A chance to do the right thing


by Allison Page • 10/2/08 • The Phillips neighborhood (comprised primarly of people of color and low-income households and including a federal superfund site for arsenic) provides a stunning example of what environmental justice means.

Last night I attended the Women’s Environmental Institute’s (WEI) Mother Earth Banquet and Fundraiser, which honored three mothers of the environmental justice movement: Devra Lee Davis, Winona LaDuke, and Annie Young. The Minneapolis-based WEI works with IATP through the public health coalition Healthy Legacy to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis), co-founder of WEI, began the evening by showing a map of Minneapolis with dots on the neighborhoods found to be the most contaminated with toxic chemicals. From there, she added layers with dots for arsenic, dots for kids with asthma, and finally, dots where both adults and children have been hospitalized for asthma. By the end, the Phillips neighborhood (comprised primarily of people of color and low-income households, and includes a federal superfund site for arsenic) was barely visible, but the importance of the issue couldn’t have been clearer.

The environmental justice movement, which emerged in conjunction with the civil rights movement, refocused environmentalism to emphasize the issue of equity as it relates to low-income and communities of color. As Ann Bancroft, the evening’s emcee, explained, “We think of a polar bear and a penguin when we think about climate change. They are symbols. But there are huge amounts of indigenous folks who everyday live in these regions [the Arctic], whose languages are being lost because of the loss of their culture.”

As Annie Young pointed out, environmental racism includes “putting stuff where people don’t want it.” But it can also mean an absence of things people do want, such as access to healthy foods. Many low-income communities around the country and in Minnesota are trying new strategies to address these so-called food deserts. Annie Young is currently in the process of developing a food co-op for North Minneapolis, another food desert. And IATP’s mini farmers market project is working to bring healthy local food to underserved communities in Minneapolis.

For Dr. Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer and When Smoke Ran Like Water, environmental justice means that people have a right to know what’s in their communities (and consequently, their bodies), so we can get beyond simply diagnosing and treating cancer to truly preventing it. In her book, Davis examines how scientific research about the environmental causes of cancer has been suppressed and dismissed by the very corporations creating the toxics. In case you missed her, Dr. Davis will be speaking tonight on the University of Minnesota campus in the Cowles Auditorium, Hubert Humphrey Center, at 7:00 pm.

Following Dr. Davis, Winona LaDuke offered a poignant critique of the United States’ current path, and the urgency of the situation regarding climate change and the need to build a green economy. “The politicians who are saying 2050 aren’t going to be here. The responsibility is with us. We are the people who are here at this moment, who have the chance to put the cap on climate change. . .What a great privilege it is to be the people born at this time. We have a chance to do the right thing.”

I was struck by this—the idea that at this moment in time, we are the ones with the choice to alter our course, and that it’s a privilege to do so. What a great thing to keep in mind as we move forward and—as the environmental justice movement advocates—work together from the bottom up.