Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island in a mixed-Black, bi-cultural Southern family, I took in a lot of misconceptions about the South. Misconceptions that also find their way into way too many funding strategies in government and philanthropy.
Both sides of my family (my father is from El Paso, TX and my mother is from Marietta, GA) enthusiastically moved North during their twenties, never looking back. We did not talk about my conservative Southern Baptist cousins in Georgia, and outside of my grandmother, I did not even grow up knowing any of my family in Texas. So, it was easy to spot the stereotype that Southern people were closed-minded, racist, and didn’t care about the environment.
I was raised with a seemingly different mindset. I was raised firmly as a vegetarian, and we consciously took care of our surrounding environment. My dad would usher me into the living room on Sunday evenings to teach me how to separate the recycling, lining up four separate bins on the living room floor for plastic, paper, glass, and metal. I attended Girl Scout sleepaway camp during the summer. Much of my time every day was spent reading or playing outside, hiking through the woods and pocketing all the cool rocks I could find.
By the time I hit the eleventh grade and was able to take Advanced Placement Environmental Science, I decided I wanted to save the planet when I grew up.
This context is important to me in understanding the inherent contradictions that plagued not only my upbringing, but also the narratives around the cultures, attitudes, and environments that make up the states below the Mason-Dixon line. We see this not only on a political scale, but also on a frontline movement and funding scale.
As the South Goes, So Does the Nation
We cannot talk about environmental and climate justice without talking about the South. In 1979, the first civil rights lawsuit related to environmental injustice, Bean V. Southwestern Waste Management, was filed to halt the construction of a landfill in a middle-class Black community. Residents were fed up with landfills being built in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Houston between the early 1920s and 1978, despite Black folks only making up only 25% of the population at the time.
Still today, we see the impacts of extractive industries, landfills, chemical plants, caged animal feeding operations (CAFOs), shipping warehouses, (to name only a few) being built and operating in low-income Black and brown communities in the South. Higher rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, premature births, heat stroke, and diabetes, and these are only being exacerbated by climate change.
Yet all of this was conveniently absent from my environmental education.
What I learned in the mid-2000s (before Tesla came onto the scene) was how driving an electric or hybrid car was going to solve the transportation problems of the world. Absent was any curriculum on how to build equitable public transit infrastructure. Or how green roofs, solar panels, , planting trees and even going vegan were all viable individual solutions to systemic problems.
It was convenient instruction, solutions that could be considered and implemented without having to challenge my worldview at all. There was no justice component. Ultimately, my understanding of the climate crisis was not only greenwashed, but whitewashed, and arguably middle to upper middle class centric.
Pulling in HBCUs
I thought of how far my own education and the education of other activists when I recently attended the the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice’s HBCU Climate Change Conference in New Orleans, LA. It was humbling to see student attendees furiously taking notes as experts like Dr. Robert Bullard countered this traditional white-centered, high income-focused perspective in their presentations and panel discussions.
Bullard, (often named the “father of environmental justice,” was particularly impressive, citing dozens of studies in the span of fifteen minutes as he seamlessly wove together the intersections of racism, housing injustice, and climate justice into his keynote speech. When he was done, the room unsurprisingly erupted in a standing ovation. As I left the room to go get some more coffee, I heard a student remark “Yeah, it’s really nice to have climate justice not framed in such a white context.”
However, he was not the only one. Community organizers such as Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James and 2021 recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, talked about her experience living in St. James Parish, LA. St James is surrounded by 12 petrochemical plants, part of a region in the Gulf South along the Mississippi River nicknamed Cancer Alley because of the more than 150 petrochemical plants within the 84-mile region.
Sharon spoke about watching her friends die from cancer due to chemical exposure, and about not being able to enjoy the land because she cannot breathe when going outside. She started RISE out of necessity and organized in 2018 to stop yet another petrochemical plant, Formosa Plastics, from being built.
Stories like these are among the hundreds that I have heard that constantly remind me why I do this work. The tenacity of Black, brown, and indigenous organizers throughout the South is not just inspirational, it’s why we have grassroots environmental and climate justice movements, that are helping to move the needle on these issues. Yet despite their efforts, the region remains chronically underfunded by philanthropy. Their narratives are buried in favor of cleaner, more technical ones that offer us false business as usual approaches to climate change mitigation.
Where to Focus the Equitable Journey
The sector needs to do a better job of listening to the frontlines, those who have been screaming for decades that they are quite literally being buried because of environmental and climate injustice. Yes, the stark inequities are devastating and uncomfortable, but if we are going to have any hope of a true just transition for all, we need to level the playing field and resource the grassroots groups at a much greater rate than we have been.
This Earth Day and every day, we owe Black, brown and Indigenous frontline climate justice leaders their due. You can start by following and investing in national and southern-U.S. based organizations like these:
Climate Justice Alliance
Indigenous Environmental Network
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice
Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy
Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services
Senowa is the Senior Movement Engagement Associate for Climate Justice at NCRP.