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When it comes to the environment, it’s truly an interconnected world.
For example, the lithium batteries we use in our electric cars to reduce global warming also could result in the exploitation of indigenous communities where profiteers mine the rare mineral.
These relationships can easily be overlooked in discussions about the environment and energy if diverse voices – representing multiple sides of a solution – are not at the table.
And it is this gap that brought Cecilia Martinez and Shalini Gupta together to co-found the Minneapolis-based Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED). Their organization provides research, analysis and education around environmental justice, climate change and community development to ensure that solutions are equitable and sustainable and that all voices can be heard.
When environmental issues rose to prominence in the 1970s, the agenda was dominated by broad-picture “white aware” issues: clean air, clean water. And when energy policy was becoming a focus in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, the Midwest lagged behind other parts of the country in viewing environmental issues through racial and economic lenses.
Yet such threats as dumping sites, industrial fields, brownfields, toxic chemicals and air pollution have been disproportionately affecting indigenous communities, communities of color and low-income communities. As Gupta says, “Most of those who are impacted the most have not had a real voice at the decision-making table.”
So CEED was formed, Gupta says, to build “power and capacity for all communities to be effective participants, and to define issues in their own terms. ‘What’s our agenda and vision? And here’s the data to support it.'”
CEED has created a mapping strategy that translates data about hazards into easily accessible information that, Martinez says, “gives people the capacity to better understand what’s going on in their communities – and create points of advocacy to undertake those issues.”
Both Martinez and Gupta have strengths in analysis around social justice issues – and they have the “technical chops” to convert research data into policy advocacy. Still, they said it has not been easy to prove competency in a largely patriarchal energy industry.
Martinez, CEED’s director of research programs, earned a B.A. at Stanford University and a doctorate from the University of Delaware’s College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. She has been appointed to several national advisory boards, and did a review of climate adaptation and public health for the National Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change. That work has now resulted in a chapter in a book on climate change and public health with co-author Nikki Sheats.
Gupta, CEED’s executive director, grew up in the Twin Cities metro area after her family arrived from India. She earned a B.S. in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago and a master’s in environmental management at Yale University. She is a member of the Minneapolis Environmental Advisory Commission and is a former board member of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice. She has worked with many local, regional and national organizations on renewable energy and climate-change issues, and conducts environmental justice workshops with grass-roots groups.
That CEED is co-founded by women of nonwhite backgrounds is not unusual. “As women, we look deeply at issues like this,” Martinez says. For example, children of color tend to have higher asthma rates than their white counterparts. “This is about our communities, our families, our children.”
Gupta adds: “The impact of toxic chemicals on our breast milk, our fetuses, our bodies – that’s a galvanizing force.”
The Common Ground
Underlying CEED’s work is a belief in “The Commons.”
As Martinez and Gupta explain, environmental issues are about the limited resources of the Earth, which should not be owned by any group. Just as we recognize the atmosphere, Antarctica and the ocean to be common, so too should we understand that policies about the environment should not be rooted in controlled use for a marketplace. The government should regulate based on the public good.
“When toxic materials are dumped in ‘that part of town,’ next to homes where people cannot afford to move, that is not a solution,” Gupta says. “Everyone should have the right to clean water and a healthy life. The idea is not to buy your way into it. Basic human needs and rights should be a central part of policy.”
Martinez notes that environmental justice is no different than other social issues such as fighting police brutality or working to close the school achievement gap. We can laud the “miracle of Minneapolis,” as the Atlantic magazine did in its February issue, while not looking at the realities in communities that have been excluded from that miracle of affordability and achievement.
Gupta, though, is optimistic. She and Martinez, in their roles with the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan, have pushed for a Green Zone Initiative like those in other parts of the country in which public and private dollars are targeted to resources for neighborhoods that are most impacted by environmental hazards, such as pollutants from heavy industry or freeways.
The next step is assessment, and these at-risk communities are brought to the table to decide how to prioritize investments for such basics as energy-efficient housing, transportation, resiliency to climate change (tornado, heat, cold) and access to healthy food.
“Vulnerability doesn’t start with a crisis event. Certain neighborhoods don’t have more value,” Martinez says. “When we disinvest in communities, and don’t include them in the conversation, it is reinforcing inequality. How do we create more livable neighborhoods?”
The Twin Cities tend to aspire to be like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, in terms of progressive urban development, Gupta notes. “But in the process, many people of color have been pushed out,” she says. “This is our time to figure out what we want our future to look like in Minneapolis. How can we learn, and fashion a new way? People who live here want to continue to live here.”