Minnesota activists identify environmental justice issues


Building healthy, sustainable communities in the Twin Cities will require a commitment to breaking down environmental inequalities that often fall along racial and socio-economic lines, say local environmental justice activists.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Kate Garsombke and David Pellow both work at the University of Minnesota, but in different departments.

Much of our local infrastructure was “built during a time when our leadership was still under a mindset of pre-civil rights,” said Shalini Gupta, director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Unless we’re intentional about dismantling that and moving forward with infrastructure, we threaten to entrench these inequities even further and perhaps exacerbate that.”

Gupta spoke on the topic of environmental justice to about 35 people on March 8 at the Riverview Wine Bar as a part of the ongoing Movement Building series, organized by the Headwaters Foundation for Justice.


Movement Building

The next installment in the Movement Building series, organized by the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, will be from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, at the Riverview Wine Bar, 3745 42nd Ave. S. The title of the discussion is “Worldview Campaigning and the Minnesota Budget.”

“The purpose is to bring the whole community together that we work with so activists, donor activists and interested people concerned about social justice issues can learn about the work we’re supporting in the community,” said Jodi Williams, advancement director at the Headwaters Foundation for Justice. Each month, the discussion focuses on a different social justice issue.

The Minneapolis-based Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is one of the recipients of a Headwaters Foundation for Justice grant. The grant is for programs that are working to empower low income, indigenous and communities of color to participate in environmental policy debates, Williams said. The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy is one of the groups helping with regional organizing.

David Pellow, a University of Minnesota professor whose work often combines the fields of sociology, racism and environmental issues, also spoke at the event.

Environmental justice is a broad category that encompasses myriad social issues, including climate change, access to food, racism, community development, and use of resources, among others.

“I think of environmental justice as the intersection of social justice and environmental sustainability,” Pellow said.

Environmental inequalities often highlight racial inequalities, and vice versa. Pellow said that in the 1980s, a national study indicated that race was the strongest predictor of where waste facilities would be located. By 2007, another study found that relationship had intensified, he said.

Even being able to have the discussion about environmental justice brings up the issue of privilege, said Lisa Skjefte, who attended Tuesday’s event. She is interested in the disparities in access to healthy food across communities in the Twin Cities, especially those that affect her community as a member of an Anishinaabe tribe.

“For people to even know the problem exists, you’ve got to be educated on it. The people that it’s affecting don’t even know it’s going on,” she said.

In the Twin Cities, a sense of cooperation already exists among environmental justice groups, said Louis Alemayehu, program consultant for Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, who attended Tuesday’s discussion.

The next step, he said, is for groups to establish their common ground, and to work toward that goal. “We have to figure out how to have the discussion. It’s political, and rational, and spiritual and cultural.”

Locally, the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy has developed workshops geared toward Hmong and Latino residents and activists to educate communities on the disproportionate health and economic burden from the current energy system, Gupta said. The center will soon be releasing a community resource guide to climate and energy policy engagement for Minneapolis.

The Center is also one of the key organizers of a coalition of environmental justice leaders, Gupta said. This includes activists and researchers of color who are approaching environmental issues from a justice frame, she said.

Gupta said considerations must be made at the start of infrastructure projects to ensure equality. “There needs to be joint understanding of where a community as a whole wants to be, and then a racial and economic assessment of where different neighborhoods fall, with an understanding that the type of policies and level of resources may differ based on needs,” she said.