This guest post was written by Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, and originally appeared on the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism blog on April 22, 2015 and is reprinted with permission.
We are all impacted by climate change and environmental injustice. Over half of us live in counties in violation of air pollution standards, storms like Katrina, Irene, and Sandy don’t discriminate in the devastation they unleash, and communities across the coastlines of this country are facing imminent displacement due to sea level rise, which is overtaking land and resulting in increased risk of storm surge.
We know that people, communities, and nations who are least responsible for and most impacted by climate change and environmental injustice have traditionally had the least power over the system that is driving these injustices.
We know that Navajo communities in Arizona are dealing with children being born with chromosomal abnormalities due to uranium mining. We know that in other communities in the Four Corners Region of New Mexico, people are living with respiratory illnesses from the four coal plants within 50 miles of where they live – coal plants that supply electricity to Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas – while 70% of the people on the reservation don’t have running water or electricity. We know Princess Lucaj and the Gwi’Chin Steering Committee, an indigenous community of Alaska, are dealing with offshore oil drilling that is affecting buffalo herds.
We’ve also visited with people from Eastwick, PA to Irvington, NJ to Tunica, MS who are living in floodplains where the increases in rainfall devastates them on a routine basis. We’ve seen the privatization of water resulting in shut-offs in Detroit, and now closer to home in Baltimore where 23,000 people are facing imminent water cut-offs.
I’ve met people in the South who saved up for decades to buy their dream home and, eight months after moving into it, lost their home to the tornadoes of 2011. We know communities in the bayou and the marshlands of Louisiana who stand to lose their land, property and their way of life.
What we’ve been doing as a movement hasn’t resulted in the change we need to see in the systems that are responsible for the continued proliferation of climate change and environmental injustice, including profit-only focused development, reckless extraction of natural resources, political disenfranchisement, rampant consumerism and more. All of this is continuing, even though there is a dawning realization that these systems and their impacts are interconnected. The dynamics and conditions persist and drive climate change, wars, income inequality and so many of the other ills we see in the news and in our communities from police brutality, failing schools, violence against women and hate crimes, among other things.
The good news is that across the nation and world, people are mobilizing to take action on healing the earth and building deeper relationship with others as we do this.
We need to work closer together and consolidate power as we organize ourselves to advance true democracy; to build decentralized economic systems that break down monopolies and advance people-centered development; to promote cooperative communities; to redefine the commons and basic rights to water, energy, transportation/movement, life sustaining foods, as well as the right to health wellbeing and (I daresay) happiness, as defined in a human rights framework.
Already, we see communities like Curtis Bay United Workers in Baltimore that defeated the proposed incinerator that would have polluted their community; the Black Mesa Water Coalition that is building a solar array to supply electricity for their communities; Communities in Alexandria VA, Chicago, IL, Indianapolis, IN, Gulfport, MS, and beyond who organized to stop their coal plants from burning coal that was polluting their communities and driving climate change and; Communities in Longview TX and Mobile, AL building local food systems through community gardens. We see exciting groups of people of all faiths coming together through the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, GreenFaith, etc. And so much more!
As we work together as people of faith on coordinating to advance collective action, we must heed six key principles that were developed by indigenous communities, low income communities, and communities of color to guide us on how organizing should happen that is led by those who have the most to lose if we don’t stem the tide of climate change and environmental injustice.
- Be Inclusive
- Include all people in decision-making and assure that all people have an equitable share of the wealth and the work of this world. Work to build that kind of inclusiveness into our own movement in order to develop alternative policies and institutions.
- Emphasis on Bottom-Up Organizing
- Reach out into new constituencies, and to reach within all levels of leadership and membership base of the organizations that are already involved in our network.
- Let People Speak for Themselves
- Be sure that relevant voices of people directly affected are heard.
- Work Together In Solidarity and Mutuality
- Consciously act in solidarity, mutuality and support each other’s work. Incorporate the goals and values of other groups with our own work, in order to build strong relationships.
- Build Just Relationships Among Ourselves
- Treat each other with justice and respect, both on an individual and an organizational level, in this country and across borders. Include clarity about decision-making, sharing strategies, and resource distribution.
- Commitment to Self-Transformation
- Move from Individualism to Community Centeredness.
- Embody justice….be peace…..be community