In a recent panel discussion, Landscapes of Environmental Justice: Bridging Past and Present, hosted as part of the Bell’s programming for the exhibit Climates of Inequality, several panelists shared their experiences as activists and community members living in the midst of environmental injustice. The audience was eager to learn more—about the panelists and how they, too, could help. In response, the panelists, moderator Michelle Garvey, and members of the Bell have worked to compile. We’re happy to share this list of resources and answers to questions from the audience.
Learn more about Climates of Inequality and upcoming panel discussions, here.
How is environmental justice different from environmentalism?
Michelle Garvey: While what motivates environmentalists to take action is often the wellbeing of a wilderness set aside far from urban centers in, say, the National Parks, what motivates environmental justice advocates are the immediate material stakes of health & home.
That’s why we commonly say: environment is home; “The place where you live, work, and play.” And if that’s the case—if “environment” as an idea isn’t confined to wilderness—“environment” can also be the working Mississippi River; it’s the HERC incinerator and its surrounding neighborhood; it’s agricultural land; it’s each body itself. If “environment” is “home,” it opens up several more ways to think about power and interdependence.
These perspectives often come from first-person experience of environmental oppression. When environments are threatened, human cultures are usually threatened too. But not every human culture—but usually the cultures made politically and economically vulnerable by white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism.
So what is environmental justice?
Michelle Garvey: Usually it’s described as the “Equitable distribution of environmental harms and benefits.” Environmental justice, at its basic, reformist level, works to ensure that those benefits and harms are distributed evenly across all races, classes, genders, and nations. “We’re all downstream, but some are more downstream than others.” Risk is inequitably distributed.
But environmental justice also works for transformational, systemic change as underlying power structures—like the legal system, political processes, economic models, cultural assumptions–are challenged and supplanted.
So some environmental justice movements work to ensure that harms aren’t just evenly distributed across geographies and demographics, but rather that environmental harms aren’t generated in the first place.
What at stake in environmental justice struggles?
Cassandra Holmes: What’s at stake for us is our lives, our children’s lives, our elders’ lives. I lost a son to a heart condition. I look around my community and I see children with asthma, stroke, heart conditions, and dealing with police violence. I look around at all these youth, all these young adults, just dying. And we are always the ones giving in to just get a little and it’s getting tiring, because we’re getting a little at the stake of lives. So that’s what’s at stake. We just want our children to live.
Is environmental justice the best word for what we’re talking about?
José Luis Villaseñor: “Environmental justice” or “climate justice” or “climate change”—those are just code words. When we say environmental justice, we’re talking about heart disease, we talk about who we’ve lost, we talk about how often we hear about a neighbor having to take someone to the emergency room because they can’t breathe.
And so I just want also to challenge all of us, those privileged enough to read about the environmental justice movement to understand that when you connect with communities in the forefront of environmental racism—we don’t use words like that. We’re using them tonight to just share and to communicate with you all, but remember that communities define injustice in terms of what we’re experiencing with our children and our communities.
How do we move forward with development from a community-based perspective?
Catherine Fleming: We need to reach out to the community in a more robust and authentic way, and get input, but not just from one person. Don’t just talk to one person and say, well, she represents the community so that’s all we need, things are good here. Talk to multiple people, multiple organizations. These projects impact people in our communities, they aren’t so far up in the stratosphere that they don’t impact day-to-day life. They impact health, paychecks, policy, policing, budgets—and wildlife and natural resources.
What can a white middle-aged professional who is passionate about connecting community and improving the environment do to work with and in environmental justice communities to improve conditions and improve quality of life for all?
Roxxanne O’Brien: You have power. You have political power, you have social capital. You need to utilize that. You need to use your privilege. You need to use your power.
Do internal work and educate yourself on being anti-racist and on environmental racism. Be politically vocal. We need you to buck up, use your power—support Black people, support Indigenous people, support oppressed people. People with money heavily influence developments and politicians and make a lot of the decisions before the community is told anything. We need financial and social capital to change that and run for office ourselves.
In order to fight the powers that be, and in order to work together, you’ve got to stop being silent. It’s okay if you’re overwhelmed. But reach out, contact somebody, say can you direct me to a place? Whatever you need to do—but use your voice, stop sitting back and being silent.
Cassandra Holmes is a community health worker and oversees the Little Earth of United Tribes Urban Farm youth program. She served on the Minneapolis Southside Green Zone Task Force and is a board member for East Phillips Neighborhood Institute.
Catherine Fleming served on the City of Minneapolis Green Zone Task Force as well as the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council. She’s an advocate for affordable housing with MICAH [https://www.micah.org] and also the Northside Eco-Harbor co-creation team and she also works at the Calvary Group with Project Sweetie pie.
Roxxanne O’Brien has served on the Green Zone Task Force and the Environmental Justice Coordinating Council, as well as the Minneapolis Community Environmental Advisory Commission. She was a key organizer in ousting Northern Metals from Minneapolis North and is now co-leading Community Members for Environmental Justice
José Luis Villaseñor is a single father of three amazing boys and a son of Mexican immigrants, who’s worked on environmental justice and the Jardin Urbano movement within his community of South Minneapolis. He is also a founding member of the South Side Bike Club and Tamales y Bicicletas.
Take The Next Step
Learn more about some of the projects the panelists are working on:
Learn more about City of Minneapolis Green Zones.
Learn about other local organizations:
For more local organizations, be sure to see the panelists’ organizations linked in their bios!
Learn about anti-racism:
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Basic Books, 2019)