Joe was hired by the Will Steger Foundation to begin to address the question: “What can WSF and YEA! MN do to become more open, available, and useful to people of color and lower-income people?” Traditionally, WSF has been a predominantly white organization and it’s YEA! MN program has drawn in a predominantly white group of high school students. Lately, the organization has started to have more conversations about what this reality reflects. We began to question what the skin color of those involved with WSF says about our organization. Joe will write a monthly blog about his work and will organize a series of workshops and conversations about equity at the WSF for the WSF staff.
On January 25 I, along with several other WSF employees, attended a powerful event planned by the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy (CEED). The event was called “Setting a New Compass for Climate Justice: A Forum on Race, Climate, and Community Health.” The forum’s content was inspiring and empowering and helped us at the WSF to formulate questions around race and environmental activism and the role of predominantly white, mainstream environmental organizations in building an environmental movement that is deeply committed to working for economic, social, and racial justice.
A significant portion of the day focused on CEED’s exciting new project and website called the Twin Cities Environmental Justice Mapping Tool. This excellent website shows industrial sties and sites of known pollution in the Twin Cities and allows users to overlay that information with demographic information about particular neighborhoods. Using this tool, it becomes clear that patterns of environmental racism are deeply embedded in the social and geographical fabric of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Kimberly Wasserman, Executive Director, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
The featured speaker of the day, Kimberly Wasserman, gave a presentation on her work. Kimberly is a Chicana Activist from the Little Village Neighborhood on the Westside of Chicago. She was a founder of the organization Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) that successfully shut down two coal plants polluting the Little Village neighborhood. Kimberly gave an engaging history of her organization and their campaigns and wove in thoughtful and entertaining stories about specific events during the years leading up to their victory. Most notable for me was a story about a direct action LVEJO had planned that involved climbing a fence around one of the coal plants and hanging a banner on the company’s property. When the group arrived at the site there was no fence, because the company had decided to replace the fence that day. The activists easily carried out their non-violent direct action and had meaningful and respectful interactions with both the police and the “fence-replacement” workers.
Kimberly did an excellent job explaining her story in the context of racial inequality and environmental justice. She explained how her neighborhood, which is predominately Mexican and Mexican-American, was disproportionately affected by these coal plants and how this is part and parcel of a social and economic system that continually leads to the unequal pollution and poisoning of communities of color.
The part of Kimberly’s presentation that I though to be most relevant to the WSF was when she addressed the problems that arose from partnering with predominantly white, mainstream environmental organizations. She expressed the frustration that came when these organizations capitalized on the work of LVEJO and used it to paint their organization as multicultural. She expressed the need for these organizations to engage in meaningful discussion around race and white privilege prior to working with LVEJO. She also described the importance of mainstream environmental organizations helping to fund the persistently less-funded environmental justice, grass roots organization.
Leaving the forum that day I was encouraged that predominantly white, mainstream environmental organizations like the WSF can change and can adapt their practices to better confront the social issues intimately linked to climate change and environmental degradation. Kimberly’s presentation pushed me to see where the WSF and other mainstream environmental organizations contribute to the perpetuation of systems of racial inequality and how we can challenge ourselves to re-envision our work and address social and environmental deterioration at the same time. She provided us with a vision. She provided us with hope.