Building a Bigger Table—Land&People

Recently I was asked by the Wilderness Society to moderate a conference it was co-sponsoring on parks and open space for the city of Boston. As I sat on the stage with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, I observed to him how counterintuitive it seemed for the Wilderness Society to be involved in such an event. In the audience were people of color and urban activists I had known for years because of their advocacy for inner-city communities and social justice. A few years ago such people never would have been gathered by a wilderness preservation group to pursue a cause with an urban focus.

But as the Boston event makes clear, the relationship between some mainstream environmental groups and minority and inner-city communities is changing. In the early 1990s community activists began an aggressive challenge to what they saw as the unresponsiveness of mainstream conservationists to their concerns. They urged traditional environmental groups to hire and promote more people of color, to focus on quality of life in minority neighborhoods, and to recognize that most environmental issues are inextricably interwoven with issues of social and economic justice.

The initial challenge came in 1990, in the form of two open letters from leading environmental justice advocates to environmental organizations. Then in 1991 the goals and ideas of community activists crystallized at the People of Color National Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. During the summit, delegates adopted seventeen principles of environmental justice. These included ethical use of land and resources; the right of nonwhite people to participate as equal partners at every level of environmental decisionmaking; and the need to rebuild cities and rural areas in balance with nature, while honoring the cultural integrity of communities.

In February 1994 President Clinton put the federal government’s stamp of approval on such ideas by issuing his Executive Order on Environmental Justice, focusing the attention of federal agencies on the health and environmental problems of minority and low-income communities.

In response, some environmental groups have begun to address the needs of low-income communities and communities of color. Some organizations have hired and promoted people of color on staffs and boards of directors. Some have increased outreach to minority communities, recognizing that partnerships and coalitions can be effective tools to achieve traditional environmental goals while addressing the objectives of inner-city neighborhoods.

While no one would suggest that these efforts constitute radical or fundamental change, a few organizations have launched programs that might provide the basis for a common agenda in specific places at specific times. Others have begun to incorporate concerns for environmental justice into their organizational agenda, or have launched programs to improve health and quality of life in low-income and nonwhite communities.

  • The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an organization of lawyers and scientists with a long-term interest in the impact of human activity on health and ecosystems. Today NRDC is the only one of the ten largest environmental groups to have established an environmental justice program headed by a full-time professional of color experienced in environmental justice issues and programs. Under the direction of Vernice Miller, NRDC’s Environmental Justice Initiative ensures that any NRDC-sponsored project or program takes into account the environmental justice implications of program activities.

  • The Sierra Club also has established an environmental justice initiative, with a full-time staff member coordinating the organization’s support of grassroots efforts to fight pollution and public health threats to poor communities of color. The Sierra Club joined with several other activist groups in challenging on environmental-justice grounds a decision by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to approve construction of a U.S. Army chemical weapons incinerator in Anniston, Alabama–a community with a large population of African-American and low-income citizens.

  • The Trust for Public Land–which began inner-city work in the 1970s–has expanded its services to urban and minority communities since establishing its national Green Cities Initiative in 1994. TPL works with grassroots groups around the country to create urban and regional parks and rehabilitate brownfields that scar inner-city neighborhoods. In New York City, Newark, and elsewhere, TPL is building playgrounds and community gardens that, in addition to providing pleasure, serve as environmental education laboratories for urban school children. In Boston, Baltimore, Providence, and Los Angeles, TPL’s greenway programs provide important environmental, economic, and community-development benefits to minority communities underserved by parks. TPL efforts have helped return land in Oregon to the Nez Perce Tribe, and in California have helped create the nation’s first Native American intertribal park.

  • Two years ago the New York City Chapter of the National Audubon Society initiated its Birds for a Purpose environmental program in several middle schools in the South Bronx. Launched in partnership with public school teachers and principals, the New York City Parks Council, and AmeriCorps volunteers from the low-income neighborhoods where the program is based, this comprehensive science education initiative includes programs within and outside the classroom. One important component involves the restoration of vacant lots adjacent to schools into vest pocket parks and outdoor classrooms. In engaging with a low-income community of color, the program breaks new ground for the National Audubon Society.

  • In my hometown, Boston, the Massachusetts Audubon Society has launched an innovative program to create a nature center and wildlife sanctuary on an abandoned state hospital site in an African-American community. Over the last twenty years, a number of projects, primarily focused on housing, commercial development, and industrial uses, have been proposed and rejected for the site. The Mass Audubon plan preserves a portion of the site’s vital open space–some sixty-five acres, including its well-established community gardens–while allowing for much-needed affordable housing and community development benefits. The Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary will be entirely staffed by local residents. In another important outgrowth of this high-visibility project, members of the local advisory board–which includes several individuals of color–have been tapped for staff and governing board positions at Mass Audubon.

These are a few encouraging examples of how traditional, mainstream organizations are joining with people of color and community-based groups to achieve specific results. It is hard to say whether this incremental progress will continue. Advocates were encouraged when President Clinton issued his Executive Order on Environmental Justice in 1994, but today the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is inadequately staffed and has lacked a permanent director for almost a year. Even milestone achievements can be fleeting.

Nevertheless, I am among those who believe that some mainstream environmental groups–having been prodded to action by environmental justice advocates–are now learning how to build a bigger table. Working together, they can forge environmental initiatives that recognize the social and economic needs of low-income Americans and people of color. If the prodding continues, if the learning continues, there is reason to hope.

Land & People, 1998
Attorney James S. Hoyte is associate vice president for Equal Opportunity, Diversity and Equity Issues at Harvard University, where he also teaches environmental policy. He is a member of TPL’s board of directors.