Since the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the U.S., many institutions — even those without an obvious connection to this broader movement — have begun to reflect on the racial inequities within their fields.
That’s no different for environmental organizations, which have traditionally been led and staffed by white people, despite Black people bearing a substantial portion of the negative effects of environmental degradation. Some in Metro Detroit are finally beginning to wrestle with these facts by creating diversity and inclusion plans, changing leadership, and more.
To learn more about why environmental justice matters the ways poor communities are more vulnerable to the climate crisis, Planet Detroit spoke with Jamesa Johnson-Greer, the climate justice director for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Planet Detroit: How did you get into this work and why are you so passionate about it?
Jamesa Johnson-Greer: My background was relatively technical, involving lots of research and studying environmental issues. And while I’m from Detroit, I didn’t grow up in an environmental justice community — the one little pocket of Detroit that wasn’t so heavily impacted. So my experience was very different from what I was hearing from Detroiters. Through the necessity of living in it, they had to learn a language, had to learn how to speak about these things, how to advocate for themselves. And that’s so powerful and necessary and that’s something I value as a practitioner. For me, it means they are the expert, they’re the person who I defer to because they know.
Why is environmental racism a problem more people should take seriously?
There’s currently a misconception that this is a Detroit problem when in reality it’s a statewide issue. Detroit is just one of multiple cities facing negative environmental effects and most of these cities just so happen to have a majority population of black and brown folks — and that’s not by coincidence. The reality is that we’re living and experiencing environmental racism in our communities — legacy pollution, PFAS, lead — but there’s no real investigation into how this is impacting people. When PFAS was found in Grand Rapids a few months ago, it was a big story. There was a facility found with PFAS in Detroit, but it didn’t get nearly the same coverage, response, or settlement. On top of that, our communities are the ones most heavily impacted by COVID-19 — those same contaminants predisposed us to being infected and dying from it.
Your job is climate justice director. What are you working toward?
The first path is dealing with legacy pollution in communities. Moving beyond that, we have to be prepared for the next 10 years and be able to protect the most vulnerable. What that means is creating a framework for changing our very way of living. Our economy extracts from these communities — the way we burn, dump, dig, and exploit in these most vulnerable communities has to end in order for us to be able to survive.
One of the goals of our impact assessment was thinking through how we can distribute resources in the future, how to prepare and create a climate plan that prioritized communities that have already been left behind for so long.
What is the state of representation in environmental organizations today and why does it matter?
The answer to the question of how people of color have been represented in the environmental sector is really that they haven’t. It’s been white-led for so long. Now there’s some self-reflection about the reality of the environmental justice movement, but for years it’s been a container for where black, indigenous, POC have built out their own plan for how they want to see justice happen and then calling out those sectors, saying you have excluded us from the conversation, and you have set an agenda that doesn’t even represent our needs.
The urgency of this moment has created a space for people of color to speak specifically to challenges they’re experiencing. Whatever kind of climate plan we see come out — whether it’s at the local, state, or federal level — has to be representative of the needs of our communities, not just those who have had the longest tenure in the climate space.
How would you grade our climate response so far, especially as it relates to vulnerable communities?
Right now we’re failing. We don’t even have the most basic protections from the federal government. During the pandemic, when communities are most vulnerable, the Environmental Protection decided to roll back regulations. That same agency also said Black Americans were exposed to 1.5 times more particulate matter emissions than any other population. If that’s the case, and we know there’s a connection between particulate matter exposure and COVID morbidity, what chance do we have? What chance do we have in a situation where climate is a crisis, just as COVID is a crisis? People who suffer the most from the virus are the same people who would inevitably be suffering the most from climate change.
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