As society reckons with the legacy of centuries of racism, the environmental community is grappling with its place in this system. A number of organizations are conceding their past absence from the fight against racism and for social justice; some organizations are publicly acknowledging their past complicity with social and political structures that perpetuate systemic racism. Many in the environmental community are recognizing the privilege that has allowed them to benefit from these structures, and they are struggling to understand what is required of them for change.
That change requires far more from society in general, and from the environmental community in particular. Environmental organizations have a role to play in dismantling racist systems and creating a more just and equitable society.
But what do equity and justice mean in the environmental community? For all of the conversations following this summer’s social justice protests and the entreaties from marginalized communities over many years, the environmental community is still grappling with just how to be present in the struggle for equity and justice.
One way to understand these two concepts is within the context of access:
- EQUITY can be seen as a function of access – the ability of all of us to participate in and influence the power structures that shape our lives, as well as to tap into the resources, benefits, and opportunities that result from those decision structures.
- As we uncover the lack of access to decision-making power and resources for marginalized communities, we then understand JUSTICEas the implementation of efforts to remedy this lack of access.
Equity and justice require the environmental community to rethink its approach to leadership within and across organizations to incorporate non-traditional ideas and values into goals and strategies.
Sovereignty and self-determination are critical for empowering communities and people to shape the decision-making power structures that govern their existence.
Respect for local and traditional knowledge held by grassroots and environmental justice organizations and the communities they represent must be an integral part of just and equitable policy making.
And transparency is indispensable to building trusted relationships between environmental organizations and marginalized communities.
Centering equity and justice in the environmental community will require thinking beyond past assumptions about the work it does and the leverage it wields with decision makers. Instead of a continued focus on traditional political frameworks that the environmental community navigates – right/left, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican – just and equitable policy solutions will require new configurations of leadership and advocacy that transcend those dichotomies. The environmental community will need to become comfortable operating outside of these traditional frameworks.
Ultimately, environmental organizations must commit to learning and doing more to build the collective power necessary to achieve its broad goals of combating climate change and ensuring a healthy environment for all. Building this collective power will require environmental organizations to clarify how their program frameworks and organizational culture are grounded and centered in equity and justice; only then can they build the relationships with people and communities to create the broad support for change.
In Part II of this discussion, I will share some thoughts on the steps environmental organizations can take to drive the change we seek, creating a more just and equitable movement.
Photo Credit: Madeline Gray