It’s Time for Colorado’s Communities to Join Together and Fight for Environmental and Social Justice

By Sondra Yong, President of the NAACP Denver Chapter and Hilda Nucete, Protégete Program Director

In the face of the new political standard that will commence on January 20, 2017, those of us who have been fighting for justice, civil rights, equity, and equality, are taking a hard look at how we can double down on our work, particularly as it relates to environmental justice (or injustice, as is often the case).

For the Denver Branch of the NAACP and Conservation Colorado, this means partnering up to accomplish our goals together. Although our partnership is new, this work is just another step in a long history of fighting for environmental justice, which is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as:

The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, on the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

(You can read the principles of environmental justice here).

During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, activists participated in a social movement that created a unified atmosphere and advocated goals of social justice and equality. But what many people don’t realize is that the community organizing tactics and the social values of the era helped build the environmental justice movement.

Since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s days of participating in the American Civil Rights movement, the face, and tactics of organizing may have changed. However, the fundamental themes and goals remain the same: freedom, equality, and justice cannot be secured for any of us so long as they are denied to some of us.

The environmental justice and Civil Rights movements have many commonalities. At their core, the goals of movements are the same: social justice, equal protection, and an end to institutional discrimination. By looking at the similarities between the two movements, it becomes apparent that environmental equity​ must be a right for all citizens.

For any environmental problem — air pollution, water quality, toxic waste, climate change — oftentimes the people suffering the most direct impacts are in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. This is the case worldwide, and it is true locally, even in Colorado.

From Clean Air Task Force studies here and here, respectively.

The evidence of this is jaw-dropping. For example:

We know environmental injustice is happening. Occasionally a story of environmental injustice makes the news, as with the millions of people — many of whom were African American — impacted by the Flint water crisis, or with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe rallying to reroute the Dakota Access oil pipeline. More often, however, this brutal reality is completely ignored by media, politicians, and the public eye.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a revolutionary for social causes, and this crisis did not escape him. He made many references to the interrelatedness of all people in his speeches and interviews and fought for equal rights and equal opportunities in every way. Although the environmental movement was just beginning in the 60s, there’s little doubt Dr. King would have seen the injustice of some children growing up with air or water that makes them sick, while others never have to feel the consequences of pollution in their bodies.

As Dr. King said in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This way of thinking mirrors the roots of environmentalism. Dr. King set the stage for environmentalists and the civil rights movement to work together. Now it’s up to us to make that a reality.

We are coming together today to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, but this movement — our collective movement — will continue working to reach our shared goals. This day in history stands out as an opportunity for a peaceful uprising, especially in the face of the new President coming into office. We are coming together because many voices becoming one will be louder than one voice on its own. We are coming together because it makes us stronger.

We are coming together because, in the words of Dr. King, “We cannot walk alone.”