Episode 3

March 27, 2023


Women of Color in Environmental Justice

Hosted by

Jaron Burke Lonnie J. Portis
Women of Color in Environmental Justice
Uptown Chats
Women of Color in Environmental Justice

Mar 27 2023 | 01:10:46


Show Notes

In honor of Women’s History Month, Jaron and Lonnie are joined by WE ACT’s Environmental Health Intern Gabriela Lebron along with three special guests to highlight Women of Color who have laid the groundwork for the Environmental Justice movement and are shaping its future.

Guest Information:

Join WE ACT's April Membership Meeting: April 8 @ 10am (454 W 155th St, New York, NY 10032)

You can also listen to this episode on YouTube.

Got questions? Email us at [email protected] 

Connect with the show:

Follow us on Instagram

Follow us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

[00:00:10] Speaker A: Welcome to Uptown Chat, a podcast where we share stories about environmental justice by and for everyday people. I'm your co host, Jaron, and I'm. [00:00:20] Speaker B: Your other co host, Lonnie. And we both work at we act for environmental justice. [00:00:23] Speaker A: Lonnie, what do we do here at Weact? [00:00:26] Speaker B: Glad you asked. WeACt's mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and or low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. [00:00:38] Speaker A: That's right. And today we're celebrating women of color specifically and their role in the environmental justice movement with the help of one of our environmental health interns, Gabriella LeBron. Gabriella will provide us with a bit of a background and a historical lens about the role of women of color in the environmental justice movement. And then we'll transition to some interviews with some great women of color and some interviews with them. And here's Gabriella. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Gabriella. We appreciate you being on the show today. And Lonnie and I are going to take a step back to give a little bit more space for the voices of women of color in the work that we do and just in the movement in general. So with that, I'm going to go ahead and turn it over to you to introduce yourself, tell the folks who you are, and then just launch right into what you have to share with us today. [00:01:26] Speaker C: Hi, I'm Gabrielle LeBron. I'm an intern here with Weact. I work with Jaren. Specifically, I'm an environmental studies major at Skidmore College up in Saratoga Springs, New York. And so how I got my start with the environmental justice movement was in a class that I took in high school called climate justice, and where primarily we focused on Hurricane Katrina and other issues in New York City. And this was my first exposure to these sort of issues and how a lot of environmental issues are deeply systemic and especially studying environmental justice movement, or, excuse me, environmental injustices in new York City. I saw a lot of my community reflected in what we were learning, specifically in the Bronx, studying the heat index disparities and also the asthma disparities. I saw a lot of myself and my peers reflected in those statistics. And so, again, this opened up a door of passion and curiosity within me for this movement. But prior to this class, I was very regretfully unaware of how prominent these issues were and how if you don't necessarily learn about them in a classroom setting, or at least at that age, at the age of 16, I probably wouldn't have learned about it otherwise. And it just so happened in that class. My teacher talked about react as well. And so that's how I learned about react. So, yeah, so now I'm in my second year of studying in college. I learn about these issues every day, and I'm continuing to be curious and passionate about these issues. And so today, I did a bit of research on three different generations of women of color in the environmental justice movement, and I'm here to talk about them a little bit. So first I'm going to talk about Dionne Ferriss. She's a more experienced member of the community, and one of her larger accomplishments within the environmental justice movement was being named the first african american president of the Institute for Sustainable Communities. She was named in 2020. The Institute for Sustainable Communities is a nonprofit international organization with a mission to implement equitable and sustainable climate change mitigation and solutions. She got her start in the environmental justice movement when she was in law school. So she took an environmental law course and she saw a lot of similarities and parallels between what she was learning and her life at home. And so specifically, she noticed that cases regarding air quality were more specific to her life experiences. She also noticed from this class that her family lived in an environmental justice community. She was inspired to join the budding environmental law community. Her first job outside of law school was with the US Environmental Protection Agency. Following on, I'm going to talk about Leah Thomas, and she's more in the middle stages of her activism. So currently she's an author and she describes herself as an eco communicator. Her presence online is through an Instagram page and a blog called intersectional environmentalist. In May of 2020, her page picked up after she created a post stressing the importance of the intersection of social and environmental justice. So her page, intersectional environmentalist, does this currently and where they spread information on the intersections of these two movements, the social and environmental justice movement, and the importance of seeing both aspects to both movements. She has also authored the intersectional environmentalist, how to dismantle systems of oppression to protect people and the planet, which, quote, serves as an introduction to the intersection between environmentalism, racism, and privilege. She is also the founder of an eco lifestyle blog called Green Girl Leah. Furthermore, she's been recognized on media publications such as CNN, NBC, Vogue, and the List goes on. And lastly, for the more younger crowd of the environmental justice movement, I'm going to shine a light on a Mariana copney. Where she goes by Mari, also goes by little Miss Flint. So now she's 14 years old, but she rose to the spotlight when she wrote a letter to then President Barack Obama. She was eight when she wrote this letter that gained a lot of public attention. She wrote about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And shortly after, President Obama visited Michigan, Flint, Michigan, and authorized $100 million to help resolve this cris. Huge accomplishment for being eight years old. Definitely. In 2017, she was a national youth ambassador of the Women's March on Washington. And currently, she's continuing to stay involved with local leadership positions in her community. Fun fact, she plans to run for president in 2024. So it's interesting to think that a lot of the leading members of this community get involved because of problems within their own community. Dion Ferris, for instance, saw parallels between her life and what she was learning in her classes. And Mariana Copney, or little Miss Flint, wrote to the president because the problems were so bad in her community that she wanted to send a message. And within myself, within the class that I took, climate justice, I saw a lot of really stark parallels and similarities between what I was learning and my own life. And I think a lot of members of this community get involved because they see themselves reflected through what they're learning about environmental justice and injustices. [00:06:49] Speaker A: Yeah, that's great. Thank you so much for that recap and overview of some really prominent women of color in the environmental justice movement. I think a lot of people take the contributions of women of color for granted. And as is evidenced by these three people who have highlighted so much of the progress that we've seen in environmental justice, we have to thank women of color for. And even our own executive director, Peggy Shepard, is an important piece of that. So with your context in mind, we're going to go ahead and transition into a couple of interviews that we've done with, again, multiple generations of women of color in the environmental justice movement. Lonnie, do you want to say a little bit about who those three people are? [00:07:33] Speaker B: Yeah. We've got Christy Drutman, aka Brown girl green. We act's very own Dana Johnson, and Vernice Miller. Travis, co founder of Weact. [00:07:41] Speaker A: That's right. Let's roll those interviews. [00:07:52] Speaker D: Hi, everyone. My name is Christy Drupman, otherwise known as Brown girl Green. I'm an environmental media host, educator, content creator, public speaker, someone who really cares about building bridges when it comes to climate communication and storytelling to move forward and promote environmental justice. I'm also the co founder of the Green Jobs Board, which is a platform helping folks get jobs on climate. [00:08:22] Speaker A: Well, thank you for that introduction and to continue that I want to hear a little bit more about your story and how you got into the environmental justice movement. [00:08:30] Speaker D: So growing up, I wasn't really exposed as much to understanding how my life was connected to environmental justice. I did grow up near a freeway and I did have a lower lung capacity. And it was funny because I remember when I was in 7th grade, there was a science experiment that tested kids who had parents who were smokers versus non smokers and tested their lung capacity. And you had to blow into the little balloon. And it was crazy because I blew into the balloon and they were like, are your parents smokers? And I was like, no, my parents are not smokers. And I didn't understand why I had such tiny lungs and not the most athletic. But then I kind of put two and two together and it was like, oh, I grew up right next to a freeway. And it wasn't until I was way older that I realized, like, oh, that was me breathing in pollutants and that is an issue. And I didn't really realize that growing up, I didn't piece those things together. And as I got deeper into high school and developed interests in environmental issues, it really came with a human rights perspective. I was really passionate about the environment because I wanted to see how could improving the environment for people actually help people's lives be better. So I came from it from more that perspective than like, oh, protecting wild forests or things like that. It was always about people, even from a young age. And so I felt like that was kind of the foundations of my journey of exploring and caring about environmental justice. And then when I went to UC Berkeley, I kind of got thrown into understanding environmental justice issues that were impacting communities that I was not a part of. So I learned a lot about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and how that was impacting farming communities in the Central Valley in California. And I was learning know how communities were forming coalitions all across the state of California to get fracking banned because it was poisoning people's water supply and things like that. And it just astounded me at that age when I was in university starting to learn about these things and then actually meeting people being impacted by these issues, and I just felt very compelled to want to do something about it. And so, yeah, right off the bat, when I started university, I was joining coalitions around divesting from fossil fuels and fighting against extractive industries and joining a lot of coalition movement building that way. But then, yeah, I got burnt out from that. And we could talk about mental health later in this episode, but I got burnt out because it was just very much like I was going all in, but it was also like, at the same time, I didn't feel like I had a roadmap of how I fit in to the social change or environmental justice ecosystem. I didn't know how I fit into anything. And so it was just kind of this journey. I took a break from doing more of, like, the grassroots, direct action kind of activism stuff to kind of like introspecting. What was my role within the movement. And during that time, as I did that introspection, I discovered my passion and love for storytelling and media and creativity. And I was going on social media and seeing all these content creators and bloggers and all this stuff, and they were making such big impacts, maybe selling things that weren't always the best for the environment or spreading messages that were really influencing people's lives. And I was like, why is that not existent for the environmental justice space? And I was, okay, like, I have this knowledge and this wherewithal to know how to use things like blogs and writing and video creation and podcasting. Why don't I apply that and educate people about the issues I was seeing both locally in the Bay Area at the time, and then nationally and internationally. Because I started from my youth, activism was like, that expanded, not just locally, it went regionally, nationally, and then internationally when I got involved with the UN climate talks and all this stuff. And that's way before I started brown girl green. So I was seeing all these pieces, and I was like, okay, how can I create a medium to share what I'm learning about these powerful movements, the histories of amazing leaders who have led environmental justice in the past, current leadership and movements of environmental justice, and what the movement could look like in the future. And I just felt like there was no outlets of media talking about that. There was here and there, but it was very much in academia, it was very much maybe in very insular circles, because organizations maybe didn't have the resources to produce their own media at the time. And so I was like, I'm just going to put it out there. And that was where brown girl green kind of emerged. It was just very much this idea of being really passionate about seeing especially marginalized voices and communities not being represented or having their stories told, despite being the most extracted from and feeling like there needed to be a platform to talk about some of that, while also educating people about what was going on with the climate crisis, but making sure that a lot of those voices were also being included in that at the same time, and that's where I learned that is my role. That is what I want to contribute to the environmental justice movement is this media platform and using my strengths as a storyteller and a creative to be that bridge builder for those stories. [00:13:51] Speaker A: Yeah. I appreciate your experience as a storyteller coming and joining with us today and telling us this aspect of your story and how you've entered into the environmental justice movement. And I think it's interesting, that moment that you were talking about as a kid with the breathing test and this trajectory that followed. And considering we're focusing on women of color and ej in this episode, I want to just quickly touch on what moment in that timeline that it became clear to you that it was people of color, that it was women of color being impacted by environmental justice issues. Because it sounds like it wasn't clear, it wasn't explained to you in that moment of why you specifically were being impacted. [00:14:40] Speaker B: You were also not educated on that disproportionate impact. [00:14:44] Speaker D: Right. And I think that brings up even more complex questions around racial privilege and economic privilege. Right. It's interesting because I would say I grew up pretty middle class. I didn't grow up low income. And so I think it was an interesting thing where I was living in this, what was considered a nice neighborhood in terms of school districts and things like that. And so by the numbers, from a class perspective, I didn't view it as like, that, you know what I mean? Of like, oh, I'm being marginalized, or I'm being like, oh, I'm dealing with all these issues. But I learned, like, there was health impacts that I faced because it's. Specifically, my neighborhood is an unincorporated area, actually, within the community I was in. And I didn't even know there was unincorporated censuses until I got older. And I was like, oh, this is why we don't even have proper sewage and we don't have even proper streetlights in our neighborhood, because we're this weird little island pocket within this bigger community where you see there was a lot of wealth and privilege near us. You know what I mean? So I never viewed it as like I was a part of an environmental justice community or what people maybe associate with those things. But then as I got older, I was like, no, those things happen to me. And that is an environmental justice issue. And I think over time, I was learning these layers, and I started to learn even more that, especially for women of color, in all aspects, not just environmental justice, but just, like, health issues and different things you face. It's so hard to speak up or advocate for yourself or talk about the things you were exposed to or the things you were considering or the things you thought were messed up. It takes a long time to build that voice. And I think that that's a big part of this interesting thing where it's like, yeah, they thought my lung capacity was low. It's weird, but in my head, I was like, oh, but I have access to all these resources, all these things, and both of those things can coexist, right? Like, people can live in an area that's very polluted and also maybe have their own sets of privileges and access. Like, I'm an asian american woman. I have access in proximity to whiteness. I have all these things, right? But it's like, I've also been exposed to a lot of harms in the environmental field. I've been experienced my own sets of microaggressions, all these things. So it's an interesting question around where do women of color lie on the spectrum? Because we all have our own sets of privileges and also marginalized identities, right? Within even that and how we approach these issues. So I always like to name that, right? I always like to name that. I do have my own sets of class and racial privilege, even as being a woman of color, but I've also faced my own sets of oppression and marginalization in my own ways. And then looking back on my life, realized there was these things where I was like, wait, that's actually pretty messed up. And I didn't really piece that together. And I kind of was like, oh, but you had all these other things, so that doesn't really count. You know what I mean? And so it's funny, it's like you're so quick to being like, okay, I don't need to advocate over myself because you have all these other things going for you. That's a common story. I have other women of color friends where it's like, oh, well, you didn't have to immigrate from x country. You're fine. You know what I mean? It's like, okay, it might not be great in this neighborhood, but at least you're not back there, like in the Philippines, the know. Or like, you don't have to grow up that way. So it's like, what are you complaining about? You know what I mean? Anyways, I know that was a little bit complex, but it's kind of a big part of it. [00:18:29] Speaker A: We love complexity here. [00:18:30] Speaker B: Yeah. Because it gives us a lot to dig into because you're absolutely right in terms of, there's a wide range of understanding privilege within being a person of color, myself as well, and also kind of identifying a little bit with that upper middle class upbringing. I'm like, what am I complaining about for a lot of things. But when you kind of go through this, when you present yourself to the world in society, you may not be viewed the way that you think that you should be viewed, right? Yes. And sometimes you're not as visible. And I think it's great that you have a platform that tells stories of a variety of voices. So I guess I want to kind of ask, why do you think it's important for more women of color to get involved in the environmental justice movement? [00:19:12] Speaker D: Because of the complexity, because of the diversity of experiences and communities we are a part of. I mean, they keep saying with the recommendations from the IPCC report that adaptation and resilience is very context and community specific. And we know that women are at the core of implementing a lot of adaptation strategies, especially in the global south. But even here in the US, when we think about family dynamics and all this stuff, women are doing tons of emotional labor and childcare and all these things, it usually tends to fall on women. And so I think when we're talking about environmental justice, we have to think about all of these layers that women of color have to deal with and have to navigate through just living in the society we live in today, because most of the time, they're going to be put in a more vulnerable position, not able to adapt or accommodate to these changes as quickly as people who don't identify as a woman of color. And so I think it's important that those voices are brought up because it is going to end up being so context specific. And the more women of color you have who come from diverse backgrounds, it will resonate with someone. And I think that is how we create the blueprint for action, for people to feel seen, to build community, and that's how movements get built. And so I think it's really important that those voices get Brad in the room to be able to connect those dots for people. [00:20:41] Speaker B: Absolutely. I just kind of want to ask a quick question here off that is like, what kind of stories do you hear? What are you hearing from these storytelling and the voices that you. [00:20:51] Speaker D: Yeah, I mean, I just had an incredible recording of my podcast earlier this morning with an amazing woman named Chef Salassi, and she's from Ghana. And her whole story right now is about how to use food as a medium to talk about climate justice. And her whole thing is that she uses culinary expertise to be able to show people that you can infuse ghanaian culture with being more plant based or plant forward, right. And talking about how food is not just this thing that exists for just pleasure. It's also a tool for conversation, for activism, for discussion. And it's also like discussing things like food security and thinking about a changing climate. Right. And using it as a way to be able to reach people to think about, okay, if I live in this specific context, I'm probably going to need to eat more of x, y and z type of food because these other types of foods are not going to be as readily available in the next couple of decades due to droughts and things like that. And so it's interesting, like, she was bringing that up. And I thought that was just a perfect example of having someone who talked about the specific issues faced in a place like Ghana and how food is used as a cultural teaching tool. And I think those kind of stories just excite me because I'm like, you would never hear something like that, you know what I mean? In mainstream media, where it's like you're kind of connecting dots around unconventional stories that are full of solutions. I think a big part of your question that I want to answer is a big thing that I think distracts us, is a lot of this eco anxiety and doom and gloom narrative that neglects so much of how people, especially people in the global south, are currently adapting to the climate crisis right now. And I think a lot of women of color are at the forefront of adaptation efforts, not out of a space of policy or the IPCC report. They're doing it for survival. Right? And they're doing it well. They're figuring it out because they have to. They don't have a choice. And I think there's so much we could be learning from those stories and learning how to build those case studies and that repertoire of information that, again, you can learn from best practices. Right. And you learn more and more. And hopefully you could apply that to your local context, or maybe not. You pick and choose, but there just needs to be more information, more data, more stories that are put out there in order for that kind of conversation to even be happening. [00:23:26] Speaker B: Yeah, you're absolutely right. [00:23:28] Speaker E: The mainstream media even saying right now. [00:23:31] Speaker B: No, it feel that way a lot. [00:23:33] Speaker D: I'm glad it all pieced together. [00:23:36] Speaker B: The mainstream media, it is very doom and gloom. Right? That's kind of all you hear, especially from the climate and environmental justice. Space is just like all of the negative. But if we hear about some of the things that. How people are adapting, what their stories are, where they're coming from, and it really enriches the conversation. And I think it's great that storytelling can be a way to make the complexity a little easier to digest, because it is all very complex issues. You just explain very eloquently how the food connection, to drought, to climate, to economic and social injustice. [00:24:13] Speaker E: Right. [00:24:13] Speaker B: Like, there's so many things that are connected. And I think storytelling is a great way to make that a little easier to understand. [00:24:18] Speaker D: Yeah, exactly. And I just feel like, yeah, the statistics are just that women are estimated to be 80% of who's going to be displaced by climate change, most likely to face domestic violence, most likely to deal with having to deal with sexual violence and things like that. And so I think these stories are not even just a nice to have. It's like survival. It's giving people a blueprint to learn how to survive and know what is to expect so they can prepare themselves and their families. Right. And women's education is so critical for that, especially in the global south. And so I view these stories as not just about feel good things. It's also like, hopefully people can learn and feel like their voice is being heard, because there's so much pain there of so many communities feeling just, like, not heard when it comes to these issues. And so being able to create a platform that shares that in a way that feels joyful and not caught in the negativity, for me, that just feels like it is moving the needle forward in some way. Some way, somehow, with the hopes that. [00:25:27] Speaker B: Those stories reach legislators, policymakers, and people who can make decisions to make change. [00:25:33] Speaker D: To really think about. Really think about the impacts and the timeliness of the decisions that need to be made. [00:25:50] Speaker F: My name is Dana Johnson. I serve as senior director of strategy and federal policy with weak for environmental justice. A really long way of saying that I advocate at the federal level for communities across the country in pursuing, like, equitable legislation or regulatory practices, or even money that will go towards addressing environmental injustice in communities across the country. [00:26:18] Speaker A: Love that. How did you get into the environmental justice movement? [00:26:23] Speaker F: Yeah, so I would say that EJ was not intentional for me. I went to school, quite frankly, for marketing for my undergrad degree. And I spent about 15 years working in client service communications firms. But it was always in a space of helping people, supporting people. So I did five years around healthcare comms, and so heart attack and stroke prevention. And I did some work around home safety. So fire alarm and carbon monoxide. And then I went to work for the comms firm. That really was the most impactful in my life. I was the first employee for this company founded by a woman who actually was bet's very first PR person. And she was the Oprah Winfrey show's very first PR person and went out and started her own thing. And I got to do amazing. You know, we had hotels as our clients. So how do you make a hotel experience, a vacation experience, accessible for more LBGTQ folks? That was that work. The National Black MBA association, the National association of Black Accountants were my clients. So how do you get more people of color on corporate boards? How do you get them in executive positions? And then the Nielsen company was a client, and that was all about getting black people, Latinx people, and asian folks to participate in the census because Nielsen used that data to make money. But it was really about ensuring that people knew they mattered. And so I did that for 15 years. And then I decided that I was going to go to grad school and get an MBA because operations was important to me. If you say you want to be a $10 million organization, or in the work that we do, if you say you want to revolutionize communities so that they're healthy places, you can't do that if the inside of your organization does not operate efficiently and effectively. So I really thought I was going to be, like a COO when I grew up, but came to Washington, DC, took an executive director job. Didn't do that. I did that for maybe like a year and a half. And then I went to work with someone in a consulting capacity who was working with the climate Action campaign. And they were interested in connecting with african american women, youth, and the faith community around climate action. And I thought I would just do that for five minutes. And ended up meeting someone that I knew in Chicago who lived here in Washington, DC. And she was coming back to work at Weact and asked me if I would join her in a comms capacity. So I can admit I didn't intend to stay long, but that's how I got into EJ. [00:29:22] Speaker B: Wow. That's like a roundabout way to get to EJ, but also kind of direct in an OD way. [00:29:28] Speaker F: Very. Yeah, a bunch of different circles around. But I think at the heart of it, the string is, if I think about my ethos, everyone gets to live in peace and safety without fear. So if you want on vacation, if you sitting in your house and you want to breathe clean air, if you want to ascend to the C suite in an organization, you have the right to do it. And there should be no barrier in your getting to that place. [00:29:56] Speaker A: I love that, and I love how that transcends, even outside of the strict, very kind of defined environmental justice movement. It kind of should be sprinkled out through all aspects of society. And I also like that you touched on your experience in the health phase and the pull from the climate action piece of it. I feel like a lot of people are pulled into the environmental justice movement through one of those two ways, either through their connection to health, thinking about health and how it impacts people, or through thinking about climate and really big picture issues like climate change. And it seems like both of those worked on you. So all the forces conspired to bring you here. [00:30:34] Speaker F: They did. But we really do need all kinds of folks to come into the space. Like, you need the finance person, you need the comms person, you need the operations person, you need somebody who's strategic. We just can't be out here randomly pulling out our picket signs and throwing up our black power fists. We have to be thoughtful and strategic in how we do it. And so I think the movement benefits from diversity. [00:30:59] Speaker B: Absolutely. And speaking of that diversity, and you talked a lot about equity in your journey as well, has been important in working with different groups of people. But as a woman of color yourself, how has your lived experience influenced the environmental justice movement? [00:31:17] Speaker F: Oh, wow, that's powerful. My lived experience. So I think, for me, I don't necessarily bring faith into this. And I'm probably in a space of not crises right now, but sometimes faith and what you see in the real world don't make a whole lot of sense to me. But that notion of we all are equal, we all have the same breath of life in us. We all are wonderfully made. We're all created, and we all get access to the benefits or the blessings that come along with that. I think a part of my lived experience, like, I'm just as smart, I'm just as hot, I bring just as much value to this world, to this planet. And how dare anyone decide that I shouldn't be able to reap the full benefits of being on the earth or being in this space. And so I think that probably influences a lot of what I do in environmental justice. I think the other thing that I think about, too, is my lived experience. I'm probably in a weird generation, right? So my parents are boomers, and there's a certain amount of I'm Gen X for the Gen Xers. But there is a certain amount of structure and process and protocol in how I think Gen Xers live. But then we also raised this generation of folks who are resisting structure and process and protocol and really are more holistically focused on parity and equity. And we can all get to the space together, even sometimes in the work environment, like, when people do a project together, I'm like, why are we doing group projects? Group think. But I get the whole, we all going to contribute to something great. So I feel like I sit in a weird space of that. And I think that this idea of value, and I can admit, like, in even younger periods of my life, especially academically, not necessarily feeling like I was as smart or I had the best training or the best resources to be at the table and to go into spaces. And especially when I went to college, I was like, these folks ain't no smarter than me. I am just as smart. I bring just as much. And so I think when I think about environmental justice, because that's about sitting at a table and deciding what happens in your community, what happens in your life, I think that experience of feeling like, should I be at this table? Versus deciding for myself I'm going to be at this table, even if I'm not always comfortable with it, is probably what I bring to EJ. [00:34:26] Speaker B: That's great. So kind of like, grappling with that imposter syndrome. Like, should I even be here? [00:34:30] Speaker F: Should I even be here? Right? And what are all the things that I should be doing to prepare myself to prove that I should be here? Which goes back to the first thing that I said of, like, just the fact that I'm on the planet makes me a candidate to be at the table. [00:34:47] Speaker B: I think that's a beautiful statement. And it's interesting how you describe being a Gen xer, because that is exactly how my mother describes being a gen xer in a lot of ways of just, like, when she comes in that workplace, like, why are we doing this all together? Why is this a group thing? I don't understand what's happening. Or I like to see Gen X as the people who like to be in the background, but still want to do something, but still want to contribute. [00:35:10] Speaker F: We are in the background. And I don't know. I really think about that a lot. How did we get in the background? But the folks running your organizations right now are the Gen Xers, like, we ready to retire, but we are running things right now. And I think, yeah, part of that probably is, like, we are comfortable to let other people shine while we just do. [00:35:34] Speaker A: Was there a specific moment where the first time you really recall having this debate in your head of, should I be at this table? Is there a clear moment that comes to your mind when you think back and think about that time where that really dawned on you that that was something that was important to you and that it was something that needed to happen, that you needed to take that space and to be at the table for something that was important to you in, that's, wow. [00:36:00] Speaker F: Like, I can vividly see it in my head and it goes back to being, okay. So in Chicago, when you are getting ready to go to high school, if you don't go to your neighborhood high school, you have to take tests. And I don't know what they call it today, but you take tests to go to the school that you want to go to. And Whitney Young, Lynn Bloom, and the high school that I went to, high park, you had to take the test for it. But, like, Whitney Young was the top school. And I remember thinking, like, and my father was driving my friend Stephanie and I to actually take the test. And I was like, I don't even like, why am I going to take this test? I don't really like math. I don't really do that well in math. And this is just a waste of time. And I vividly remember sitting in the backseat of that car thinking, like, he's taking me to something that I don't really feel like I'm qualified to be at. And, yeah, that probably was like, 1213 years old, that decades later, you still have to fight against that? I can see that very vividly. But that was the first time that I remember thinking, like, I shouldn't be here. [00:37:18] Speaker A: Yeah. Was there a moment in that time when you're going to take the test that you realize, like, no, I need to do this because this is going to step me up? Or is it a hindsight thing where after you took the test, you're like, no, I'm glad that I did this because XYZ, or was it years later that you finally realized this was an important thing? [00:37:36] Speaker F: Yeah, I would say it probably was a years later experience for me. And I remember when I first went away to college, I went to Gramley, and that felt comfortable, that felt safe to know, to be a part of an HBCU. And financially, my family just didn't have it figured out. So I ended up having to come back to Chicago, and I just applied to all the colleges and the universities there. And the first one that sent me an acceptance letter was where I ended up going. So I went to Roosevelt University, and I remember getting ready to start classes and thinking, like, even, like, these kids are coming from the North Shore, they're coming from the northwest suburbs where they got money, like, their schools are better. And I don't know if I will be able to compete. And I remember sitting in my first class, like, being a part of the conversation and hearing the conversation, and I was like, they don't have anything on me. I could do this. They are not smarter than me. [00:38:42] Speaker A: Thank you for sharing that. [00:38:44] Speaker B: Why do you think it's important for more women of color to get involved in the environmental justice movement? [00:38:52] Speaker D: Yeah. [00:38:52] Speaker F: So in thinking about that question, I can answer it from the very direct space that we work in. So we know that race is more than income, is more of a determinant if you'll be exposed to some sort of environmental injustice. And so having women of color because our communities are impacted makes sense. But when I think about who I see in the movement, when I think about who is most nurturing and moved by injustice, I do think that women of color automatically show up in those spaces. And as a black woman, I can speak for black women. I feel like we show up in those spaces, we are going to care for you. We are going to nurture you. We're going to stand in the gap for you. We will be angry for you. And so I feel like when you look at who's out in a know, when you look at some of the black Lives Matter actions that we saw here in Washington, DC during the Trump administration, I felt like women of color were leading in those spaces. And I think it's a part of who we are. I think sometimes we carry a bigger burden than we should carry. Personally, from a Gen X perspective, I feel like my friends and I carry democracy on our backs. Like, we sit in that space of being really close to generations of folks who thought, like, voting was important. It was an important part for us to participate in that process. I grew up in a home with my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my father, my uncles, whatever. So I have, like, four. I'm the fourth in a generation of people. And my great grandmother was born in 1899 and had siblings who were slaves. And so I see the importance of participating in the process that I feel like sometimes the value proposition isn't there for generations behind me. Like, they just don't see it. And so I see, for me, the environmental justice movement will not come to fruition if people are disempowered. And so as a woman, as a black woman, I carry that I feel like every day in my life. And so I don't know if I think it's important for women of color to participate in the movement, but I think it's something that we naturally gravitate to because we carry injustice with us and a desire to see it resolved. [00:41:50] Speaker B: So many things that could be followed up on what you said. But one thing I want to kind of ask just kind of, for your candid responses. Do you feel like, within the larger umbrella of environment and climate, do you think women of color are recognized as much as they should be or as visible as they should be? [00:42:07] Speaker F: I don't. I think that we do this work, as I mentioned, like, naturally out of passion, out of our heart, out of a sense of what we believe to be right or wrong. And I think that in know, conservation, in the environmental, even, quite frankly, here in Washington, DC, in the environmental justice movement, we see the same conflict that we saw with the feminist movement, where you have white women who speak for us, who sit at tables and feel very comfortable to talk about things that are very much a women of color issue. Like women, black women have really led in this movement. And to have women who aren't women of color or people of color sit at tables and get resources for their organizations or have positions within the administration at a time when environmental justice is at a place of heightened awareness and notoriety, is challenging for me. And I think we saw that with the feminist movement, which is why the womanist movement kind of broke off from it. But I don't think that women of color get our full recognition across the board in terms of justice and other advocacy spaces. [00:43:49] Speaker A: Absolutely. Thank you so much for unpacking a lot of that for us. I feel like this is exactly why we wanted to talk to you about this. I feel like you have a lot of important insights and valuable experience to offer here. Where do you see the movement going in the next 15 to 20 years? The environmental justice movement. [00:44:06] Speaker F: Right. So I think environmental justice is one of those things where we want to solve the problem. We shouldn't see our movement grow like, it shouldn't get bigger. We should solve the problem. But I will admit that we are at a space, nationally, culturally, politically, that sometimes I am not convinced that we won't go over the ledge as a society, if you will. Like, we are at a real place right now where we can address injustice. But if you look at what happened in the wake of the 2020 election, we saw 400 plus voter suppression bills pass like in that first couple of months. So we see ourselves in this real battle for power, battle for resources. That my hope is we see that there is space and a place for everyone, and that as great as you all are, there won't even be a need for this podcast anymore, because we have done the work to ensure that everyone gets to live in peace and safety without fear in a clean environment. Hi, this is Pamela from weact. Just want to invite you to our April monthly membership meeting where we're going to be talking about green jobs and our green workforce development team. We're also going to be talking to our new director for environmental health about our beauty inside out campaign. We're going to be at the Prince Hall Lodge at four five four West 155th Street, April eigth. We start at 10:00 sharp and we end at twelve. Looking forward to seeing you. There's. [00:46:18] Speaker E: My name is Vernice Miller Travis. I am a Harlem native, born in Harlem Hospital, raised in central Harlem and Delano Village, now mysteriously called Savoy Arms. Don't get me to talking about that. That's a whole nother podcast. And lived in New York most of my life until I got married and moved to Maryland, where I live now in Prince George's County, Maryland, just east of Washington, DC. I grew up in Harlem in the 60s, which was a magnificent, glorious time to be a Harlemite and miss it very much. My hairdresser is still in Harlem or still in New York, so got to keep the important relationships maintained, right? [00:47:03] Speaker A: Absolutely. Thank you for that. Yeah, I can only imagine what it was like being in Harlem in the wish we could do a little time travel and go back and see that. But we'll do our best hearing it through your words and experience. London, do you want to hit us with that first question? [00:47:19] Speaker B: How did you get into the environmental justice movement? [00:47:22] Speaker E: Sure. So I went to college at Barnett College and the school of General Studies at Columbia University, which is just at the southernmost edge of West Harlem. Right. So for me, West Harlem starts on 110th street and goes from 110th street to 155th street and everything in between on the west side and the west side. Some people differ about it, but it could be Morningside Avenue, it could be Morningside park, but from there to the Hudson river is West Harlem. So I'm going to college in this community, and I spent a lot of time there and I was very politically active. And one of the things I was politically active in, in addition to the anti apartheid movement and the divestment movement was an effort and a campaign, a national campaign, to free some political prisoners in North Carolina that were known as the Wilmington Ten. And some of them were ministers, particularly Reverend Ben Chavis was a minister of the United Church of Christ. And United Church of Christ is a very old, very small protestant denomination. It's the remnant of the church established by the pilgrims, and then was in Wilmington, North Carolina, organizing with folks down there to get black folks to vote. Wilmington was a very segregated city, and black folks were in a very disempowered position. And so he and some other folks were organizing to get people to vote, and the local government accused them of fomenting efforts to start a race riot. They were organizing to get people to vote and convicted them and put them in prison. And so Ben spent four years in prison in North Carolina, and there was a national campaign to get him out. And so I was part of that national campaign as a college student and a classmate of mine who had graduated, and I think she went to UNC Chapel Hill for graduate school, she said to me one day, you know, Ben Chavis is at Union Theological Seminary, right? So if you know West Harlem, right? So there's Barnett College. Across the street from Barnett College is Union theological Seminary. Across the street from Union Theological Seminary is Riverside Church, which was my church for 28 years. So it's a really tight community, and I live three blocks away, up the street. And so I said to her, that's not possible. If Ben Chavis was up here, of course I would see him. And she said, I'm telling you, he's doing his phd at Union Theological. And I'm like, okay. So I started scouring the streets every day, walking from my apartment on Claremont Avenue to campus, right? A whole four blocks. And I am scouring the streets, right? Sometimes I'm walking up Claremont Avenue, sometimes I'm walking Broadway, but I'm looking for this man. And sure enough, one day I ran into him right on the corner of my street, on La Salle street and Claremont Avenue, right? Which is just a block over from Broadway, a block and a half over from West 125th street. And we stood there talking for like an hour in the bitter January cold. I invited him to come to campus and speak to the black students organizations, and he did. And I kept in contact with him, and I kept in contact with him for a number of years, and I would call him every six months and say, you know, you all need to hire me at the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial justice, because I am the future of the civil rights movement in the US. Right. The hubris of a college student. And he would laugh, but would always talk to me. And so one day I called him, and this was after I graduated from college. And, you know, I'm still wanting to come and work at the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial justice. And he said, well, we're getting ready to do this research project, special project on toxic injustice. And I don't know if you'd be interested, but why don't you come and meet our research director, Charles Lee? And if you and Charles hit it off, maybe you could come and join us. And so I went to meet Charles with the assumption that everyone I would encounter the United Church of Christ is a predominantly white denomination, but it has a very strong black constituency within the United Church of. So. But I'm assuming Charles is black. And I get there, and Charles is chinese american. And I was like, okay, this is going to be interesting. And we talk. And Charles and I hit it off immediately. And he hired me, and I was his research assistant and helped him to write and produce the report toxic waste and race in the United States, which we published in April of 1987. And that was a groundbreaking piece of research, the first really peer reviewed research report that looked at the correlation between race and the location of hazardous waste sites across the United States. And what we found was that race proved to be the most statistically significant indicator of where a hazardous waste site would be located. And so I worked at the commission from, I want to say, may or June of 1986 until only for a year. Right. The project was off and running when I got there. It was my job to really bring it to conclusion. And in the middle of that project, a friend of mine who I had worked on a Jesse Jackson campaign with in New York said to me, you know, there are these folks in West Harlem, right there where you live, Renice, who are organizing this independent democratic club. And I said to her, you know, I have no interest in democratic Party politics in New York. Oh, my God. Right? That's like asking me to join the mob. And she said, no, I think you're really going to like these folks. And she just kept harping on it and harping on it. So one night, I go to a meeting on 141st street and Convent Avenue. It's where the city college chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity had a house right on the corner of 141st street and Convent Avenue. And that's where the meeting was. And I walk in the door, and there is Chuck Sutton and Peggy shepherd with the democratic district leaders. Both Chuck and Peggy and I are the co founders of we act. And I sit down there are all these wonderful people, and they're talking about the North river sewage treatment plant. And I swear, I don't know if anybody else heard it, but there was a clanging in my know, like I was up in the tower of Riverside Church with the big bells, and there was a clanging in my head that said, you know, that stuff you're working on every day looking at communities all over the United States, is happening right here in your backyard. It wasn't a hazardous waste site, but it certainly was the location of a waste facility in the middle of our community. And I joined the club that night, and the rest, as they say, is history. Peggy, Chuck and I were joined at the shoulders, at the hip, at the heart for a number of years, building not only West Harlem independent Democrats, which was a democratic club, but also the offshoot of that was we act for environmental justice or West Harlem environmental action. We used to try to do the work that we were doing, the community organizing under the auspices of West Harlem independent Democrats. But it became, at least for Chuck and I, it became too compromising. Right. I was a flaming radical. A flaming radical. And I'm trying to work inside the Democratic Party, right. And everybody wasn't on the same page that we were on, let me just put it like that. And so we decided that we needed to build a nonprofit organization, and that is how we birthed we act. And so Peggy and Chuck started West Harlem independent Democrats, I want to say, in 1985. I joined them in the fall of 86, and we launched we act in March of 1988. [00:55:15] Speaker B: Wow. [00:55:15] Speaker A: That is such, both a good overview of your background, but also a surprising not, I guess, not that surprising quick history of we act. I mean, thank you so much for that overview. And I feel like there's so many things that you touched on that I wish we could spend so much more time unpacking. We need to circle back and give you your own episode at some point. I think that the listeners will demand it. [00:55:39] Speaker B: Yeah, I think we definitely need to do a Founders episode. Founders episode, behind the scenes kind of rich history. [00:55:46] Speaker E: Yes, we'd be happy to. [00:55:48] Speaker A: Absolutely. But for the sake of time, I'll go ahead and transition to our next question, which you already spoke a lot to, but I want to give you a chance to unpack it a little bit more. And that question is, how has the lived experience of women of color influenced the environmental justice movement? You can both speak from your own perspective and just in general. [00:56:04] Speaker E: Sure. This is such an interesting and a good question. And I would just say that when I think about this question, I think about my mother, who was a nurse. Her name was Helen Lyles, and she was a nurse at Harlem Hospital, a pediatric nurse for 43 and a half years. She went to work there when she was 18. It was the only job she ever had. And one of the things I remember about my mother and her long serving crew of colleagues at the hospital, particularly the nurses, was their early recognition that the AIDS epidemic had a pediatric layer to it that no one was talking about at the time when HIV first became an acknowledged public health crisis. And of course, New York was one of the ground zero communities where HIV hit really hard. The focus was on gay white men exclusively. And there was no acknowledgement that there was anyone else suffering from HIV or from full blown AIDS. But these babies kept showing up in the hospital. And because no one acknowledged them, there was no protocol for what to do or how to treat or how to help these babies, except to put them all in a room and keep them sequestered away from everyone else and have as little interaction with them as possible. And I'm telling you this story because my mother and her colleagues at the hospital, the nurses, determined that there was no way in hell that they were going to leave those babies in a room by themselves, as they were just fighting for their very lives without doing everything that they could to help them and to aid them, which, of course, meant holding them. Right? And early in the epidemic, what we were all told is you can't touch somebody who's HIV positive, right? You can't kiss them, you can't hug them, you can't share utensil. You can't eat on a plate or drink from a cup or go to the bathroom after they've gone to the bathroom. And so the paranoia around HIV was really extraordinary, but it also carried over to these babies. And the reason I'm telling you this is that the nurses are overwhelmingly women. In fact, I don't remember a single male nurse. There might have been a male nurse at Harlem Hospital, but I don't ever remember encountering a male nurse. But the women just thought and felt that there was something that they needed to do that was beyond the wisdom of the doctors, beyond the wisdom of the public health protocols, beyond the wisdom. Nobody knew what to do, but the nurses figured out what to do for these children. And it is just an example to me. And I guess the reason that I sort of have a hypersensitivity to people suffering is because of my mother and because of watching her and watching her experience as a nurse. It just transmitted to me that when people are suffering, it is your obligation to do whatever you can do to bring their suffering to an end. And I have found that almost every woman that I have ever met in the EJ movement has felt the same way. They may not articulate it exactly the way that I do, but their responsiveness, their compassion, their compulsion to help end and alleviate people suffering is the overriding force in their lives. Right? And even if that's not what you came to do, that's not what I came to do. That's not what I thought my life's path was going to be. But so many people were suffering in our communities. So many people and in so many other communities that I worked in across the country. The suffering was immense. And it wasn't just suffering. It was suffering and premature death, right, which we were experiencing at an extraordinary level in our community. And no one was acknowledging what was happening to us. No one was talking about it. And when I think about it in know, one of the things I think about is know, one of the things that every county in the United States has been required to do for decades is when someone dies, you have to list the cause of their death on their death certificate. So people in the New York City health department and the New York State health Department knew that we were experiencing an explosion of death from asthma, death from respiratory disease in our community. But nobody said anything, and nobody did anything. And we uncovered that issue quite by mistake in doing some research with the mailman School of Public Health, the division of Environmental Health Sciences. But I just could not just let that roll, right? I had to do whatever it was that I needed to do to end that suffering. So that meant educating people, informing people, mobilizing people, knocking on. You know, if you ever see Peggy and I standing together, and if you ever saw Peggy, Chuck and I standing together, none of us were tall. Chuck was probably the tallest, and maybe Chuck was five six, maybe, right? But Peggy is 5ft tall, and I'm five two. And when I tell you that we knocked on every door in every tenement, every public housing development, every brownstone, every apartment building, we knocked on every door in our community dozens of times, turning people out, informing people what was happening in our community. And I know I felt compelled to get people informed and to get them engaged. And sometimes that may get them engaged in the political process to vote so that we could have people who represented us, who would do something about the conditions in which we live. That is such. When you ask me that question about me, it is something that I did. It's something that Peggy did. It's something that so many of the senior citizens who lived in our community in West Harlem, who were the backbone of weact when it started, what else would you do? [01:02:17] Speaker A: Yeah, that's such a great answer. And honestly, everything you said is exactly why we're doing this episode. So much of what you said also resonates with what we heard from Dana as well. And it's interesting to think about that overlap. [01:02:30] Speaker B: And I love the place that you're coming from. It's idea of community and nurture, and combined with your activism and the civil rights movement that you had going on, and then looking at groups of people who are marginalized and being ignored, can you speak a little bit about why is it important for women of color specifically to be involved in this movement, as you kind of see it now? [01:02:52] Speaker E: Well, I think so many of the things that we've learned in the EJ movement, science, policy, advocacy, journalism narrative. Right. How to tell a story. How to tell a story that's meaningful and can change behavior or enact good things or stop bad things. Women have a special way of moving in those places, and women of color in particular. We also are really good at figuring out how to get some stuff done with zero budget. And when I tell you, zero budget, we act. Had a budget of a grand total of $8,500 from 1986 when I joined, until 1994, when we settled our lawsuit against the city of New York for operating the North river sewage treatment plant as a public nuisance to the West Harlem community. And we settled that lawsuit for $1.1 million. But before that, we had a grand total income of $8,500. How do I know that? Because we got a $3,500 grant from New York community trust, I think. And I got a $5,000 gift from Amway. They did an ad, and that featured me in Ebony magazine, and they gave me $5,000 for that. And I put it in the we at coffers. And I swear to you, we had an $8,500 budget. And so Peggy had a decent job. I had a decent job. Chuck worked for inner city Broadcasting, WlIB radio, and inner city Broadcasting. And we made copies on the copy machines where we worked. Right. We did organizing from our desk where we worked. Fortunately, the three of us had good jobs, and those good jobs underwrote so much of the early work. That we act did. But as women, it never occurred to Peggy and I that we couldn't do something because we didn't have any money, right? Because we were just used to that state of being. Right. And I think every community, every EJ community that I've ever been to, we certainly were not at the upper end of the economic strata in New York City by any stretch of the imagination. But I've been some places in this country and around the world where people have so much less than we had economically, so much less opportunity, so much less economic foundation, so much less of everything. Except sometimes they had a lot more pollution. But nobody ever threw in the towel. Nobody ever said, I don't have a copy machine, so I can't organize people. Right? [01:05:42] Speaker A: That's such an interesting story. And I think that, so much to what you said, tells me two things. One, men need to step up their game and start contributing a little bit more to this environmental justice movement. And we need to give a little bit more credit to all the women of color who have and are continuing to uplift this movement. Absolutely. Where do you see the environmental justice movement going in the next 15 to 20 years? [01:06:07] Speaker E: This is actually really a hard question. I think we need better integration across the generations. I think we need better integration of the tools that we now have available to do research, to do advocacy, to do policy formulation, to do mobilization, mass mobilization. But everything cannot be done electronically. Sometimes you got to get out in the street, and we can never, ever give up that strategy of mass mobilization. Right? And we did that for Black lives Matter. You all did that for Black Lives Matter. And we have to marry all these other things that we've done to keep the work going forward. But also, I think we need to be self sustaining. And that is where I think we are in the most precarious position. We have levels of philanthropic funding that we could never have imagined. We could never have imagined the kinds of money some of us are able to raise these days. Foundations change. I used to work at the Ford Foundation. I can tell you, foundations change their mind. They get a new leader or a new program director, and they decide they're going to focus on something else. You cannot be dependent on that income stream from foundations. Right. So we have to figure out a way to be self sufficient. How do we provide our own financial support? Because one day, the spigot is going to close, and we don't want to have to close our doors as a result. So self sufficiency, I think, is one of the most critical things that we need to think about. And we've been having this conversation for a very long time, but we've not, I don't think, done the things that we need to do to create financial independence. And we need that. Like, all the green groups have endowments, right? Although the philanthropic sector continues to throw money at them. Throw money at them. But they also have endowments. Should that stop, they have a source of income that can continue to keep their doors open and keep their staffs employed. We need that, and we need to be strategic about how we build that. So those are some of my ideas about what we need to do. And I guess, lastly, it's difficult work, but sometimes you just have to stop and enjoy what we've done. Right? So we had a beloved colleague, Damu Smith, who was the Southeast regional director for Greenpeace USA, though he was based in DC. And Damu believed that we just always had to have, there needed to be a party, right. In any gathering that we had, we had to have culture, music, spoken word, and dancing and good food, right. And I think that's important, right. Because we are so serious about what we do. And this is serious business. We should be serious. But we also have to have time for joy and celebration that we are still here, that we are moving forward, and that many said that we would not last. It's like hip hop, right? Many said it was a fad. It's not a fad. It's the future of the environmental movement and the climate justice movement. [01:09:39] Speaker B: All right, thanks for listening. And we're going to have Gabriella close us out. [01:09:42] Speaker C: Yeah. So make sure to tune back in on the last Monday of every month for a new episode. Check out we act on Facebook at weactfor EJ. That's W-E-A-C-T-F-O-R-E-J. Also on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube at weactfor EJ. And that's weact, the number four, E J. And check out our website, weact.org, for more information about environmental justice. [01:10:08] Speaker A: That's right. And if you have questions or comments about the show, you can also reach out to us directly by emailing [email protected]. That's [email protected]. Awesome. Thank you so much. [01:10:22] Speaker E: Thank you. You ham.

Other Episodes