‘I Can’t Breathe’: Connecting the Green and Black Movements

Drummond Company’s ABC Coke plant in Tarrant. (Source: Sherrel Wheeler Stewart, WBHM 90.3 FM )

In the weeks since the death of George Floyd, environmental advocacy groups have been checking their mission statements and action plans for any hints of racial insensitivity and to examine how best to support movements such as Black Lives Matter and unite against injustice in environment and race.

The phrase “I can’t breathe” is the link that joins the environment and the racial justice movements. That was George Floyd’s and Eric Garner’s plea and also the cry of people of color whose health problems are associated with air pollution and other toxicities that disproportionally surround their lives. Garner, after all, lived in a neighborhood that received an F grade from the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air report.

In the wake of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, several nonprofit environmental organizations were quick to issue strong statements opposing police brutality and promise a period of self-reflection and rededication to principles of diversity and racial equity.

Historically, most Green groups, particularly large national nonprofits, have trended heavily white. That’s where the boards of directors, the staff leadership, most of the members – and the donors – usually come from.

“The Green movement has been a white, elitist movement for decades,” Kirsten Bryant of the advocacy nonprofit Gasp said. “We are beginning to see some changes in that, but we have a long way to go. Any environmental groups that advocate for clean air and water should also be advocating for all humans who depend on that clean air and water.”

Bryant is outreach coordinator for Gasp.

Laura Quattrochi, a former outreach organizer for the energy equity nonprofit Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, said, “The majority of environmental nonprofits are white and middle class. They are trying to broaden out – such as by putting a person of color on their staff or board – but they need to be careful, because there’s a tendency to ‘tokenize.’”

The Rev. Michael Malcom of Birmingham, a black man who heads two groups focused on grassroots environmental activism, said nonprofit groups should “put your money where your mouth is – let me see justice, not hear it. Let me see resources going to the community that needs them because of the historical oppression that has happened.”

Malcom said, “During the slavery uprisings, we would have owners who would tell their slaves, ‘You know I’m on your side.’ And it’s the same to see some of the organizations and industries that all of a sudden are for black lives. But, where were you before

Michael Malcom, leader of People’s Justice Council and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light. Source: Michael Malcom

George Floyd?”

Malcom resigned earlier this year as senior minister of a mainline Protestant church in Atlanta to become a full-time activist, seeking to mobilize faith leaders to respond to climate change. He founded the international People’s Justice Council in 2018 and recently resurrected the dormant Alabama Interfaith Power and Light organization under the council’s umbrella. He is executive director of both.

The dearth of people of color in the Green movement is ironic because their primary issues – pollution and climate change – disproportionally impact those same people, and because they have almost uniformly adopted the banner of environmental justice, which conservative cynics call a fundraising and membership recruiting ploy.

The environmental justice movement emerged in the aftermath of a 1987 report, Toxic Wastes and Race, about pollution near Black communities. It was pushed into white awareness nationally when floods from Hurricane Katrina isolated tens of thousands of black and brown New Orleans residents on their rooftops. But the issue of environmental justice took off in earnest with the Flint, Michigan, scandal over lead in the drinking water.

Minorities and poor people are affected more than whites by most environmental issues, so it may not be surprising that a recent poll by Yale Program for Climate Change Communication  found African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to worry about climate issues.

John Northrop, group leader of Citizens’ Climate Lobby-Birmingham said the group had a hard time early this year in recruiting black participants to a local conference on climate change. CCL was known strictly as a policy group, focused on supporting passage a tax on carbon, with the proceeds going to most Americans. But after George Floyd was killed at the hands of the police, the group’s national office – joining a wide and deep spectrum of entities – quickly strengthened its mission statement and promised to “offer additional training to our volunteers on racism, privilege, bias, (and) diversity in the environmental movement.”

John Northrup, group leader of Citizens’ Climate Lobby-Birmingham. Source: John Northrup

Northrop said, “I think it’s going to take a lot more personal outreach by us to make connections to people of color – we need to meet one-on-one to try to connect the dots between their specific communities and the more general threat that climate change poses to all of us.”

Connecting the dots is vitally important because “we’re living at a pivotal point right now,” Northrop said. “Something has changed under the surface, and government hasn’t caught up with the change. It’s generational, we’ve already crossed a bridge in attitude, and large swaths of young people want fundamental change.”

And although most environmental-oriented organizations are largely white at this point, the “encouraging extent of white participation in the George Floyd protests” may help bring more racial diversity to climate change and to environmental groups more generally, he said.

The environmental-and-racial-justice link gained muscle recently when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden coupled climate change and pollution to the struggle against racial inequality in a talk to the League of Conservation Voters. And on June 29 Democrats in the House of Representatives announced their plan on climate change – framing it in the context of racial injustice.

Environmental justice pioneer Robert D. Bullard of Texas Southern University told The Intercept that it took decades “for the environmental folks and the civil rights folks to understand we have converging issues called environmental justice.” COVID-19 can be added to that mix, he said, because health disparities are about racial and environmental justice for those who are disproportionally affected.

Cindy Lowry, director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, said Green groups have been slow to make the connection of racial equity with climate change and health. “I was as guilty as anyone about not always considering (racial equity) as urgent as it should be,” she said.

Cindy Lowry, director of Alabama Rivers Alliance. Source: Alabama Rivers Allicance

Nonprofits are eager to understand how their staffs and boards of directors can reflect more of the communities they work with and serve. “Some organizations have made great strides in learning and putting in place practices to improve and involve people most affected by pollution, and some have had a harder struggle with it,” Lowry said. “We’ve been working on it, we haven’t done enough, but we’ll start by listening to and developing relationships with those voices not represented in our leadership.”

“Because our organizations have been almost all white, we are missing those strong voices that can boost our efforts. Climate change is the issue where I’ve seen the most momentum and energy of diverse voices, because people of color ‘get it,’” she added.

But how to begin? Environmental justice activist Kyle Crider said, “Racism is a white-privilege problem in America, so (whites) have to take the lead on this. The people who are directly affected should not have to be the ones to lead the charge on systemic change.”

Crider, program and policy director for the People’s Justice Council and Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, warned that climate warriors “can’t be the ‘white savior’” for communities of color and poverty. “We have to get to know and be a part of underserved communities,” he said. “We’ve got to not just visit, as a kind of missionary, but to get to know the community members. We are there to learn and to amplify their voice – in other words, to use our white privilege in any way we can so environmental and racial justice can be achieved.”

Quattrochi is one of several young people working on-the-ground – at least until the pandemic restricted them – for nonprofit community programs. “People in North Birmingham, for example, are living in the middle of pollution in areas that are still ‘redlined, so they definitely see the link between environmental issues and racism,” she said.

Quattrochi said, “When we go into a community, to get to know people on a personal basis and let them know we are not trying to change their neighborhood, we want to help them change it. I want to use my inherent white privilege to provide resources and other support for them.”

“Nina Morgan was hired last year as Gasp’s environmental justice community organizer after serving on its junior board. “I’m a black woman who grew up in Sipsey, a small town in Walker County impacted by environmental pollution. We lived less than a mile from dynamite blasts and toxic water from strip mines.”

Nina Morgan, environmental justice community organizer for Gasp. Source Gasp.

Her father has memories of being raised in Collegeville, where he breathed the soot, smoke and dust of industrial North Birmingham, “He said, ‘We played in it, we breathed it, we ate it.’ That’s why I’m proud of what Gasp has been doing to rectify and address pollution and contamination of our environment.”

Morgan is not surprised by the Yale poll results.

“Non-whites believe in environmental work just as much as whites, but the environmental movement has been whitewashed. The real stories of the land and how different people experience it has been erased. We need to make sure we’re not a segregated movement, and we should be more intentional about recruitment, engagement and listening to voices of Black and brown people.”

Gasp, she said, “believes climate and environmental justice absolutely is a matter of racial justice.” That calls for addressing police brutality by defunding and demilitarizing police departments, she said, as well as investing in community and social programs.

“The only way we can truly manifest a grand vision to achieve environmental and climate justice is if we start addressing racial justice – making changes in the systemic oppression that people in black, brown and low-wealth communities have been facing forever,” she said. “That would bring a future in which people have access to affordable housing and health care, for example.”

Gasp, along with other organizations, is thinking and talking about how the racial justice and environmental justice movements can work together. CEO Michael Hansen said, “We’ve endorsed the Black Lives Matter police platform, which includes defunding the police. We will not be shy about using our time and resources to assist and be in solidarity with local efforts.”

Michael Hansen, CEO of Gasp. Source: Gasp

Hansen acknowledged that the environmental movement “historically has been racist, dating back to its beginning more than 100 years ago – now we’re trying to break that cycle.”

Green groups can start by making sure hiring practices and board members are intentional about including people of color — and everybody on a board doesn’t need to have an advanced degree or a fancy title, he said.

“Also, there needs to be accountability to the community,” Hansen said. “If we as environmentalists really want to live our values, we have to look to and uplift leaders who are already doing the work every day in the communities the organization serves. If I had one piece of advice for groups in Birmingham, it would be to follow black leadership.”

As environmental groups wake up to ways to support racial justice in concrete ways, they may see how joining with the black-led protests can benefit them. Lowry, of the Rivers Alliance, said, “When we combine all our voices, we’ll have a much stronger movement. As slow as we environmentalists have been to make these connections, it’s happening now. This is certainly a hopeful time.”