Reflections on Racial Justice & Environmentalism

When I first started my career two decades ago, I knew we needed to come together as a country to solve the climate crisis. But I was mostly focused on protecting the planet and its ecosystems. 

I’ve come to realize that you can’t fight for the climate without fighting for people too.  It has become apparent and more urgent, particularly in the last few months since the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black lives, that the systems in our country are broken. And like many Americans, I’ve since committed to doing more, both in my personal and professional life, to explore and embody what it truly means to be “anti-racist”.

As I wrote a couple months ago, many environmental groups have had a longstanding history of racial discrimination, inequity and exclusion that we need to come to terms with. For nearly two years, UPSTREAM has been deeply exploring how to bring more racial equity, diversity and inclusion into our mission, our organization and our movement. We’ve been meeting more frequently as a team to dismantle white supremacy culture within the organization and within our work; highlighting more BIPOC voices on our channels; and simply put, listening and learning more and being okay with uncomfortable conversations. We are still at the beginning of our journey, and we definitely have a long way to go.  

As part of this exploration, we planned a livestream a few weeks ago entitledRacial Justice & Environmentalism: Together & Inseparable.”

I’d like to pause on these words for a moment and let them all sink in.

Racial Justice. Environmentalism. Together. Inseparable.  

At first glance, it probably feels like a “no brainer” to connect these ideals and the work together. But like UPSTREAM board member Letise LaFeir mentioned in her opening remarks, we all “know that racial justice and environmentalism are inseparable, though many of us have not appropriately or adequately considered them together in our lives.” 

So that’s what this blog is about. And quite frankly, the conversations we need to make time for and really consider the question: how might we strengthen the connection to racial justice and environmentalism in our lives?

Fortunately, you don’t have to take it from me. You can take it from the experts, Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali and Miriam Torres, who brought their invaluable perspective, expertise and advice to the discussion on September 24. Since the livestream was full of so many powerful reflections, advice and “real talk”, we decided to pull together some of our favorite clips* below from our panelists that we hope you’ll bookmark and revisit time and again as you navigate your own journey.

*some quotes have been edited slightly for clarity

On building authentic relationships

If someone moves in next to you, how do you interact with them? Do you come across the way and say hello? Or do you tell them don't park in my spot? I think it's similar: you extend an invitation to have a conversation, and you start to share resources, or start to talk about how you can share resources right away, so that it's understood that you're not just coming for your own benefit, but that you have something to offer as well. - Miriam Torres

Folks want to rush to create authentic, genuine partnerships with communities without fixing themselves first. So, what's your board look like? Does it look like the communities you say you want to engage with? If it doesn't, you got work to do. What’s your senior leadership look like? Last time I looked, there was not an African American man or woman, or Latinx man or woman, running a major environmental organization. So if you want to be able to be truly authentic in your partnership, then when folks look at your organization, when they look at your board, when they look at your middle management, they should see themselves reflected in what's going on. - Mustafa Santiago Ali

EJ organizations will tell you time and time again, we are tired of you coming to us and saying, sign up to our letter of support, work on our issue, and not reciprocate. So I think that's the first thing, how are you going to authentically show up and authentically reciprocate? A big part of that is funding because it’s super uneven. But some of it is also just coming to understand the work of the organization. Really taking a look at, where can I be supportive? Where can I share my power?  But taking it slow – not expecting that you're going to come in, and then right away, people are going to trust you and want to work with you. Because that's just unrealistic. - Miriam Torres

Listen more and share power

My formula is really simple. I think about it the same way if you want to have a healthy marriage or partner relationship. The first part is, you got to build trust, and trust comes with time.  The other part is communication and active listening. And then the third part is value: Do you value your partner? And if you truly do, then you show respect because you don't want to lose that respect. So it's not that difficult. But for some reason, people get it twisted all the time.  A lot of folks, they can't leave their privilege. They can't leave the degrees after their name. And they don't really listen. They'll nod their heads, but they're not actively listening.  When you find people who are, that's when you see real change. - Mustafa Santiago Ali

Get uncomfortable. Listen to Aziz Ansari, Dave Chappelle, John Leguizamo. The artists know how to break it down and make you laugh. Get uncomfortable, but act. Figure out where you can share your power. Every person who's listening here has some power to share. It really doesn't have to be linked primarily to the environment. - Miriam Torres 

On lessons learned: what to do and what not to do (hint: it needs to be more than just “window dressing”)

Don't belittle people and don't deny them their truth. Their truth is their truth. - Mustafa Santiago Ali

You also got to look at organizations and say, all right, is what you’re doing just window dressing because we're in a certain moment? So, you throw some Black and Brown folks on a pamphlet? Or you invite somebody to a meeting? Or are you structurally making change happen? - Mustafa Santiago Ali

One of the indigenous communities we work with took us out on a tour as a funder and said to me, ‘we don't have the word restoration in our culture. Why is that? Because for millennia, we included Mother Earth as how we do things. We always sought to balance nature with our decisions.’ And so now we're at the point where not only do we need to include communities like that at the table, but they should be leading the conversation, because it's deeply rooted. Bringing people to the table after the decisions have been made for the photo op doesn't work. - Letise LaFeir

You also got to highlight when community-led projects are causing positive change and action to happen. There are a number of examples of Black and Brown led projects that get no attention, even though they're some of the most successful projects that have ever happened in the environmental and climate context and the history of our country. One of them is the Regenesis project in Spartanburg, South Carolina. They took a $20,000 grant and leveraged it to almost $300 million in changes.  We have Black and Brown communities who are able to do that. We should be highlighting them and supporting them. And people should be literally throwing money at them saying do more, do more, do more, help save this planet, and help save our country. - Mustafa Santiago Ali

What it means to be intersectional

Make sure you're connecting with frontline organizations, the environmental justice networks that are out there. There's something no matter what your flavor is, or how you want to get at the issue, there is somebody who will meet that need. And if you're coming as an authentic ally, you'll be welcome. But you need to spend some time listening first, and then figuring out what it is that you actually have to offer in that space. - Mustafa Santiago Ali

I think something that's not recognized is the fact that, in these communities, it cannot be just about air quality, or the parks, or the sea level rise. It’s about that and putting bread on the table and having access to health insurance and being able to get a job. So if organizations can’t speak to that and can't support their communities on that, nobody's going to listen to them. - Miriam Torres

Final thoughts

The journey of understanding racial inequities takes time. So be patient with yourself. - Miriam Torres

As long as people are getting sick, as long as people are dying, then we haven't been successful. It is always about the community, and communities speak for themselves. As long as we anchor that as the foundational element of the work that anyone does, then we are at least starting to move in the right direction. - Mustafa Santiago Ali

In essence, we want to create a better way than throw away because we know people and the planet are indisposable. We also know that racial justice and environmentalism are inseparable, though many of us have not appropriately or adequately considered them together in our lives. That's why we all need to get out of our own lanes. That's why we all need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, about privilege, about power, and about the many troubling truths that are behind the curtain and in plain sight. - Letise LaFeir

Watch the full recording on our YouTube channel or listen to the audio recording on our latest episode of the Indisposable Podcast.