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Environmental Justice and White moderates in Grand Rapids

April 21, 2019

A new report, published by LINC and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice was released in Grand Rapids. The report, entitled, Neighborhood Environmental Action Report: Health, Environment and Race in Grand Rapids, also included numerous partners, listed on page 41 and 42 of the report.

I salute the energy and effort that was applied to this report and the ongoing work of groups like the Healthy Homes Coalition, WMEAC, Our Kitchen Table and Urban Roots. These four groups are the only entities in Grand Rapids that have done any work that could be considered anything remotely under the banner of Environmental Justice.

There are also several entities included as partners that have questionable credibility in terms of speaking on and practicing environmental justice work, such as GVSU, Spectrum Health, Start Garden and the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. These four entities operate from the belief that we can maintain an economic system of capitalism and still promote ecologically sound practices. This notion that capitalism and environmentalism are compatible is in violation of one of the principles of Environmental Justice Preamble, which states:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice:

Another important point about those involved in the creation of the report, is that most of these groups are not led by people of color, which again conflicts with the environmental justice preamble, We, The People of Color.

Lastly, since the preamble mentions 500 years of colonizations and oppression, it is important that we acknowledge that the land that the city of Grand Rapids current occupies was taken from the Anishinaabe people and that the oppression that continues is a direct result of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

The documentation in this report covers the following themes – vapor intrusion, lead poisoning, food justice, green space, air quality and climate change, each with a Next Steps section. Unfortunately, the Next Steps sections are not really a call to action in order to deal with serious issues like climate change and food justice.

Environmental justice is a term which has gained more traction in recent years, but it is still a concept that is not well understood. What I am proposing, is that based on the 17 Environmental Justice principles, listed on pages 39 & 40 of the report, is to assess where Grand Rapids is with these principles. These principles can and should be used as a measuring stick for whether or not Environmental Justice principles are being practiced in this community.

  • Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.  It is hard to quantify this principle, since it reflects an over-arching ideological worldview. However, it is safe to say that this principle is not being practiced or taken seriously in Grand Rapids.
  • Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias. Public Policy from the Federal government, the State government, the County government and the City of Grand Rapids does not reflect respect and justice for all people, especially communities of color – black, brown and indigenous. Most policies, in fact, are crafted by think tanks and lobbyists, who pressure politicians that have been funded by the capitalist class, who pass legislation that more often than not negatively impacts communities of color.
  • Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things. There is a growing interest to attempt to practice this principle, but practicing this principle would require land reparations to indigenous people, African Americans and a serious shift to how we use land and resources now. For example, in Grand Rapids, too much of the land is paved over, because we are dependent primarily on fossil fuel-based vehicles, which also necessitates extractivist processes, creates more pollution and does harm to humans and all other species.
  • Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food. I am not aware of nuclear use in Grand Rapids, but there are other toxic materials that are used on a daily bases by industry, with limited regulation and almost no transparency. For example, those involved in migrant labor are regularly exposed to toxic pesticide use in the agricultural land that surrounds Grand Rapids. Many of those migrant workers live in Grand Rapids. What attention is being given to that injustice and are there any efforts to organize against this practice?
  • Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self determination of all peoples. How many people who live in Grand Rapids, particularly in communities of color, can say they have political, economic, cultural and environmental self determination?
  • Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production. This would be wonderful if it were practiced, but when was the last time you saw a headline saying that an specific industry or company in Grand Rapids was being held accountable for producing toxic and hazardous materials?
  • Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation. How often do people really get to participate as equal partners when decision are made in Grand Rapids? Think about all of the development projects, the daily practices of industry and how those things impact people, especially communities of color.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards. Again, how does this principle apply to migrant workers? How many workers in Grand Rapids have to deal with poor air quality where they work, exposure to toxic materials or dangerous work environments?
  • Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care. People, especially people of color, rarely receive reparations for environmental injustice. Ask indigenous people in the area if they have been given reparations from the land that was stolen from them or the health affects from eating local fish, because of the high levels of mercury in the fish. Under the current for-profit health insurance system, it would be a joke to say that people have quality health care.
  • Environmental Justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide. If we were to apply the legal consequences of environmental injustices against those in government, using international law, the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the UN Convention on Genocide, a lot of politicians would be going to prison for crimes against humanity.
  • Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination. To this principle I would just say that people should ask those who are part of the Anishinaabe community if indigenous people in this area think that the State of Michigan has honored their treaties and if they Anishinaabe community believes that they have sovereignty and self-determination.
  • Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and provided fair access for all to the full range of resources. Are neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, where significant numbers of black and brown people live: are they free of gentrification; do they have a just amount of green space; are they in areas where air quality is healthy; and do they have easy access to fresh produce? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered in regards to this principle.
  • Environmental Justice calls for the strict enforcement of principles of informed consent, and a halt to the testing of experimental reproductive and medical procedures and vaccinations on people of color. There is a long history of non-consent with communities of color around reproductive health and vaccinations. Also, communities of color in Grand Rapids have higher infant mortality rates and have less access to affordable health care their white residents do.
  • Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations. There are numerous large corporations that operate in Grand Rapids – Walmart, Fifth Third Bank, Amway, Meijer, Gordon Foods, Farmers Insurance, etc – all of which contribute negatively to ecosystems around the world because of what they manufacture, what they finance and what products they sell. There is nothing in the new Environmental Justice report that addresses this issue.
  • Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms. Grand Rapids is home to numerous weapons manufacturers, including the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees all US military contracts in West Michigan. Then there is the fact that the amount of the tax base that leaves Grand Rapids to fund the US military budget for 2017 was $324 million, according to the National Priorities Project. One addition reality with US militarism is that communities of color are disproportionately recruited to serve in the US military and communities of color around the world are the ones who disproportionately suffer because of US military intervention, aid, training and weapons sales.
  • Environmental Justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives. Do you think that the public, charter or private schools adequately teach children about the principles of environmental justice in such a way so that students can experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.
  • Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations. I would say that compared to the other sixteen environmental justice principles, this one is more widely practiced in Grand Rapids. And while I think it is important for people to consume with a conscience and alter their lifestyles, individual consumption behaviors will not address the serious environmental crisis that we current face.

Now that we have finished our assessment of the 17 Environmental Justice principles and how they apply in Grand Rapids, I think it is important to point out one other fundamental dynamic.

Systems of power and oppression will never allow any major shift towards justice, environmental or otherwise, without significant pushback. What people are working on, as documented in the Neighborhood Environmental Action Report: Health, Environment and Race in Grand Rapids report, while important, is not at the level that will make those in power feel threatened. There will have to be an elevation of environmental justice work in order to challenge systems of power and oppression. For that to happen, there will need to be an environmental movement that is led by people of color and operates outside of the non-profit industrial complex. One additional thibg that needs to happen is that more white people to be involved in the process of learning about environmental justice and to become real allies in the work that communities of color are engaged in. This will not be easy, since many white people do not like operate outside of their comfort zones. To explain what I mean by that, let’s turn to what Dr. King had to say when he wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

It is the white moderates that we have to be concerned about, as much as those who have power in Grand Rapids. If environmental justice is to be achieved there must be a radical re-altering of business as usual in this city, but it is a fight that is necessary and worth taking part in.

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