MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

The Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit: WHAT NEXT?

The Second People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (Summit II) was held in Washington, D.C. on October 23 - 27, 2002. It was with mixed feelings that some went to Summit II. They went with a sense of responsibility and commitment to the movement that many of us have helped create. In 1991, the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit launched the Environmental Justice (EJ) Movement in this country and set forth the agenda for the next eleven years of work.

Summit II should have been a proud display of what had been accomplished by the original networks, organizations, and leaders of color that had come together for the First Summit. During the First Summit, People of Color (POC) built a grassroots alliance to "speak for ourselves," setting the agenda for the elimination of environmental racism and the struggle for environmental justice. Summit II should have set the agenda for the next several years, becoming the forum for the consolidation and incorporation of the countless new networks and organizations, academics, friends in foundations, agencies, and religious and government institutions.

History has shown us that living in the belly of the beast is a mighty challenge to any movement. These challenges revealed themselves at the Summit. Contradictions that have continued since the first summit and which are historical for movements in the United States. These contradictions are the challenges that communities of color have always faced and which have destroyed or weakened our past movements. The contradictions were, and continue to be, race, class, and sexism.

Since Summit I - The Successes

Some of the networks had formed before the First Summit: the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), and the Southern Organizing Committee (SOC). These first networks, and other organizations that were doing EJ work at the time, collaborated with the United Church of Christ's (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice in organizing the First Summit.

Charles Lee, then with the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice, had conducted a study that identified the disproportionate impact of dirty and polluting industries, and dumping on poor and communities of color. This study brought into usage the phrase "environmental racism." The Summit as envisioned would launch the EJ Movement in this country.

I remember being in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit in 1992 with the late Dana Alston, then of the Pano's Institute, and the late Jean Sindab, with the National Conference of Churches, along with many other people that today are in leadership positions in the EJ movement. We met, lobbied, protested, wrote, and held press conferences at the Earth Summit. We met with Al Gore who was campaigning and wanted the EJ movement's support for the Clinton/Gore ticket. We pressed him for support of an Executive Order. Clinton's later Executive Order on Environmental Justice (EO 12898) wasn't all we had wanted but its significance cannot be dismissed. The creation of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC) within the EPA was of major importance and continues to be one of the few Federal Advisory Committees that has significant grassroots representation. The Director of the SNEEJ chaired the NEJAC for four years.

The movement has grown considerably since 1991. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), the Farmworkers Network for Economic and Environmental Justice (FNEEJ), the African American Environmental Justice Action Network (AAEJAN), and other networks and organizations from the northern parts of the country have worked collaboratively. The focus has been the building of an Environmental Justice Movement lead by grassroots people of color. The Networks and organizations have work collectively to plan national strategy and policy as well as lending support to local struggles and strategies. Each Network and organization has in turn focused on its particular constituency to build capacity, power, and to provide training and education. Many principles of working together have been developed and continue to be developed that provide for principled working relationships and sharing of resources.

The networks have developed initiatives such as the Just Transition Collaboration; an initiative bringing communities, unions, and workers in polluting and toxic industry to protect workers in these facilities and the communities in which they live. Other networks have developed strong popular education programs and curriculum and all share information on fighting environmental racism. All are involved in EJ struggles throughout the United States. The networks have strengthened their organizing and knowledge base by working together and allying with other like-minded groups. They have traveled to international forums and have begun to forge initiatives to link up our struggle for environmental justice on a global level. Nationally the networks have worked together to identify and influence the direction of funding and policy. Much emphasis has been directed to training and the incorporation of youth in the movement.

The Challenges

At the same time the movement has been being co-opted, as are all social movements in this country. The Environmental Justice Movement has been a challenge to the status quo. Although Clinton's EO 12898 provided some good resources and tools, federal funds and the institutionalization of EJ in the government have taken their toll on the movement. The big federal grants do not come to the communities and networks. The money, by and large, has stayed within the government so that they can create an EJ bureaucracy and the "official knowledge" about environmental justice. Large grants have also gone to academic and technical assistance consultants. Funds to universities have supported environmental science programs and some environmental justice programs on campuses. While these initiatives are positive, they have created class divisions as many academics, writers, technicians, lawyers, politicians, foundations have been reluctant in acknowledging grassroots leadership.

We have been successful in building alliances across race and ethnic lines. The Environmental Justice Movement today is a multi-cultural, multi-racial movement led by People of Color. But class issues, unchallenged for the last ten years (or should I say since the days of civil rights), have impacted the EJ Movement. These class issues were evident at Summit II. The poor logistics, poor planning, lack of food, lack of translation, incomplete and late scheduling of workshops, and the lack of accountability was evidence of the co-optation and institutionalization of the Environmental Justice Movement. Many were reminded of the contradictions faced by civil rights struggles, ethnic power, and liberation movements in the United States. These movements were weakened and ultimately destroyed by these same contradictions. In a world of globalization: class has become the obvious principal issue and alliance building the critical challenge.

At the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, I remember being in a big conference room where once again the issue of the posh hotel had been raised. But more than this, I remember the excitement, the meetings, all of us together talking collectively, our collective setting of the EJ Agenda with our People of Color Leadership at the tables in front of the room. Very few mainstream and dominant culture organizations or foundations had been invited, and those who had, sat with the crowd supportive and as excited as any of us.

At Summit II, the grassroots advocated and organized from the conference floor. It was the academics, the policy folks, and the technical assistants that many times dominated the front panels. The EJ grassroots worked and organized for accountability from the few individuals that ultimately controlled the decision-making and the resources for Summit II. Confusion, disorganization, and division were allowed to fester without a mechanism for accountability.

I am thankful to the many folks, who in the two years before the Summit, participated in the Executive Planning Committee before finally dropping out. I respect their decision. I appreciate the few who stayed on to the end; honestly trying to bring people together to salvage what should have been. I respect their decision and their efforts. I thought of sisters Dana and Jean, and I know they would be sad to see us in this state but I know they would have a deep understanding of the challenges that all movements in this country face. We take up the challenge to be smarter about co-optation and institutionalization. We need an ethics for our movement that speaks to a paradigm of working for our communities - and not just ourselves, our personal power, and agenda.

I was impressed by the hundreds of new and young people that attended. Some knew what was happening, others did not, but they all participated. I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the numerous workshops and some of the very dynamic plenaries. Here was the Movement. I await a report-back from the conference, especially the Principles of Collaboration Working Group. I believe we have made impressive strides in raising issues of environmental racism. Race continues to be an issue in this country and our movement, however, it is clear that class issues must be confronted head-on by the EJ movement if it hopes to survive. The shear number of women attests to our presence but patriarchy has been with us a long time and will continue to be a challenge for all those involved in any movement. We have our work. Venceremos.

Sofia Martinez, in a local educator, media advocate, and organizer with Cambio and the Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County.

Contact List

3800 Rio Grande Blvd. # 229
Albquerque, New Mexico 87107
(505) 344-4028

Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County (CCWMMC)
P.O. Box 318
Wagon Mound, New Mexico 87752
(505) 668-2211 (505) 877-5381

African American Environmental Justice Action Network (AAEJAN)
P.O. Box 10518
Atlanta, Georgia 30310

Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN)
310 8TH Street, Suite 309
Oakland, CA 94607
Fax: 510-834-8926

Farmworkers Network for Economic and Environmental Justice (FNEEJ)
1902 Barton Park Road,
Suite 209, Auburndale, FL 33823
(863) 956-5183

Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN)
P.O. Box 485
Bemidji, Minnesota 56619 - USA
(218) 751-4967
Fax: (218) 751-0561

Southern Organizing Committee (SOC)
P.O. Box 10518
Atlanta, Georgia 30310
Fax: 404-755-0575

Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ)
117 Seventh St. NW
Albuquerque, NM 87102
(505) 242-0416
Fax: (505) 242-5609

United Church of Christ (UCC)
700 Prospect Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44115

Community Partners
and Resources

Table of Contents

"The term "equity" was a government creation pushed onto the EJ movement by the Environmental Protection Agency. SWOP doesn't want "equal opportunity pollution." We want to reshape the whole table. We want a fundamental reordering of our priorities and commitments, and that starts with corporate and government accountability to the community. We want justice."
--ColorLines, Vol. 3, No. 2
Southwest Organizing Project "Organizing in the 21st Century"

All donations are tax-deductible
Donate Now Through Network for Good
Thank you.

SRIC is part of the Stop Forever WIPP Coalition.
The nuclear waste dump is permitted to operate until 2024, but the federal government want to expand the amount and types of waste allowed with NO end date.
We need your help to protect New Mexico!

Donate through Smith's Rewards Program

Southwest Research and Information Center
105 Stanford SE
PO Box 4524
Albuquerque, NM 87196

Shop at
and Support
Southwest Research and
Information Center