“Race is the number one determining factor for whether or not you live in a community with a toxic facility,“ said femme-tellectual Climate Justice Goddess Nia Robinson, facilitating a teach-in about race and the environment at Mount Holyoke College this March.
“I grew up in the shadow of a toxic incinerator,” Nia once told the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, “in a city with one of the highest pediatric lead poisoning rates and an extremely high asthma rate. Nature is great, but that’s not why I’m in this. I’m in this for my people.”
From guest lecturing in classes to speaking about human rights, race, and the environment on a Five College climate panel; facilitating discussions for local students, activists and community members, and radio interviews, Nia offered her critical perspective on some of the biggest challenges facing our world to the Pioneer Valley this March as the first of four Five College Social Justice Policy Practitioners in Residence.
Nia, who currently serves as the Environmental Justice representative for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and formerly directed the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, has spent a significant portion of her life educating folks about the ways women, children, and people of color are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, and amplifying the voices of low-income communities, people of color and indigenous peoples in national and international climate policy debates.
“I’m from originally from Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is an amazing city. It’s also a city riddled with environmental, economic and racial problems,” says Nia, who was raised by two parents who were, “in their own ways, politicized. My mother was a staunch Pan Africanist and studied under the great Kwame Ture. My father grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi. He worked with the Freedom Riders and to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote.”
“Ever since I was a little girl I had some desire to know or understand more about the environment. From everything that I saw, including publications like Ranger Rick, something about the environment seemed distant, unattainable– something that didn’t belong to me. I would ask my mom, ‘how come there are no black kids in [the Ranger Rick] magazine?’ The idea that environmental work, passion and caring for the environment was not something that black people did, started early.”
What Counts as “The Environment?”
“To me it was Detroit, my city, my grandma’s house, and an island park in the city where our dad used to take us during the summertime. My environment was just as important and needed just as much protection as a national park and the Great Lakes in Michigan. For a long time in this country, conversation around the environment has only been about the natural world and has not considered what toxics are doing to the most marginalized communities.”
Nia’s budding consciousness around environmental racism (racial discrimination that plays out through environmental policy and practices) was further deepened by a family trip outside of the country when she was a little girl.
“I had wanted to go to Disney land, but my mother said, “No. We’re not supporting Disney. She took us to Jamaica. We went to the beach, where I made friends with a girl from the area. The girl said she hadn’t been to the beach in 2 years. I didn’t understand.
“‘How come this thing that she lives so close to wasn’t accessible to her?’ I wondered. The beach had been privatized. This started to bring up the question: Who does nature belong to? Who gets to see it? Who gets to touch it, feel it? What does [being cut off from it] do to your psyche and your spirit?
“Nature is supposed to be something for the common good, not something [you’re barred from] accessing because you aren’t a tourist and aren’t bringing money into the country–something you’re barred from accessing because you’re poor and black.”
Nia’s seed of questioning and her strong desire to know more about the environment — “coupled with the very strong racial lens and race consciousness from my parents” — drew her to Environmental Justice struggles in Detroit, and work with a group called Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice.
“I fell in love with the people, the mission, the movement. Here I am 12 years in, and I don’t see myself ever not being involved. Environmental Justice is a bridge movement. It allows us to talk about gender, housing, economics–almost every other social justice movement. It gives us a strong opportunity to un-silo ourselves as the left, as liberals, and work together to fight a common enemy that’s oppressing our community in a multitude of ways. “
Agitating Against Environmental Racism
The term “Environmental Racism” was coined in the 1980s in Warren County, North Carolina, a primarily African American area, in response to the state’s highly contested placement of a PCB landfill. Polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB is a toxic chemical linked to a host of serious health effects, including cancer (production in this country was banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979 but PCBs continue to persist in the environment). Children, mothers, and the elderly laid their bodies down to block the landfill from being built near their community without their consultation or consent.
“Nationally,” Nia says, “[the Warren County case] made a conversation about the environment that had to do with people who had consistently been on the margins of society. Corporations and the state government thought it was okay to dump because of who [the people living in the surrounding area] were and what they had and what color they were. … [This came from the] idea that particular communities don’t have any political clout, and couldn’t organize themselves enough to get together and do something quickly enough.”
All over the country, groups began to form to start having conversations about environmental issues directly impacting people of color and poor people.
“There was no Twitter, no Facebook, there were no cell phones,” Nia told the teach-in participants (some of them live blogging as she speaks). “People were using pay phones. Folks were managing to find each other around the country. Noting, ‘Okay, a refinery is going up here, drilling is happening there’—people were beginning to pull together the connections of who and what they were actually fighting, and seeing that patterns existing in their own community were also happening in others. This led to the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. People came from all over the country and even internationally to talk about how they could begin to support each other regionally and on a state level. They came up with a 17-point platform, called the Principles of Environmental Justice.”
This living document helped lay the groundwork for an interconnected “national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities,” in affirmation of “our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth.”
Nia points out that, “Similar to what the Combahee River Collective Statement is for the Black Feminist movement,” Principles of Environmental Justice has served as a guiding star for decades of organizing and advocacy.
Although Principles is a U.S. based document, Nia feels like it can fit into the global conversation around environment. One of the main principles of Environmental Justice is that, “communities speak for themselves. Environmental Justice is not the idea that I, as a person currently living in the Southeastern United States get to go to the Southwest, to a Hopi or Navajo reservation, or to another country and tell them what they need to do and how they should do it. Those communities get to come together and decide what they want to create and how they want to create it.”
She shares a strong critique of the United States’ “manifest destiny: see it, take it, build it” attitude and the disproportionate role this has played in damaging the environment throughout the world and causing climate change:
“The United States has about 4% of the world’s population, but emits 25% of the carbon dioxide. Thus far, it has been unwilling to enter into binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions. In some people’s minds, China and India should stop developing. Right now. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. That would allow westernized countries, especially the United States, to have more time [before they have to clean up their act]. This is not about sustainability but about sustaining the status quo.
“It is hypocritical for the United States to wag its finger at other countries. In my opinion, the United States owes a major debt to many countries in the rest of the world because of our historical legacy of emissions and pollution, because of the companies that are housed here, outsourcing their emissions, their pollution overseas and creating a need or a want to expand toxic industries.”
Challenges and Success Stories
Since Nia has experienced the movement’s ups and downs over the last 12 years, inquiring minds at the teach in wanted to know about the brick walls she’s faced when trying to implement EJ principles as well as the success stories:
“Coal has been a place where people have been able to come together around an issue and mobilize. Organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline, also.
“The other day I was on an airplane and Time magazine had Bill McKibben on the cover and said that he was the person most responsible [for the Keystone XL pipeline success]. I love Bill, but I know indigenous people who have been fighting the pipelines for years. The media tells us a story about who is offering us this environmental salvation—they weren’t just extending accolades but attributing responsibility to him. Many people, including the First Nations people in the North are resisting day to day and directly impacted by a desire to free ourselves from foreign fossil fuel dependency.”
Big, Broad Dreams
As the Mount Holyoke teach-in drew to a close, Nia brought us back to ourselves. “It gets to a place sometimes that is very scary. I’m only 32, but I feel burnt out. Sometimes I attribute that to not coming back to an idea about vision. Because of ‘isms’ I’m in a consistent state of struggle and push, it gets hard sometimes to:
- Appreciate the little victories. The milestones.
- Remember that I do this for a reason. That there is a broader goal. A vision. Of people (especially the little people in my life that I do this for).
“I believe we can live in a world without fossil fuels. I believe that. I believe that I’m a teeny tiny part of helping us get to that place. So: what’s your vision for environmental justice?”
The teach-in participants called out their responses:
Peace. An end to conservation evictions. Home for environmental refugees. Mutual accountability. An end to corporations as people. No more of the women of color in my life will have to make a choice between breastfeeding their children and reducing their children’s contaminant levels. Healthy natural and social environments accessible to all. Clean water, clean air. Healthy food accessible to all. Many voices. Participation in decision making on all levels (local, state, regional, federal, and international). Policy makers who put people and nature above profits.
Nia recorded the visions, then stepped back to survey them.
“It is my absolute hope that we get to this place without having to sacrifice anyone, without creating a situation where an undue amount of blame is placed on any particular bodies. A world where we’re not told that there are too many of certain kinds of people and not enough of other people. A world where we’re all valued.“
To learn more about Nia: listen to her radio appearance on the WAMC show Midday Magazine, check out the book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists featuring her work, read the report she co-authored, “A Climate of Change: African Americans, Global Warming, and a Just Climate Policy for the U.S.,” or connect with her in person at the upcoming From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom conference, where she will moderate a roundtable on Climate and Reproductive Justice.