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30th anniversary of 1st National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit – looking back, looking forward

Environment

     Laurie Ann Mazur

Laurie Ann Mazur

Roughly 30 years ago, 1,100 delegates gathered in Washington, D.C. for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The Summit took place Oct. 24-27, 1991. It was truly a watershed event – a crucible of solidarity and creativity that sought to change the trajectory of the U.S. environmental movement.

It gave the movement some of its most enduring leaders, organizations, and collectives. The Summit resulted in the drafting and adopting of the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice and the Principles of Working Together, which set up a multi-decade conversation about leadership, fundraising and environmental justice as a lens and a practice.

To mark the Summit’s 30th anniversary – and to look at where we go from here – the Island Press Urban Resilience Project hosted a virtual roundtable of environmental justice leaders. 

Participants included Peggy Shepard of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Dr. Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, Bineshi Albert of the Climate Justice Alliance, Zelalem Adefris of Catalyst Miami, Jerome Foster II of One Million of Us, and Iris Gonzalez of the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience. 

Together, they reflected on the distance traveled since 1991, assessing the current landscape, and contemplating the future course of the environmental justice movement. The roundtable discussion was moderated by Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, CEO and President of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. 

Reflecting on 1991

At the time of the summit, many white-led environmental organizations focused primarily on wilderness and wildlife. But the Summit attendees, coming from Black and Brown communities unfairly burdened with pollution, embraced environmental justice: the idea that all people are entitled to healthy environments in the places where they live and work. The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice remain the North star for communities of color that are still battling hazardous waste dumps, coal-fired power plants, and other toxic threats in their neighborhoods.

Fast forward to 2021

Today, the environmental justice movement is ascendant, with a new wave of support and visibility. In January, for example, President Biden announced the Justice40 Initiative, which will direct 40 percent of infrastructure and clean energy investments to marginalized communities. And philanthropy is beginning to address the vast disparity in funding between mainstream and environmental justice groups.

Still, we are a long way from realizing the goals articulated at the Summit. The legacies of discrimination are deeply etched in communities of color, which still bear the heaviest burden of air and water pollution. Climate change poses new threats, which also disproportionately affect Black and brown communities.

Watch the roundtable discussion: 30th anniversary of First National POC Environmental Leadership Summit, or read the transcript below, edited for length and clarity.

Tamara: I am thrilled to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Peggy and Dr. Wright, can you tell us what was the Summit about and who were you as a leader at that time?

Peggy: I began working on environmental justice issues in Harlem, in 1986. We started We Act for Environmental Justice in 1988, and began developing campaigns around diesel buses, because we housed over one third of New York City’s bus fleet in uptown neighborhoods. We also fought a sewage treatment plant that was spewing emissions and making people sick. Vernice Miller [-Travis] WE ACT’s co-founder, worked on the Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States report with Charles Lee at the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, and they began developing the concept of a Summit. When I came to the Summit as a delegate, it was the first time I really understood that there were hundreds of groups like mine working on similar issues around the country. It was a life-changing event. We began to ask, what are our values? What are our principles? What do we believe in, why are we here? Who are we? We had a committee of people who began to work night and day on developing the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. And if you look at those principles, you’ll see that all of them are just totally relevant today. They’re important values that we all hold dear and an important roadmap for the future.

Beverly: In 1987 I was a college professor, studying teen pregnancy, when I met Dr. Robert Bullard at a sociological association meeting in Louisiana. There were just a few of us who were African-Americans working at predominantly white schools, fighting racism and trying to get tenure. Dr. Bullard and his wife had been fighting a landfill in Houston, and realized that all the landfills were in Black people’s neighborhoods. He said to me, if this is happening here, it might be happening in other places. He enlisted me to help him look at Louisiana, and that’s how we discovered cancer alley. When I came to the Summit as a delegate, I had already realized that this problem was huge in the south — in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida. But I didn’t have contact with people like Peggy in New York. I didn’t think it went past the Mason Dixon line. So, it was amazing, and frustrating, and sad. Wherever you went, wherever the despised minority was, that’s where you found all of the pollution. For me, the Summit was also a cultural experience because it introduced me to Asian Pacific Islanders and Native Americans — groups I hadn’t had contact with in large numbers. We had prayer meetings, and I remember telling Tom Goldtooth that Native Americans were the first group I found that had prayers longer than the Baptists or the Pentecostals. When you get to know people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in an intimate way, you learn to feel their pain. You empathize; you don’t sympathize. I think the most exciting part for me was when we asked George Bush to come to the meeting, and he said no. Then, when he realized it was going to be so many people there, they called us back and wanted to come. And we told him no. We actually told Bush that he was not invited. The way it was set up, we had different levels of participation. And the highest level of participation was for grassroots organizations. Many of our people had never been to a luxurious hotel, like the one we stayed in. There were telephones in the bathroom. Tom Goldtooth called his friends, saying, ‘do you know where this telephone is? It’s in the bathroom.’ It was a moving experience, a learning experience, coming together in a way that I think we need to do again — of one mind, of one heart to protect communities and to save the planet.

Tamara: Bineshi, the 17 Principles talk about the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity, and the interdependence of all species. That language did not spontaneously end up in there. Can you talk to us about how Indigenous folks showed up in that space and are continuing to lead in this work?

Bineshi: I wasn’t at the Summit, but I was holding down the fort at home while my then mentor, Jackie Warledo, attended. I remember long phone calls with Jackie – maybe from the bathroom! — and lots of debate about what should be included in the Principles. That very first principle, that says the “sacredness of Mother Earth” — versus “the environment” or whatever — was a game changer for engaging with Indigenous communities. It was a culmination of people coming together the year before, in 1990 at the first Protecting Mother Earth Gathering, which spurred what became the Indigenous Environmental Network. The gathering was co-hosted by Diné C.A.R.E. and Greenpeace; they realized they were up against some of the same polluting corporations, and started sharing notes with each other. Some of the people who organized the gathering went on to attend the Summit. There was just this momentum that was building, connecting Indigenous people with other communities of color. People saw the value of connecting the work and the intersections of not just environment, but of racism, of social injustice. And to really think about, what does it mean to take on industry, to take on government policy? To take on everything from redistricting to redlining — all of these systems that were set up to facilitate this kind of pollution? We took this idea of “the environment” that was held by some of the mainstream environmental organizations and showed that people are part of the environment as well. The movement is about protecting the places where we live, work, play and pray. From an Indigenous context, we’re part of the land; we’re not dominating over it. These principles helped define not only what the environment is and how we’re involved in it, but also what it means to engage with other communities who are also fighting racial, social and environmental injustice. It was not without its challenges, and it’s still not without its challenges. We’re still finding ways to recognize each other’s struggle and not perpetuate the harms that racism and colonialism have imposed on us. And, 30 years later, we’re still fighting some of those same fights, but we’ve also made huge gains in terms of how we’re relating with each other.

Tamara: Peggy, Dr. Wright and Bineshi talk about how much strategy, how much work, how much organizing, went into the Summit and what came from it. We don’t talk about this as past history because it’s still relevant: those people and organizations are still doing some of the work that’s closest to the ground. Zelalem, Iris and Jerome, your activist careers have begun in the decades since the Summit, so this work is not a thing that you look at, it’s something you practice. Talk to us about how this legacy shaped your opportunity, your understanding, and your own work.

Zelalem: I just want to share how much gratitude and humility I have in this space right now. I really appreciate walking in y’all’s footsteps for sure. I was born in 1992, but the Principles that were created in 1991, I use almost every single day. I use them in coalition-building, and to guide my own work. These things stand the test of time. We still have our work to do, but that that guidance is so helpful. It still echoes through today and shapes newer activists on the scene. I just appreciate you all so much.

Iris: I want to echo the gratitude to share this space and stand on these big, strong and powerful shoulders. And to be called to this movement that we continue to build together and will hand off to the next folks who come. From where I sit and stand and lead with others, the Principles are a dictionary. They’re the language and the framework for things that I have personally lived, but didn’t have language for when I was younger. The solutions come from our own people, from our own community, our own tables. I can’t overemphasize how powerful and important those Principles have been. Also, the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing that were written five years later, and all the things that have been birthed when our brilliant people come together and share space and talk in a transformative and relational way. They’re something I reference almost every day. They’re required readings for all new staff members. The Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience (CEER) brings together those same people who had special status at the Summit. We want to be equal partners with green groups that have traditionally been white led and very well-resourced, groups that are more comfortable talking about the extraction of the planet and not the people. The organizers and the grassroots folks are like, “please stop squeezing our necks with your hand.” Let’s sit at the same table and share this power and work together. CEER is the place where that happens. As the director, who’s meant to be the instrument or the glue for all of that to happen, it’s a huge challenge. It’s so important to have the language and all of this work that that happened 30 years ago as a foundation and asset base. It’s been about putting all of that into practice and building the kind of relationships where we can speak honestly and openly and not have that blow up the room, but have that transform the room and transform ourselves as we transform these systems.

Jerome: The history and the legacy of this conference is woven into the fabric of the youth climate movement, and it is just foundational in how we operate. Even though a lot of young people today may not understand where that legacy comes from, it was the architects right here in this conversation — Peggy Shepard and Dr. Wright — who ushered in the understanding of what climate justice actually means. Today, as we go into COP 26, there’s a revitalized understanding of environmental justice, but leaders aren’t really pushing for it. It’s like a talking point that people use to say that they’re allying with us. At the end of the day, it continues to be empty words. What is changing is that young people are understanding the legacy of environmental justice. But we have to continue to push forward and into policy, into practice. That’s why my organization, One Million of Us, is trying to mobilize young people to vote and become active citizens. Not just turn out to vote in a way of spite or partisan bickering, to be politically correct, but to actually root our vote in real issues around climate justice, around racial equity, around Indigenous sovereignty that we’ve been fighting for for decades. We need to make sure that politicians know why we’re voting and not just that we did vote. That’s how we not just remember our history, but make sure that it’s alive in us. As we go into this next decade of systemic climate action, we have to look back in order to look into the future. Some people say, “Oh, the past is just full of inaction.” No, it’s not full of inaction. It’s full of unheard people. The work people did at the Summit is not being implemented to this day. So we just have to use that legacy and that knowledge, and put that into practice.

Tamara: Peggy and Dr. Wright, you’ve been putting the Principles into practice every minute since the Summit. Tell us about what has been accomplished.

Peggy: I went back home and in 1992, we started the Northeast Environmental Justice Network. We had organizers in Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Washington to bring people together, to go to the EPA, to speak at hearings. We met several times a year, and with the Indigenous Environmental Network as well. At We Act for Environmental Justice, we consider ourselves a movement organization. So a lot of our work is developing capacity for other groups in the movement, because we believe we cannot do this by ourselves. If we don’t have a strong movement, we’re not going to win. We have a statewide coalition that developed more than a dozen pieces of legislation, banning certain toxins. We developed the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change, before anybody was talking about climate. And we held the first climate justice conference at Fordham law school, to bring the green groups and the environmental justice community together. We continue to work now with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which Jerome and Beverly are also part of, making recommendations at the federal level. Today, there are environmental justice advisors working for cities and states. You can major in environmental justice at the University of Michigan and other colleges. There are hundreds of books. There is the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA. There are environmental justice advisory councils for cities and states all over this country. That is the work that the movement has made happen. Those benefits might not have accrued to our organizations, but with very few resources — environmental justice groups only get one half to 1% of all the philanthropic money in this country — we have been able to take our values and instill them institutionally in universities and in government. That is just an incredible achievement for our movement. Now we’ve got to ensure that we can move the kind of policy work that will protect our communities.

Beverly: One thing that came out of the Summit is the right to self-determination. But that right has been obscured because we’ve not been able to get funded for the things that we want to do. Philanthropists often want to guide our work: “We’ll fund you to do this,” but no, we want to do that. And so we end up not getting funded. But the groups that are still around from 30 years ago – including the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which I started in 1992 — are the ones that are really true to our mission; we’re not pulled asunder by the whims of philanthropy. Those are the organizations that are still standing. There aren’t that many of us, but those of us who are still here have held to our values, to the Principles. And I think that is what has sustained us.

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The Island Press Urban Resilience Project is a grantee of Kresge’s Environment Program. Follow Island Press on Twitter at @IslandPress or @IP_URP

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