Initiative Seeks Environmental Justice, Through Racial Justice

by Carolyn Bick

In order to have true environmental justice, Nat Morales said, you have to have racial justice.

Morales is the Community Action and Organizing Director for Front and Centered, a statewide coalition of organizations created to center the voices of communities of color, when it comes to talking about environmental justice. With this goal in mind, Front and Centered helped draft Initiative 1631 (I-1631), a grassroots legislative effort that focuses on investing in communities hit hardest by pollution, and bringing clean energy facilities and jobs to the state.

Initiative leaders held a rally Thursday afternoon at El Centro de la Raza in south Seattle, in order to garner more support and collect more signatures. The initiative must have 260,000 signatures by July 6, in order to be placed on the ballot for a public vote in November. Filed six weeks ago, on March 18, 2018, the initiative currently has almost 50,000 signatures.

I-1631 is based on state emissions targets to reduce pollution in Washington. Backed by more than 60 organizations, I-1631 is meant to create more than 40,000 jobs, provide money for climate preparedness and community protection by holding big industry financially accountable for pollution it produces, initiative Communications Director Nick Abraham said in an interview before the rally.

While the overall goals may be iterations of past initiatives, I-1631 differs in that it specifically puts communities of color at the forefront of the proposed changes, because they tend to be at ground zero, Abraham said.

“The biggest indicator of whether you are going to have health impacts, because of pollution … is all by racial lines,” Abraham said. “That speaks really closely to why this is such an egregious problem.”

And studies seem to back up what Abraham and other I-1631 supporters claim: a 2012 Yale University study found that communities of color are more likely to be exposed to pollutants linked to diseases like asthma and cancer. A 20-year study released in 2007, written and compiled by environmental professors and sociologists for the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries, shows that more than half the people who live within just under a two-mile radius of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color. Meanwhile, a 2009 Centers for Disease Control report shows that children of color are at the highest risk for lead poisoning.

Morales said the reasons behind this are complex, but boils down to how communities of color have historically been left out of conversations concerning the environment, despite speaking up about it “forever.” And because most big environmental movements are white-led, she said, they tend to have a very narrow focus, when it comes to how to approach issues like cleaning up the water, or inviting green energy into communities.

When it comes to this issue, Morales believes there is no single way to fix it, and that leaders must “listen to what the community already knows it needs, and for us to be able to build that capacity … to help fulfill those needs for the community.”

NAACP Spokane President Kurtis Robinson said that some of the problem also stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasoning behind some of the choices people in impoverished communities make. Because they have fewer financial resources, he said, they have to make the best choices available to them, ranging anywhere from where they live to the food they eat. And because economic burdens tend to weigh more heavily on communities of color, he said, “we must absolutely look at this using a racial equity framework.”

“When we start shifting things around, because of the dominant power structure that has been in operation in America, they start shifting it around for white people,” Robinson said. “This needs to be at the forefront, because what I think we’ve also come to understand is that if it is at the forefront, everybody benefits.”

I-1631 isn’t where the effort ends, though, Morales said. Rather, the initiative is a tool to propel legislative and social change, and generate momentum for inclusive future efforts.

“I think that one of the things I focus on, in my role with Front and Centered, is thinking beyond just 1631 – utilizing 1631 for our communities, empowering the people who were doing this organizing, long before Front and Centered was even a coalition,” Morales said.

Featured image: Facebook