What we can learn from the Poor People’s Campaign and the United Farm Worker’s struggle this Cesar Chavez Day.
The battle for environmental and climate change is a civil rights battle but has historically been led by white people. Because people of color are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental hazards, now, more than ever, it is imperative to have people of color presence at the forefront of the fight to protect our communities.
30 years ago, a United Church of Christ study found that race was a key factor in making environmental siting decisions. Black people likely lived near toxic waste incinerators. Currently, much hasn’t changed, including who makes the decisions.
“Our separate struggles are really one– a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity,” read a 1966 telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to fellow environmental justice and labor activist, Cesar Chavez. “You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are tighter with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”
Chavez and Dr. King never had a chance to meet, though both had varying ties in the fight for environmental justice. Yet, in modern discourse, environmentalism and “green” issues are separated from civil rights. It’s important to recognize that this White House Administration’s attack on environmental protections is a collective struggle we cannot afford to lose and we must fight back together.
“The battle for environmental and climate change is a civil rights battle.”
The Trump Administration has set its sight on gutting as many environmental protections as possible. For example, President Trump’s plan to repeal key climate change solutions by allowing oil and gas companies to release more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere will have catastrophic impacts in our future. Greenhouse gas emissions are gasses that increase the heat in the atmosphere. And the oil and gas industry plays a major role in these numbers.
The threats of climate change has a global impact on people of color. Consequently, Black Lives Matter UK shutdown a London airport as they understood seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.
But in the United States, most of the people making climate change decisions are white. The Green 2.0 report outlined that while Black and Brown people may be interns at these green organizations ― they are not in leadership positions. This glass ceiling demonstrates part of the reason why Black and Brown environmentalists and civil rights advocates cannot intertwine their work, as there is little room for upward mobility in traditional climate change and environmental work. Without including the voices of civil rights leaders and Black and Brown individuals in the environmental movement, key advocacy and strategic thinking is ignored.
Surely, there are some Black and Brown people who lead climate change and environmental work. But, this is normally in the environmental justice space, not specifically mainstream environmental work or climate change work. And even in the environmental justice space, there is still room for improvement for people of color voices. Therefore, mainstream environmental organizations are still the typical groups at the table for climate change advocacy. And we need collective advocacy to block the numerous attacks on climate change work that the Trump Administration has outlined.
For now, we can support organizations that reflect Black and Brown people in leadership positions for environmental and climate change work, learn more about the impact of climate change in our communities, and ask our local officials how they plan to maintain or expand environmental protections in our states. While Cesar Chavez and Dr. King both did amazing work, we never saw the full potential of how their advocacy could move forward because they didn’t connect before Dr. King passed.
For more information, visit our website at www.restoringempowerment.org