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COMMUNITY VOICES | Goldman Environmental Prize recipient Kim Wasserman speaks on climate justice
“Its time for the hard work of our communities to be seen and heard. For much too long and much too often, the blood, sweat and tears of our community has been made invisible.” This is the message that North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Kim Wasserman takes with her wherever she goes. The Goldman Environmental Prize is a prestigious award given to grassroots environmental heroes from six different continents each year. As this year’s North American recipient, Kim was honored for her work in organizing to close down two of the oldest coal plants in the country that had been in operation in the center of her community since the early 1900s. But, to say that Kim’s success can be measured in terms of number of plant closures or pounds of pollution reduced is to belittle the rich and vibrant history that led to her success.
Kim represents the environmental justice (ej) community. The ej community has been active longer than the Sierra Club, the National Defense Resource Council, the Environmental Defense Fund or any other environmental organization that readily comes to mind. These recognized environmental advocacy groups were enormously successful in fashioning the public image of what it means to be an environmentalist. While their growth drew on a drive for a large national-based environmental agenda, some people and communities were left out of this type of environmental movement building. Remember the environmental movement was built in an America that was also adeptly erecting a system of Jim Crow, violating Indian treaties and appropriating their land, busting unions, and creating a low-wage immigrant labor system. In many cases intentionally, and in some cases unintentionally, the environmental movement excluded the needs and participation of the environmental parts of these issues specifically, and of communities of color and poor communities generally.
Therein lies the true importance of Kim’s Goldman Environmental Prize. It recognizes that the long history of Kim, her community and others like it, have been working tirelessly, with little to no resources, for the protection of the environment and of their community’s health. Unrecognized, without money, doing everything that needs to be done because it is the right thing to do and not because it is a job, often working 14-hour days seven days a week – this is and always has been the life of an environmental justice advocate. We cannot underestimate the unequal distribution of environmental resources to do this work. According to a report by Sarah Hansen and the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, foundations made at least $10 billion in grants between 2000 and 2009 and just 2% of the most resourced environmental groups in the U.S. received 50 percent of this funding. Only 15% of these environmental grant dollars benefitted marginalized communities. An earlier study by Drexel University professor Robert Brulle found that environmental justice work receives a mere 5% of all environmental funding.
Kim’s message is an important one for all us to hear. The often quoted Santayana prophetic statement, “those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it," is particularly relevant for today’s environmental movement. It is true that we are in a common struggle to stop harming the Earth. We have not even begun to understand the scope and intensity of what is to come because of climate change. We do know that new and increased diseases and catastrophic weather events are much more likely.
But we also know that communities of color and poor communities are the first to experience the ugly and devastating realities of pollution and this will be the same for climate change. Dr. Robert Bullard’s report Toxic Waste at Twenty found that more than 5.1 million people of color live in neighborhoods with commercial hazardous waste facilities; EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged the reality that children of color overwhelmingly live where air quality standards are subpar. Kim’s community – 70% of Latino children live in such areas. But these statistics can’t fully capture the violations that our communities feel. As a mother, one of the most beautiful memories was to watch my children as they slept; listening to their rhythmic breathing that somehow connected them to the heartbeat of all life. For Native and children of color, this most natural and precious elemental process of breath has become not a source of life, but a matter of struggle. Rates of asthma are astronomically higher for Native and children of color than for white children.
It is important for us all to come and hear Kim speak of her experiences, her history and her community. Unless the face and agenda of climate and energy environmentalism can figure out how to solve the problem of environmental segregation, environmental history will be repeated. Some children will live a life of environmental privilege enjoying the wilderness of the Earth, while the dreams of others will be simply to be free from air that pollutes and destroys their lungs.
Come hear Kim Wasserman on January 25th at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center Auditorium in St. Paul. She will be part of an afternoon of environmental discussions on these important issues. The event begins at 12:50 pm. To register please go to http://jan-2014-ceed.eventbrite.com. For more information on the event including an agenda in both English and Spanish go to www.ceed.org
© 2014 Cecilia Martinez