Going Beyond Green for a Racially Diverse Environmental Movement

Representatives from Austin Environmental Justice, the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, Pacuache Band Coahuiltecan Nation, Carrizo-Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, and both the American Indian Movements of Central Texas and Southern California participated in the march against the Dos Republicas low-grade coal mine.
Representatives from native Texan tribes and the American Indian Movements of Central Texas and Southern California participated in an April march against the Dos Republicas low-grade coal mine in Eagle Pass.  Sierra Club

In a community meeting room at the back of an east Austin library, a group of college students, young professionals and retirees gathered to discuss affordable housing, coal mining and community organizing. Sitting in a circle, they shared the recent success of a protest against a coal mine near Eagle Pass, debated ways to engage poor communities, and workshopped how to talk about systemic racism without getting into heated arguments.

The meeting is a monthly affair for Austin Environmental Justice, a group of like-minded community organizers, social justice activists and environmentalists working to bring attention to marginalized communities in Austin that have been doubly challenged by poverty and pollution. The group was started by the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and reflects the increasing importance the organization is placing on the racial dimension of environmental issues.

When the group fought to retire a coal-fired power plant in Fayette County co-owned by the city of Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority, it also helped pecan growers in La Grange advocate for clean and affordable energy. Recently, when the Austin Sierra Club found out that anti-immigrant groups would be attending the Texas Earth Day festivities in Dallas, it boycotted the event, saying in a statement that it could not “in good conscience support an event nor its main funder if it encourages anti-immigrant and racist sentiments.”

These steps reflect the Sierra Club’s increasing emphasis on diversifying the environmental movement, says Reggie James, who took over as president of the Lone Star Chapter in 2015. Poor communities and people of color often bear the brunt of environmental degradation, said James, who is African American, because they tend to live close to aging coal plants, waste dumps, refineries and other hazards. Clean energy projects can not only supplant polluting industry but also create jobs and economic opportunities — a sort of virtuous circle for those with the most to lose and gain.

It’s essential work in a state that is now majority-minority, James said.

In Dallas, where the asthma rate is the highest in the state, community organizer Cherelle Blazer has been providing minority communities with information about the negative environmental and health impacts of coal plants. One of the weaknesses of an environmental movement led by white people is that they often end up speaking for communities of color, she says. It’s part of what she calls the “savior syndrome.” Blazer, who works for the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign, says she’s faced resistance from the organization’s Dallas chapter, which has a largely white and older leadership.

“The Sierra Club itself has a problematic history with race,” she said. “So you’ve got some remnants of that and you’ve got pockets of younger folk trying to change that legacy.”

Wendel Withrow, the Dallas Sierra Club’s chairman said he disagreed a “thousand percent” with Blazer’s statements. He cited eight environmental justice projects that his group is working on, including taking kids from the inner city on day trips into nature and fighting a cement plant in a low-income community.

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Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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