communities

Citizens' Climate University environmental justice

A residential neighborhood sits downwind of a tar sands refinery in Chicago.

Working with environmental justice communities

By Philip Finkelstein

In a recent Citizens’ Climate University session, we explored the topic of environmental justice. The presentation was led by two representatives from CCL’s Climate and Environmental Justice Action Team: David Holmquist and Jim Rine. David is the Chicago southside group leader and Jim is a member of CCL’s Detroit chapter. They acknowledged early on, “We’re both a couple of old white men. Don’t think for a second that the irony is lost on us.” Still, they deeply understand the value and importance of the EJ work that fellow advocates are doing in their towns of Chicago and Detroit, and they’re working to build relationships with those organizations.

Their informative lesson gives background and context for the environmental justice movement, and it offers some best practices for reaching out and building bridges. Watch it for yourself here, or keep reading for a recap of the key takeaways.   

Background of environmental justice

In 1982, the black community of Warren County, NC held a six-week demonstration, protesting the dumping of PCB soil in their local landfill, which was contaminating the drinking water and causing public health issues. It was later discovered that three out of every four uncontrolled dumping sites across the country were located in lower socioeconomic communities of predominantly black demographics. This gave rise to the environmental justice movement, as environmentalists and civil rights activists came together to fight against environmental inequality.

Today the movement is still going strong, focusing its efforts on establishing ecologically independent communities, ensuring sustainable and ethical use of resources, and appreciating the sacredness of nature. To achieve their goals, environmental justice communities pursue regenerative urban and rural ecological practices that help rebuild downtrodden communities. They also operate with the belief that no one should be subjected to unfair policy that takes advantage of their socioeconomic status and lack of political representation.

Environmental justice and climate change mitigation

There are undoubtedly many similarities between environmental justice and climate change mitigation advocacy; however, there are critical divergences in key areas, which in some instances may lead to conflicts between what are otherwise kindred campaigns. Jim Rine saw this play out first hand at a town hall in Detroit as engineers argued that the flooding of over 1,200 homes in the area after heavy rainfall last August was, in fact, a consequence of climate change. Whereas climate change mitigation advocates would push for policy targeting the root of the problem, Rine observed, “For a lot of these folks, this was the second time their basements had flooded in two years—they didn’t want to talk about climate change. They wanted to know how to alleviate the problems with their basements.”

This is in the same city as River Rouge High School, where 20 percent of the student body has air-pollution-induced asthma, so it’s not surprising that environmental justice advocates tend to focus on personal and local challenges rather than the broader issue of climate change. Climate change mitigation advocacy groups like CCL have an opportunity to bridge that gap through long-term relationship building with environmental justice communities. Through these relationships, we can honor their goals and perspectives and build the grassroots support necessary to influence the broader climate initiative.  

In response to the incessant flooding and air pollution issues plaguing the city of Detroit, Rine is currently working with other advocacy groups to host a panel discussion called “Moving Detroit Forward: Environmental Justice and a Changing Climate.” The panel will feature mayoral candidates leading up to the election in November. The idea is for this event to reveal common purpose across environmental justice and climate change fronts and thereby foster unity in our work.

David Holmquist states, “People in frontline communities—low and moderate income communities of color—have lots of problems to deal with; these are existential problems.” He points out that for climate change mitigation work to gain grassroots support, the people of these communities need to be brought into the conversation with the understanding that they have other existential threats burdening their day-to-day lives. Hence, an understanding, empathetic approach is required when broaching the subject of climate change. In terms of prescribed policy, Holmquist talks about the importance of devising a national agenda, which allocates funds to the local level for redevelopment, as has been the recent case in Illinois. Of course, another policy option that would support frontline communities by putting money right in their pockets is our Carbon Fee and Dividend plan.

Holmquist also explains the importance of developing bipartisanship on climate issues, especially among environmental justice communities where there’s a deep-seated mistrust of Republican politicians. With that in mind, the San Francisco Bay Area CCL team tried to strategically align conservative and liberal values around California’s cap and trade scheme. Ultimately, many felt the final bill didn’t go far enough to to protect vulnerable communities, and it showed that there’s still plenty of work to be done to balance immediate, local needs and the need for broader climate change mitigation.

To get more involved with outreach to the environmental justice community, join CCL’s Climate and Environmental Justice Action Team on CCL Community.

Like Citizens’ Climate University? Check out past sessions and mark your calendar for future lessons here!

Originally from Vermont, Philip Finkelstein is a recent Political Science graduate from the University of British Columbia. He has a deep passion for writing and desire to bring about meaningful change.