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Long time coming: African-American Civil Rights Organizations embrace Environmentalism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When I started blogging 8 years ago, the blogosphere like a lonely place. I hadn’t yet met another Black Science blogger (and I wouldn’t come across another one for 2.5 years), so when I rolled out the Green Carpet for Earth Day, I felt my voice was puny.

This wasn’t a revelation. I seemed to be that only nagging long-suffering voice at my local Urban League Young Professionals meeting insisting that we recycle our beverage containers. I was one of very few who would ask the affiliate leadership about how and where does environmental issues fit into the 5 point agenda that involved addressing economic, education, and health disparities. However, the answer I often got was that the environment wasn’t a ‘Black issue’.  There were higher priority issues, all social and civic justice matters, and environment would have to get in queue.  Despite being seen as tangential, the environment (and lack of environmental education, agency and stewardship) was at the very heart of all of the high priority Black Community Issues.

It’s not that Black communities lacked concern or interests or even leadership in the environmental and conservation movements, collectively regarded as the Green Movement. No, it’s that the popular perception of blacks being disinterested persisted. And frankly, I place the bulk of that blame to the so-called Black Agenda power players from organizations like the National Urban League, NAACP, National Action Network, Congressional Black Caucus, and various African-American Christian churches.  The leaders, all representing the Baby Boomer Generation, seemed completely oblivious to their own mortality (and dying influence on everyday African-Americans). My generation, Generation X, was largely left out of conversations about next steps in the Black Agenda – as if there was no mantle to pass on or no one was ready and willing to take up the cause – and power players in African-American Environmental Activism came to fore by paths and support mostly outside of the civil rights organizations that inspired and nurtured them.

Me with Majora Carter

It’s taken longer than I or any other African-American Environmental Activists would have desired, but it seems that tide has turned, and with gusto. And by tide, I mean African-American civil rights organizations and media are giving environmental issues their due on the docket. Just as the star and influence of Van Jones and Majora Carter began to rise, Black Agenda power players began to include topics related to the environment to their education, economic, political, and health civil rights and social justice agendas. (Yes! about time, Top 10 environmental issues affecting urban America from the Grio April 22, 201)

And with the negative impacts of Climate Change looming ever nearer, the message has finally been heeded.  Urban communities are especially vulnerable to the climate change impacts. (Are African-Americans More Vulnerable to Climate Change? from EBONY February 11, 2013)

I’m especially happy the attentions of the Hip Hop Caucus have focused on environmental issues lately.

Communities of color suffer significantly higher rates of cancer, asthma, and other heart- and lung-related diseases due to environmental pollution being concentrated in our communities. It is not well understood by our communities that many of our health issues are tied to pollution. This pollution is the same pollution that is causing climate change, which is increasing extreme weather patterns resulting in natural disasters like Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, as well as extreme heat waves and droughts worldwide. It is our communities who are being hurt the most by climate change and pollution.

They get it and as a result they have completely embedded environmental issues and environmental justice into their entire platform -  political action, service, and addressing human and civil rights. In fact there is an entire plank on Environmental Justice and Climate Change.

The Hip Hop Caucus is wrapping up a Climate Change Tour visiting several HBCU* and MSI** universities on the east coast and mid-west.  I’m looking forward to the amazing energy and environmental activism they inspire in this Millennial Generation.

Happy Earth Day!


* HBCU: Historically Black College or Univerisity
** MSI: Minority Serving Institution

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Kellen81 2:25 pm 04/22/2014

    Our attention to an environmental agenda seems to be linked to jobs, education and social issues. However unless there is an event that drives these conversations forward they still have been absent from how we communicate and set agendas for our community. While I support a climate change agenda there are immediate and necessary actions our leaders should be taking on not just as an “earth month” agenda but in the interest of a long term societal commitment for our community to contribute to a healthier environment for ourselves and others. Currently there is no presence within the realm of climate change plans for American cities to address environmental injustice through the proposed actions, there has been no presence of our leaders communicating the need for research dollars to support investigating the impacts of climate change on our natural areas as well as our health. I find it disappointing that we are not adamant about being present at the table as cities, municipalities and other agencies are redeveloping our cities, and we aren’t on the planning committees. Why are we waiting for some event to happen to speak out on when we very well can have our seat at the table now?

    As we recognize that we are just getting into the conversation I urge us to really choose to not disengage after April. Furthermore climate change and urban agriculture are big issues that encompass STEM education, advanced degrees for students of color, home ownership, entrepreneurial opportunities, community redevelopment, health and more. Our social and economic agenda is inextricably linked to the environment and the quality thereof. I am proud to have been in the early years of this discussion and am excited for the energy our community is developing around the environment once again.

    I say again because we have contributed to all areas of STEM, let us remember that we come from a legacy of innovation and our voices, our insight our perspective on environmental issues is not just to raise awareness but to push for solutions that benefit all. When we decide to give our attention to a cause it is amazing at the changes that trickle down. I hope that leaders within our African American social organizations begin to realize and hold firm the direct benefits from engaging in the “environmental and climate change” conversations. We may begin to find that our collective interest will change the directions of antagonistic policies that disproportionately impact people of color, as well as influence the stream of research dollars that would create information to support the decision making process.

    The indirect benefits are that we begin to participate in the process and become proactive versus reactive after the fact. This new movement, call it environmental or green or eco is a chance for our communities to truly reconcile our positions in society, at least in my opinion. There is a dire need for everyone to participate in the climate change discussion especially when it comes to the inequity of impacts due to our current economic and education status here in the United States.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 6:29 pm 04/22/2014

    Lotta room on that train.

    Link to this

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