This month, Waterkeeper Alliance is focused on telling stories about intersectional environmentalism. In this 3-part series, Waterkeeper Alliance Organizer Malaika Elias sat down with Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman to discuss race and the environment, Environmental Justice, and the Patuxent River. Read part 1.
Malaika Elias: What does the intersection of race and the environment look like for you?
Fred Tutman: The intersectionality between the environment and race is a huge topic because, to a certain extent, race and the environment are both about sense of place. Environmental problems largely flow from people’s sense of connection to their resources. What most of us think of as an environmental problem largely flows from our sense of connection to the resources around us. But sense of place and race are very different because we don’t share the same circumstances. It’s appalling to me that people would assume that we all want the same thing. I hear this constantly from white environmentalists. It’s almost a placeholder for not talking about what we all want—many white environmental spaces have already predetermined what the environmental movement as a whole wants and needs. That’s greatly unfair and non-representative to communities of color because we are certainly capable of articulating our own vision for the environment and we have our own connections to “place” which may not be familiar, accessible or even relevant to white folks who don’t usually share our experiences or stand in our shoes.
With intersectionality, it’s important to remember we are all talking about the same thing—the environment. The environment, to me, is all-encompassing or holistic—it’s what’s all around you—including the socially leveraged disparities. So if we’re coming from different places, we’re clearly not working on the same source problems or root causes. There needs to be bandwidth within these movements to tackle issues from divergent perspectives, to assure representation even for issues that may fall off the beaten path from mainstream environmentalism.
One issue that comes to mind is urban investment. It costs money to adopt some of the environmental practices we all promote. I took the Mayor of Eagle Harbor to the Black Communities Conference at UNC Chapel Hill a couple months ago and people from all over the country—black towns, black mayors, black functionaries—attended and exchanged knowledge. All of them have reinvestment problems that are different than the ones typically found in affluent white suburbs. Black towns and black communities have issues retaining their autonomy and self-determination when trying to influence how these communities will sustain going forward. The conference was fascinating and inspiring. But it was obvious that everybody there had environmental problems enmeshed among all the other problems they need to face.
Gentrification is a horrific example of how places are losing their self-determinism through real estate capitalism, which contorts property value in a manner that drives low-income populations out of the community so realtors can recruit affluent people that they can overcharge. It’s a formula. And black communities are usually fighting these battles without substantial support or recognition that it is a real issue. How can one pursue a community vision if there are outside forces usurping the community? But people outside of these issues usually don’t even see it as a problem.
I hear this all the time—the presumption that worse-off communities are responsible for their own fate. So if it has a brownfield, it’s because people in the community didn’t have enough initiative to clean it up? Because there was a lack of interest in protecting themselves? It’s shocking to hear some environmentalists ask why folks in blighted minority communities don’t clean up their neighborhoods—won’t install rain barrels, etc.— as though somehow it rests entirely upon us to redeem unfavorable uses that proliferate in our communities as part of a pattern. That’s not the residents fault as much as it is the profiteering, redlining, and other malicious behavior that feeds the ruination of such places, and the economic systems that steer renewal of precious resources away from these places that are facing huge and disproportionate environmental health problems.
I’ve also heard people in the environmental community argue that restoration money and public money should go to fix-up greenfields instead of brownfields as a better use of our funds because the problems are too serious in those worse-off communities for us to have a meaningful impact with the limited resources available. These are rationales that I think are especially disingenuous, but they are also arguments that drive people of color away from environmental movements. They realize there is sometimes less value and power to be found for us in conservation movements beyond mirroring what the prime players are talking about or concerned about.
There are really fewer forums and opportunities for us to assert our environmental views and knowledge without being seen as disingenuous or off message, if it reflects a perspective disconnected from what the prime participants care about, or are funded to work on. But it’s shocking if anyone thinks we’re going to clean up the environment with only white people doing most of the work! We have to engage other people, populations, and ideas because no one ethnic group or class is up to it alone, and no one group is the sole source of ingenuity, intelligence, or passion on these issues. At every Waterkeeper Alliance conference I am stunned by what the international programs bring to the table as far as solutions, ideas, and innovations. We have to capture all of that, and frankly that sort of environmental movement looks quite different than the majority of the ones we already have. I think that’s where we run into trouble with “diversity.” It is the pushback from the majority point of view. Change is necessary and that change requires changing some paradigms within these movements—not necessarily change within the subject and suffering populations.
We need to acknowledge that there is a widespread cultural dissonance within America and it affects the environmental movement as much as it affects every other hot topic in public affairs. We have to address the fact that people associate environmentalism with being white. That’s the norm and the expectation and that needs to change. These movements are mostly designed and accustomed to serving people who are white. It hasn’t occurred to them sometimes, except maybe as an afterthought that they need to serve anybody else. And that’s truly the behavior we need to change as well.
Of course when we try to change that, some white environmental spaces think you’re taking something away from them. A more inclusive movement challenges their accustomed role. The environmental movement is about people of color (or should be), it’s about people in cities, it’s about poor people, and it’s not just about people in raw nature and lovely places. It’s about people who may not love nature in quite the same way you do. Ultimately it’s about everybody!
We have to recognize that not everybody wants all the same things we want in precisely the same way. That’s what real diversity is! We have to be broad-minded enough to be willing to adjust the agenda such that we can have conversations with people who love and treasure the environment, even if they don’t necessarily see things our way.