Seeking Diversity in Environmental Activism

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Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” book in 1962 ushered in wider discussion about pollutants, which turned into a focus on clean air and water. Since then, environmental rights activism has branched into multiple issues. How reflective are Minnesota’s environmental groups of the diversity of communities — their needs, their voices? This compilation offers perspectives on how organizations are attempting to create a tapestry of viewpoints in environmental action work.

Honor the Earth

Tara Houska, attorney, National Campaigns Director: 

The politics of resources, access, and classism are an unfortunate reality within the environmental movement. Top-down funding and organizing strategy has largely left those most impacted fighting injustice without backing or platform. There is, however, an ongoing shift within the movement toward saving our finite cultural and natural resources side by side. I hope to see the “big greens” [heavily staffed, well-funded organizations] stand in solidarity and truly support impacted communities.

The resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline in particular showed the power of indigenous-led organizing. Indigenous communities are most impacted by climate change, and are some of the most poverty-stricken peoples in North America. We told our own narrative, and made history leading one of the most significant resistance efforts in decades. At Honor the Earth, we are led by indigenous women and our organization supports indigenous movements across Turtle Island [the Native American name for North America].

Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy

Gretel Lee, first-year attorney and Robina Institute legal fellow:

One of the most devastating aspects of climate change is that its effects continue to fall upon the backs of the people who have already traditionally carried heavy burdens for generations. Furthermore, these communities have historically not been present when the important decisions are made. In the United States and in Minnesota, the law is set up in a way to allow access to and input from the public on high-profile symbols of industry and commerce that heavily affect the environment, such as power plants, mines, pipelines, and highways. When everyone is not adequately represented, the fallout from such decisions may land in an imbalanced manner. Advocacy and environmental groups have an important role to ensure equal participation for all communities — and bridging the gap when the distance between the affected communities and the budget proposal, court filing, or microphone is too great.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy stands watch to make sure that government and industry follow the law,. All environmental work is environmental justice work. The environment itself affects everyone, and thus it is imperative that everyone have a say in its protection, and by extension, their own.

Climate Generation

A Will Steger Legacy, Nicole Rom, Executive Director:

We understand that climate change is a highly complex issue and that just and equitable solutions cannot be found if we proceed with the climate science and policy lens alone. As a predominantly white organization that has historically engaged a predominantly white audience, Climate Generation is taking steps to address our own institutional racism through staff training, ongoing discussion, and integration of equity principles across our organization. Our work is grounded in the belief that to build resilient and just communities, it is imperative that people work together towards solutions that address the many intersecting issues creating disparities.

Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light

Julia Nerbonne, Executive Director:

Whiteness requires individual people and individual organizations to be “the best” — the best at business, the smartest at research, the most committed to ending racism. While there are good things that come from this, “besting” creates a critical blind place for white organizations. How can we be the best at replacing white supremacy when ending whiteness requires an ending to the “I’ve got to be best” story?

At Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, we strive to name the roots of our collective success, making space for others to share in both the co-creation and the outcomes. Instead of branding projects as our own, we work in partnership.

For example, we have taken a lead in convening the “Just Solar Coalition.” Rather than claiming it as our own, we have let the work evolve and be owned by the collective. Because of this we have developed rich working relationships with the NAACP, the Department of Corrections, the Red Lake Nation, minority businesses, and others. We hire strong leaders who bring in others from their communities to spearhead the work.

Sierra Club North Star Chapter

Margaret Levin, State Director, and Karen Monahan, Senior Organizing Representative:

Environmental issues are rooted in racial and economic injustice. Our country was colonized on racial, economic and environmental inequality. In order for us to create sustainable solutions, we must address the systemic roots that created the problem in the first place.

Many environmental organizations are formed and operate from the same lens as the larger system we are governed by. The Sierra Club North Star Chapter is working to transform ourselves into an inclusive, racially diverse organization based on core values of equity and justice. To succeed will require thoughtful and decisive changes to our structure, culture, norms and leadership, and the engagement of our members and volunteers.

We are all interconnected to each other and the planet. In order to bring balance and harmony to our interconnectedness, we must address our complicity and privilege when it comes to ending racism and injustice on our planet.

We are looking outward, to strengthen relationships with new partners; to show up respectfully in solidarity; and to do our part to achieve a just, equitable, and sustainable world.