The Intersectionality of Environmental Justice and Women of Color

Birmingham, AL “She-roes” in the EJ Movement

By Shauntice Allen, Haley Lewis, and Nina Morgan

Photo By: Climate Justice Alliance

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Environmental Racism and Justice

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice involves the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Essentially, no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies. Meaningful involvement means that: (1) people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; (2) the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; (3) their concerns will be considered in the decision-making process; and (4) the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.

Environmental activism too often focuses on the achievements of white middle-class women, obscuring the diversity within the women’s movement, particularly the voices of those who are marginalized by race, ethnicity, and/or social class. Moreover, much of the dialogue about environmental activism, until recently, has been incorrectly centered on the white middle class’ advocacy. The environmental justice (EJ) movement focuses on how the social and health impacts of environmental contamination have disproportionately affected racial minorities. The EJ movement has had more success in recruiting working-class and low resourced people of color, and has a large number of women of color involved as both participants and in leadership positions.

Black women have traditionally been excluded from the environmental decision-making process. Black people have been historically oppressed in America, as evidenced through enslavement, Jim Crow laws and other institutionalized and legalized systems of oppression. De jure oppression (what the law says) manifested as de facto oppression (what actually happens) endures today, which is partly why Black women have not been included in environmental decision-making processes. Building on that foundation, environmental activism rooted in equity has a longstanding tradition in communities of color. Environmental history minimally recognizes women in general and typically ignores women of color contributions to the environmental justice (EJ) movement. There is little available in the environmental justice literature that documents the contribution of lesser-known women grassroots leaders in social change movements. This essay examines how women of color shape and influence the environmental justice movement.

The Intersection between the Environmental Justice Movement and Black Women

For a social movement to create change, it must be rooted in a community with reliable communication infrastructure, decision-making and group actions. Intersectionality theorists understand the relationship between knowledge and power and recognize how privileged knowledge and discourses can silence or exclude others. Recognizing the importance of socially lived knowledge or the knowledge gained from everyday life that has been buried, silenced or deemed less credible by dominant groups and their narratives. The Civil Rights Movement brought increased awareness of the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards that were not random, but the product of the same social and economic structures which produced segregation and other racial oppression. Compared with other environmental movements, the environmental justice movement has had success in recruiting working-class and groups experiencing disadvantages. Communities’ meaningful involvement in decision-making processes is an important component to the environmental justice movement’s success. The movement has a number of women of color, both as participants and in leadership roles.

Environmental activism has a longstanding tradition in Black communities, with Black women in leadership roles. Patricia Hill Collins, a Black feminist scholar writes that black women’s’ activism tend to resist and fight against the interwoven systems of race, class, and gender oppression. Women, especially mothers and grandmothers, are often at the center of the family structure and play a significant role in the health and integrity of families. An example of the combined power of socially lived knowledge and activism is The Salisbury Colored Women’s Civic League, founded in 1913 by Lula Kelsey that worked to address sanitation issues, lobbied city government for improved facilities, and promoted improved public health. Organizations like the Salisbury Colored Women’s Civic League met in churches, schools, and private homes to improve the lives of Black people in the spirit of racial upliftment. Building on this history of organizing, Black women have been instrumental in the mobilization of the Black community around a number of issues. Black Lives Matter, Fair Fight Action, and Woke Vote represent social justice organizations all initiated by black women.

Local examples of women in Alabama actively working to address EJ concerns in their communities

Once named the “Pittsburgh of the South,” the Birmingham area has long been known for its involvement in the iron and steel industry. In Birmingham, AL, there are black women who are the founders of local organizing efforts that have captured the attention of various media markets, regulatory bodies, and industry representatives bringing attention to environmental issues in their communities. Gilda Walker, founder of the Fairfield Environmental Justice Alliance, has brought attention to issues of transparency and improving community outreach strategies about public comment periods and general health information related to emissions from surrounding plants. Keisha Brown, a resident in the North Birmingham community where a designated EPA Superfund site is located, has been a go-to resident leader in the community. She has frequently addressed the Alabama Environmental Management Commission in Montgomery about the health impacts of heavy industry in her community, describing the situation as being in battle. The ongoing COVID pandemic has not helped make that battle any easier. Catherine Evans, president of the Acipco-Finley Neighborhood Association has worked to bring attention to the process of how business licenses are granted for various businesses in her neighborhood, including two scrap metal processing facilities. She has organized meetings and residents to call attention to the comprising health effects caused by the scrap metal recyclers in the area.

Conclusion

As seen through the examples of Gilda Walker, Keisha Brown and Catherine Evans in Alabama, Black women are central to the environmental justice movement. As we have discussed, environmental activism has a longstanding tradition in black communities, as evidenced through the environmental justice movement that has been ongoing but just recently receiving attention as a wider environmental movement. Social justice research and action must cross generational lines. The future of the environmental justice movement continues to thrive with young activists and elected officials sharing the torch for effective and meaningful information exchange.

Shauntice Allen, PhD, MA is an Assistant Professor at UAB School of Public Health, Dept. of Environmental Health Sciences and a two-time graduate of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa with a BS in Biology, MA in Human and Environmental Sciences, and PhD in Health Education and Promotion from UAB. Dr. Allen has been involved in engaging both urban and rural communities in longitudinal research projects, coalition building, and deployment of community-informed data collection methods.Her research and service interests have a strong prevention focus at both the individual and community levels where she explores the inextricable link between environmental exposures and structural determinants of health.

Haley Lewis is a Staff Attorney for the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Air Pollution. Haley is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, attended The George Washington University and moved back to Birmingham to obtain a JD from Cumberland School of Law and an MPA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She spends most of her time on Clean Air Act issues. But where her heart beats is for justice, she finds meaning, inspiration and longevity in connecting with and advocating alongside the people impacted by air pollution and systemic injustices.

Nina Morgan is an Environmental Justice Organizer with Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Air Pollution. Nina is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she studied Anthropology and Sociology, mapped over 3,000 trees on campus using GIS & served as a decathelete in the 2017 DOE Solar Decathlon competition. She is also a co-founder of the Magic City Youth Initiative, where she works to uplift and support a youth-led movement for social justice in the Greater-Birmingham area. As a Black, Southern, working-class person, Nina is committed to creating a world in which people and planet are cherished, protected and liberated.

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