An essay: On communicating environmentalism with minorities
Author’s note: Before I begin, I would like to preface my thoughts on the conversation of environmentalism by saying that, regardless of one’s color or creed, the lack of a prolific discussion rings rather alarmingly in my young mind. Enough cannot be said of the bold few (I’m looking at you Planet Forward and associates) who decide to stand at that lonely mountaintop, and shout down to those below the importance of developing a strong relationship with one’s home – with planet earth; and it’s a shame that one’s passion and love are twisted, misunderstood, or flat out ignored. I am learning just how difficult it is to persist in the face of neglect and even more so in the presence of deliberate ignorance. Though, it has been useful to witness that love carry one far – all the way to and above the mountaintop, it seems – so, it is not hard to see how (or why) one moves with such vigor. I hope that what I approach can be of use beyond minority communities, beyond impoverished communities, beyond the unseen, unheard, and overlooked to bring about a rainbow of voices, each which sheds light on that single blade of grass in their backyard only they can praise. —Harrison Watson
As a child, I held a very intimate relationship with the dirt, the trees, and the geese that flocked seasonally to the green pond of Piedmont Park in downtown Atlanta, Georgia – no different than any other child and their respective place of play. It felt as natural as breathing to contain a massive respect for the oceans, wind, and expansive fields of lush, multicolored grasses. Both their beauty and purpose left me awestruck. I aimed for the Oval Office, the United States presidency – the nation’s first black president – not so that I may tackle social issues, improve upon foreign relations, redefine our economic system, or bolster our military. No, I wanted this for my planet.
My immature imagination devised policies concerning alternative, fuel-efficient transportation, installing clean energy infrastructure on public and private estates, creating inclusive agricultural programs that give children not of wealthier backgrounds an equal opportunity to fresh, nutrient-rich produce, and, of course, establishing a “take-a-tree, give-a-tree” program, which does exactly as the name implies.
Nevermind that these programs would lead to a largely inadequate presidential campaign, or the years of studying it would take before I could learn the politics it would take to make such a reality possible, or whether the everyone desired to live under this ideology. And if my recollection serves me right (which, otherwise, it is not so apt to do) I was about 9 or 10 years old then. I wished only to start a conversation about something I cared for so much, and everyone will, at the very least, listen to the president no matter outlandish their declarations.
Unfortunately, what I was not aware of was that a clear majority of world citizens, let alone those in the U.S., are not quite capable of appropriately communicating similar sentiments to those four or five times as old. Removed from that imagination, many men and women find themselves trapped on an island of silence.
This is as literal as it is metaphorical, as Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice program, described to me of her first experience in the dealings of such silence. As a Peace Corps volunteer located in Jamaica during the early 1990s, Patterson recounts her difficulties with a contaminated water supply caused by improper management of a Shell petroleum depot, “with no recourse for adjustments.” It was immediately a situation of “David and Goliath,” she goes on to say. Why? The surrounding community’s poor education on environmental issues proved crippling especially when tasked with overcoming such a corporate giant as Shell.
With deep roots in women’s rights activism, Patterson looks to lay bare the civil rights facet of environmentalism, primarily as it impacts women, and places great emphasis on the skill of storytelling as it pertains to educating as she tells me, “(We need to) move away from the polar bears and melting ice caps, jargon, charts and graphs, and numbers, create a human, personal perspective on the matter.”
Personal perspectives such as the domestic abuse women may regularly face based on the rising temperatures accompanying global warming, and inability to produce “essentials” as expected of them – a great conflict for women in post-Katrina Louisiana, and others feeling the effects of climate change abroad.
And as our planet becomes drastically smaller, the United States, Patterson explained, is disproportionately driving climate change; it is no secret to many, our wasteful tendencies. However, whether by improper influences or individual effort (250,000,000 tons of trash are disposed in the United States per year, with no end in sight), we pollute like no other. Sadly, the impoverished countries and communities of continents overseas, or abutting, live no better than those impoverished communities her at home. Indigenous communities, the original inheritors, inherit no more than run off from extraction processes which occur no further from their home than sits a gas station from mine. Black communities are more likely to be located near toxic facilities, even more so than white counterparts who make $35,000 less annually. Yet, poor communities on the whole are, by political design (the hardly known, yet largely felt definition of value placed on collections of residences across the country), not going to be protected from environmental devastations such as Hurricane Katrina, from which some neighborhoods still have not recovered from in more than a decade following the natural disaster.
But I won’t contradict Patterson’s wishes any longer and let the numbers, charts, and jargon be to discuss what is most important in the face of these many disconcerting statistics and facts: education and communication. When giving workshops and panel discussions on the topic of climate justice, Patterson often received a response similar to, “Why are we talking about the environment? The NAACP is not an environmental justice organization, I expected this to be on the justice with a social climate.” Shortly thereafter, other responses spurred her to emphasize environmental and climate justice as a civil rights issue, battling problems like those prior, and educating several on why it should be considered in that way.
Intersectional education within the classrooms of our young citizens, was Patterson’s first suggestion of educational reforms. For example, certain social studies courses should include dedicated social justice instruction, of which environmental and climate justice is a topic. For adults beyond the school system, applied education programs covering energy audits, disaster resiliency, and clean energy installation may be partnered with self-testing toolkits, creating a personalized education adaptive to the individual’s schedule and allowing for that convenience we so often require on a topic that we should be required to learn.
As for communication, I simply suggest that we encourage speaking – there is nothing more powerful. Simple community meetings, consisting of everyone for older leaders to their promising inheritors, take only the effort to organize, for I have learned first-hand, that people want to speak, but are lost on where to begin or whom to do so with. So, why not each other? Plenty of middle America communities bring together members of suburbia to discuss the effects of environmental/climate change as it pertains to their communities, and they occur infrequently enough to let more change occur, and give those participating a chance to observe their change.
If individuals gain a greater awareness of their surroundings, they will begin to self-educate to understand, to build that relationship with their home.
The goals of the environmental movement — fundamentally — is to spread knowledge of the planet, to spread conversation on the planet. And not just with your friends and family, but everyone, including those disenfranchised women, men, and children who reside beyond the conversation, but are no less affected. In fact, as I have briefly shown, it is rather the opposite.
Patterson described environmental and climate justice issues as both geographical and political issues; however, no amount of political or big business (as Shell so appropriately displayed) strong-arming should impair any able-bodied woman or man’s ability to move into action in their community and communicate, display that courage to speak, with all those living about them. It is a job of the leaders of this movement to remind us of a portion of our purpose as residents of this planet, but it is the duty of all to carry out that purpose.