Environmental Justice, part 2 of 2.

16 Aug

Public Witness Rally

Or…Connecting the dots.

In the first part of this series, I shared some of the stories from the Energy for Change: Interfaith March and Rally for Clean Energy & Healthy Communities.  In this part, I would like to share my own story as to how I became involved in the rally, and why I was on a mission make sure that a particular experience/point-of-view was represented.

First, let me give you my social location.  I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-educated 42 year old mother of two kids.  I drive a hybrid car and have replaced all our incandescent bulbs with either compact fluorescents or LEDs. We only buy energy star appliances, and our energy consumption is substantially less than average.  I compost.  My family is a part of the professional class – both my spouse and I have white-collar jobs.  We live in a neighborhood that is somewhat socioeconomically diverse, though heavily skewed toward the higher income end.  Other than the lack of racial diversity, I love where we live.  I am sometimes, frankly, embarrassed by our affluence.  Some of it is a product of hard work and the choices we have made, but I am quite aware that I benefit daily from generations of white privilege.

At the core of my theology is my understanding that we are all connected, that no one can be truly free while others are oppressed, and that we have a responsibility to treat one another and our planet with love and respect.  I believe that in the beloved community, all people would have access to the privileges I have – and more. We are not there yet. These core understandings were strongly shaped in seminary, as I became exposed to anti-racist, anti-oppression and multicultural teachings.  I learned about interlocking systems of oppression (now called intersectionality) and how the disenfranchised and vulnerable are exposed to oppression at multiple levels.

When we moved to Louisville four years ago, I knew I wanted to get to know our adopted home-town.  When I saw an article soliciting applicants from all over the area for a new program about the racial and social justice history of Louisville, called the Healing History Academy, I applied and was accepted. I am so grateful for this transformative experience.  I learned that Louisville is an extremely segregated town, with the largest number of African Americans in the “West End” – a segment of land that is bordered by the Ohio River.  In the West End, the life expectancy is a substantially lower than in other parts of the city (some estimates put it at a full ten years less!).  From the Center for Healthy Equity, I learned that there is something wrong when you can categorize someone’s future prospects based on their race or their zip code.  From the Metropolitan Housing Coalition I learned that subsidized housing continues to be focused in particular areas of town, and that public transportation keeps getting cut between these areas of town and where the jobs are, perpetuating inequity and disenfranchisement.

I also learned about the history of sit-ins and protests downtown that led to the passage of an accommodations law in 1963 – the first Southern city to pass such a law.  I learned about how generations of wealth inequity play out when people try to pull themselves up from poverty to middle class.  And so much more.   As a part of my final project, I preached a sermon series on my experiences with HHA:

Perhaps it was because I felt directly connected to what I learned.  Perhaps it was because I was finally getting both a big picture view and a view of the distinct trees in the forest of racial injustice.  For whatever reasons, for the first time in my life I became deeply interested in the real life stories of people who had lived through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and early 70s. And I was eager to learn more about my faith tradition’s role during this time period.  And so I signed up for the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.

Even with all the mind and heart opening I had already begun to engage in, I was not prepared for the personal transformation I experienced on this pilgrimage.  I was moved and my heart ached at the role that children played, and encouraged by how there was a role for everyone in the movement. I documented much of it in these blog posts:

The dots connected even more once I returned. The Rev. Gerald Durley made the connection for me  between environmental justice and civil rights at a Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light event a few weeks later.  I blogged about it as more connections were made between civil rights issues, human rights issues, and racial injustice.

During the course of planning for the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly it became apparent that the WV/KY Ministers would have the opportunity to help shape the social justice focus at General Assembly.  We knew that we wanted to highlight the damage that the fossil-fuel industry does at every level of the process: from extraction to transportation to burning/consumption.  We suspected that General Assembly would never be so close to Appalachia again, so we wanted to make sure to seize the opportunity to introduce people to the rich culture of Appalachia, to make people aware of their own connection to mountain top removal, and of the damage done by the broad form deed (which, incidentally, needs a wikipedia page).

But Louisville, though close to Appalachia, is not a part of it. Even on a clear day, I cannot see the mountains in the distance.  And we have our own troubles with coal that I felt needed to be highlighted, particularly after hearing Kathy Little’s story and Eboni Cochran’s story.  I became more and more curious about how racism and the environment are linked oppressions.

When the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth had their board meeting in Louisville, we arranged for an environmental justice tour with the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center.  I was amazed at how the EJ tour had so much overlap with the Civil Rights Driving Tour that I had gone on with the Healing History Academy (and subsequently have led twice for my church).   I should not have been surprised.  As Robert Bullard points out in POVERTY, POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM:

It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) if they do not have a backyard. Nationally, 46.3 percent of African Americans and 36.2 percent of Latinos own their homes compared to over two-thirds of the nation as a whole. Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the NIMBY positions taken against locally unwanted land uses or LULUs such as the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people of color communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.

And so it ends up that chemical factories, toxic power plants, and other major polluters end up in black and/or poor communities.  Indeed, they know they will meet with less resistance and so these communities are now targeted for such installations.

For many of us who benefit from privileges we have done nothing to earn, it is easy to not pay attention to these dots.  It can be difficult to realize that not only does my energy consumption contribute to mountain top removal, it also contributes to a lower quality of life and younger life expectancy for my neighbors up the road.  I was compelled to make sure that the connection between the environment, racism, and oppression of the poor (with Louisville as an example) was brought out during the public witness at General Assembly.

Since June, I have found that the dots are still being connected.  I realize that I cannot advocate for the environment without advocating against the racism inherent in so many of our policies.  These factors influence decisions around healthcare and food access,  around urban development, around city budgeting, around factors such as how and where air quality is measured.  And much more.

These factors also influence decisions around education.  Did you know that, looking at only 5 states, more than 600,000 students attend public schools that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state-identified contaminated sites? Kentucky was not listed but on the EJ tour, I saw at least 2 schools located within such distances of chemical plants.  What about the other states?  How does this exposure effect a child’s mental and physical health?  Also, did you know that 8.8% of Louisville/Jefferson County public school students are homeless?  This connects with the lack of affordable housing, which also has a connection to environmental factors (and much more!)  And so a picture begins to emerge with all these dots being connected.

This year, I plan to grow and develop my understanding of these various dots.  I know that I can not be truly free while my neighbors are oppressed and so will work against oppression at every level.  I have a responsibility to treat others and our planet with love and respect – because we are all connected, like the dots in this picture that is emerging.

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