Environmental Justice in Action

What do race and the environmental movement have to do with each other? Quite a lot, explains one environmental justice activist.
The following conversation with Gopal Dayaneni is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.

Whether he's working with Indigenous communities in North America to oppose oil extraction, partnering with Nigerians to resist human rights abuses, or trying to uncover the modern-day slavery of prison labor, Gopal Dayaneni can be found on the front lines of environmental justice struggles. Friends and colleagues know Dayaneni as an especially thoughtful activist. While he is busy doing his own small part to promote progressive social change, he is also a big-picture thinker, always encouraging those around him to consider the long view of what it takes to create a more sane and humane world. That trait distinguishes Dayaneni as an important resource for communities looking for the strategic, tactical, and imaginative skills necessary to effect change. We caught up with the 37-year-old campaigner at his home in Berkeley, California, where he was busy tending to his young daughter.

Q: You use the term "environmental justice." Can you define that?

GD: Environmental Justice is a term that talks about a movement that developed over the last 20 years to really take on the disproportionate impact of environmental toxics and pollution on poor communities and communities of color. At the heart of that movement is a commitment to bottom-up organizing and grassroots community organizing. Environmental justice is not about a bunch of people trying to lobby for better laws or a bunch of high-level policy people trying to change environmental policy. It's about communities organizing themselves and resisting environmental abuse by industry or government. And because it is grassroots led, and because it is driven by communities directly attempting to make concrete improvements in the quality of their daily lives, it is ripe for an opening to see the intersections between environmental policy, economics, race, class, the war.

Q: You talk about the difference between defending your concrete interests and defending the environment in general. Is it because when the stakes are higher, the passion is greater?

GD: Yeah, I think there's something to be said for the expression, "There's nothing to lose but your chains." I think there's a greater sense of solidarity. I think people are much more willing to share their successes to work together. I think there's a much greater sense of empowerment because people are actually in control of the campaigns that they are organizing. People are not passive participants watching somebody else try and make things better. They are actively the voice of the issue. People are telling their own stories, they're speaking for themselves.

Changing policy may open up political space to stop the immediate bad things from continuing to happen. But if we're talking about fundamentally transforming our society to be more democratic and more equitable and more humane, the strategy is grassroots community organizing, in my opinion. A good friend of mine once said to me, "Campaigns don't change the world, organizations do." And my response to him was, "Organizations don't change the world, organizing does." That's really for me what's important. For me, that's central to my theory of change.

Q: There is a stereotypical view of U.S. environmentalists as white, middle class, and into bird watching. What do you think of this issue?

GD: Race is a scary thing in America. Race is scary to most white people in America. Race is scary to most people of color in America. Being people of color does not make us smarter, or more revolutionary, or more right, or better. It just makes us oppressed, and there's no great glory in that.

Race is a problem for Americans. It's easy to talk about saving the trees or saving the birds. When you start talking about the relationship between saving the trees and saving the birds and white supremacy in America, you start losing people. It takes a lot of work to help build that consciousness. Just in this conversation, we won't start talking about it by calling it white supremacy. We have to figure out ways of helping people to understand the dynamics of power in this country, and how those attitudes and structures and systems serve the interests of some classes and communities of people over the interests of other communities.

Q: As we try to move toward this whole green economy, what are some of the things you think that these bigger organizations can learn from community-based groups?

GD: The grassroots community-based organizing, I think, is the most important thing that people can learn. I think the other thing is, as people begin to fight for concrete improvements in their daily lives, they also have a taste for what they really want. People start building their own alternatives. People build their own organizations. People start building their own co-ops. People start running their own community farms. It's not enough to get rid of the polluting power plant. People are also building community gardens in those same neighborhoods. It's not enough for them to just say, 'We don't like that there are polluting diesel trucks in our neighborhood.' As you fight that and as you experience victory, your revolutionary imagination is liberated. I think that's where the great promise is.

It's not enough for us to make the oil industry start investing in photovoltaics. There's not a technical solution to our environmental problems. There may be technical things that we can use to help us transition, but the solution is deeply political, and deeply structural and societal. It's about really changing the way we organize our relationship to resources. It shouldn't be mediated by mega-corporations who make a huge amount of money off of it. It should be directly controlled and distributed by communities in their own interest.

Q: What's a vision of what an environmentally justice-informed green economy looks like?

GD: Well, one of the things that we have to open ourselves up to when we embrace the idea that we are going to build from the bottom up is that we don't know exactly what it's going to look like. We can't have this idea that there's this road map. We need the creativity of everybody diving into the mix.

But I think there are a few different pieces that are really important. In terms of the scale at which we currently operate, there's absolutely no question that we're not going to suddenly go from where we are today-where everybody drives a car and the box stores and all of that-to everybody getting their produce from a farmer's market. That's not going to happen overnight. And that may not even be the collective vision of everyone. But given the scale of where we are at right now, one of the places where we need to start is empowering workers and communities to have greater control and input over the resources in their community and in their workplace.

Another big part of it is people working hard to meet their own needs within their local environment. All of the models of urban gardening that have been driven by community needs-not just recreation-really demonstrate the power of that. I think one of the areas where we have been an exception is really looking at the relationship between organized labor and these community-based needs. What does it mean that most people in the United States get their groceries-heavily processed foods and all of the things we know that are terrifying about them-from big chain grocery stores? But let's also not forget that a significant portion of these big chain grocery stores are unionized. And they do have workers who have fought hard to get protections and to protect themselves. And we're not talking about suddenly saying, 'Oh, everyone's going to get their food from community-based gardens.' It's about also figuring out how we're going to integrate the needs of people who are existing in this economy into our meaningful alternatives and into our positive solutions.

Q: Speaking of solutions, we live in a one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet kind of culture. Could you talk about how we're going to have to juggle a number of different things?

GD: I don't know when and how it's going to happen, but I personally believe we have to break the expectation that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want. There's a desire to be able to have every kind of produce year-round. There is this idea that we should have access to everything at any time, like changing your cell phone every six months. And I think we're going to have to break that. Part of breaking that is going to be learning to appreciate the local and regional diversity. The more people have the opportunity to embrace the localism and the value of the localism, I think that will help us break that monoculture and allow us to appreciate diversity.

We have the ability to imagine a different future. It's not about going back in time. It's about going forward in a way in which we are living within our ecological boundaries.
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