Cecilia Martinez brings low-income communities into green debate in St. Paul, Minneapolis


Dr. Cecilia Martinez keeps popping up on the West Side of St. Paul. She has been giving energy workshops, speaking at seminars for high school science teachers and meeting with community organizers. Armed with dry-erase markers and PowerPoint presentations-one of which connects Native American environmental perspectives to arsenic contamination in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis-Martinez is on a mission.

“Building relationships and bringing people together from various communities is so, so important. It’s the key to the EJ (environmental justice) movement,” she said.

This is how she operates: with one foot in the research world and the other rooted on the ground in communities and neighborhoods.

Environmental justice groups include:

Environmental Justice Advocates MN (EJAM)

Healthcare, Infrastructure, and Renewable Energy (HIRE)

Women’s Environmental Network (WEI)

Indigenous Environmental Network

Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Developing sustainable environmental and energy policy has been her career. Martinez has a Ph.D. in urban studies, with a special focus on energy and environmental policy, and has worked as an energy and community consultant. Last November she began her role as the director of the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy (CEED) at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis. She has spent the last few months setting up shop, developing research, executing educational programming, and community organizing. CEED has one focus on St. Paul’s West Side, where Martinez has teamed up with the West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO) to implement environmental programming for West Side residents and businesses.

Unlike many other environmental policy wonks-and she can wonk out with the best of them-Martinez makes it her mission to work across class and race lines in order to find solutions to environmental problems. She is an environmental justice advocate and works directly with the communities most adversely affected by energy and environmental problems: women and children, communities of color, minorities and the poor.

It is her role to bridge the gap between those communities and policy makers, working on the one hand to bring the language of the mainstream environmental movement to community members, and on the other including the voices and concerns of minority communities in policy making.

Personal journey
The big picture of environmental problems has puzzled Martinez since she was a child growing up in Taos, New Mexico. She grew up 50 miles north of Los Alamos-home of the atomic bomb-and 20 miles south of a molybdenum mine that has influenced her approach to environmental issues.

“Los Alamos was a city and industrial complex created entirely in secret in a mountain that is incredibly beautiful and powerful,” she said. “Yet it was the home of the most destructive thing on the planet.” It was devastating to Martinez to hear rumors of residents’ health problems, presumably linked to the environmental disasters in the area.

“Growing up I was trying figure out how a government could create something so destructive completely in secret in a country that called itself a democracy,” Martinez said. “How scientists could engage in an enterprise that could lead to the complete destruction of humanity; how our mountains could be taken from us in a way that was for destructive purposes; and how an economic system could demand this.”

Martinez, who is an indigenous woman, has a strong sense of the environmental realities her ancestors faced. This sense, along with the environmental damage near Taos, caused her to view environmental issues as inextricably tied to gender, economy, science, government policy, race, ethnicity and class.

“If I just dealt with the environmental piece, that didn’t get at the social part, or the scientist part, or the economic part,” she said. “All of it was somehow or another connected as to what happened to our life [in New Mexico].”

Everyone’s issue
This question is clearly at the forefront in her work in Twin Cities’ neighborhoods. Martinez and CEED promote energy education, such as affordability assessments for home energy efficiency, to groups traditionally not targeted for programs. After one workshop with the Urban Leech Lake community, “The phone was off the hook here with people calling me, wanting to know where to get weatherization, how to get their house retrofitted,” she said.

People who suggest that communities of color are only interested in “bread and butter issues,” and not environmental issues frustrate Martinez.

“If you talk to a family about the toxics in their yard you can talk about it as ‘an environmental toxic’ issue,” she said. “Or, you can use a different approach and different language to say, ‘What’s going to happen to your kid that’s been playing in your yard for 20 years?’ Well, of course mothers and families are concerned with this.”

Currently Martinez is working with community organizers to develop a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) on the West Side of St. Paul, which would house onsite renewable energy and be a place where local residents could go to get affordable energy services. If a low-income resident on the West Side wants to retrofit her house, she could walk into the SEU office (which will be designed by community members), get a consultation, participate in environmental education workshops, and get a loan to retrofit her house. The SEU will track how much she is saving in energy costs, would let her keep most of those energy savings and use a portion to pay back her loan.

This SEU model was developed at the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware.

“It’s all about access,” Martinez said. “Buying LED light bulbs and buying organic, locally grown produce is an important first step. But how can we give everyone access to these solutions?” That is the question Martinez feels is sorely missing from the mainstream environmental policy debate.

Environmental justice and women
The environmental and energy fields are a male-dominated field, although more women are now entering, according to Martinez. As in many fields where women are starting to make inroads, she sees a dilemma: How can women bring their wide, community perspective to a field that has a narrowly defined-and perhaps male-oriented-notion of success?

She would like to see more girls and young women in the field, but is insistent that mentorship is needed so that “we don’t just create a patriarchal version of the continuation of the problem.”

“We still have that tension that in order to participate in this field: Does it mean that you relinquish the values that you come with to the field? Or is it your role to push the needs of women and children in this field?” she asked. “Do we train a woman to be a toxicologist who will narrowly define the problem of environmental risk? Or do we support women toxicologists to push the envelope and take it from the perspective of the community to ask, ‘OK, what is the full impact of environmental risks on the air, to soil contamination, to pesticides in the food? And how does it impact women and children?’

According to Martinez the real issue is whether women-and not only women-can specialize and still maintain a holistic and community-based perspective on environmental problems. And, bringing female and minority perspectives to the mainstream environmental movement while maintaining a clear focus on research-based solutions to environmental problems is crucial.

“Is the organization you are working with making it a part of their mission to work among many groups?” Martinez asked. “Is it explicit? Do they try to bridge communities, or are they standing alone and are they OK with light bulbs and organic food for a relatively small percentage of the population?”

The solution may be to get involved with environmental justice groups, or, “take a look at how you can bring that piece into your organization,” Martinez said.

In the meantime Martinez and other environmental justice advocates keep working to change the terms of how the environmental debate takes place, and how perspectives of poorer women, families and communities of color can lead to unique insights into urban environmental issues.

A green nation
Environmental justice advocates are gaining a foothold among legislators, policy makers, environmentalists and the public. President Obama recently named Van Jones as special advisor for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. Jones is a charismatic mouthpiece of the green jobs movement and has helped shift national attention to creating a green economy, powered by “green jobs,”-jobs that focus on renewable, alternative energy and conservation. This burgeoning movement provides an unprecedented confluence of environmentalists, labor representatives, minorities, urban and rural communities and government.

But the attention on green jobs is just a slice of environmental justice work being done across the country. Environmental justice goes beyond creating green jobs. It encompasses a fundamental critique of the environmental debate. Many environmental justice advocates like Cecelia Martinez (see story) suggest that an economy based on ever-increasing consumption is not sustainable in the long term.

Enter critics.

Some say that environmental justice movements are in essence asking too much and are not realistic in setting goals and solutions. We can’t upend the economic system and include marginalized voices in environmental problems, they contend, because we simply don’t have time if we want to address problems like climate change. For example, the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) may work on the West Side of St. Paul (see main story), but will local efforts like SEU be able to scale up to the level required to seriously address climate change?

This debate often leads to further marginalization of environmental justice groups.

“The research part is one of the areas to be developed in the EJ (environmental justice) movement,” Martinez said, referring to movement broadly. This negatively impacts the movement as whole, she feels, and means that policy makers call on environmental justice advocates to comment on “the equity piece” of legislative efforts instead of energy or environmental policy as a whole.

As the environmental justice movement grows, Martinez hopes that groups will do more to bridge policy and communities. She reminded EJ groups, policy makers and activists that “building relationships and bringing people together from various communities is so, so important. It’s the key to the EJ movement.”

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