Environmental Justice Summit Draws Over 1,200 Delegates

Washington, DC, October 28, 2002 - After several false starts and two years of planning, environmental justice leaders convened the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (Summit II) in Washington, DC.  Summit II organizers planned the four-day meeting for 500 participants.

Over 1,200 delegates from grassroots and community based organizations, faith-based groups, organized labor, civil rights, youth, and academic institutions made their way to the nation’s capital to participate in the historic gathering. “We made a special effort to raise funds and outreach to get grassroots groups and community based organizations to the meeting,” said Beverly Wright, chair of Summit II and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans. The vast majority, over 75 percent, of Summit II attendees came from community based organizations.

Summit II brought three generations (elders, seasoned leaders, and youth activists) of the environmental justice movement together.  The “new” faces--persons who were not present at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in 1991--outnumbered the veteran environmental justice leaders two to one.  Summit II attendees came from nearly every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The environmental justice continues to expand and mature.  The 1992 People of Color Environmental Groups Directory listed only 300 environmental justice groups in the U.S.   By 2000, the list had grown to over 1000 groups in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The Summit II also had an international flavor with nationalities represented from throughout North America, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Delegates came from places as far-flung as Mexico, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad, Panama, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Granada, South Africa, Nigeria, the Philippines, India, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands, and the United Kingdom.

Thabo Madihlaba traveled all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa to attend the Summit II.  “I wanted to be here because this Summit is an extension of the work and networking we did at the World Conference Against Racism and the World Summit on Sustainable Development,” said Madihlaba, who is the national coordinator with the South African-based Environmental Justice Networking Forum.   “It was truly a global and multiethnic Summit,” said Devon Pena, a Summit II organizer.  Pena is a professor at the University of Washington and a leading environmental justice scholar.

Women led, moderated, or presented in more than half of the 86 workshops and plenaries. “Women are the backbone of the environmental justice movement.  We took great care to assure gender balance in all aspects of the program,” said Peggy Shepard of the West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.  Shepard chaired the Summit II program committee.  “The response from the environmental justice community was incredible.  We had to turn down a dozen or more workshops because we just did not have the meeting room space to handle all of the requests.”

Summit II leaders honored 12 outstanding “sheroes” of the movement in a Crowning Women Awards Dinner.   The awards event was dedicated to the late Dana Alston and Jean Sindab, two giants in the environmental justice movement, and other women of color who are deceased and who dedicated their lives to environmental justice.  One of these 12 outstanding “sheroes”, Hazel Johnson of People for Community Recovery—a Chicago-based grassroots environmental justice organization—was also awarded the Dana Alston Award.  “It’s great to see all the beautiful colors of the rainbow in our movement.  When I first got started working on environmental issues more than two decades ago, it was hard being the only black face in the sea of white environmentalists,” said Johnson.

Students and young people have fueled every social movement in the United States such as the civil rights movement, environmental movement, anti-war movement, and women’s movement.   Several hundred youth and students attended the conference and made their voices heard through a well timed protest demonstration and long hours of hard work.  The young people were able to incorporate many of their issues and priorities into the program.

In an effort to have substantives materials going in and coming out of the Summit II, a nationwide call for resource policy papers was made this past Summer.  The end result was two-dozen resource papers on subjects ranging from childhood asthma, energy, transportation, “dirty” power plants, climate justice, military toxics, clean production, brownfields redevelopment, sustainable agriculture, human right, occupational health and safety, and farm workers. The resource papers helped guide the workshops and hands-on training sessions.

Nelson Carrasquillo an organizer with CATA Farmworker Support Committee expressed concern about the slow pace at which basic health and safety standards are extended to farm workers.  “Migrant farm workers are still second class workers,” said Carrasqiullo, who also serves on the Summit II Executive Committee, the body that planned the meeting.  Farm work is the second most dangerous occupation in the United States.  Farm workers suffer from the highest rate of chemical injuries of any workers in the United States.  EPA estimates that pesticide exposure causes farm workers and their families to suffer between 10,000 to 20,000 immediate illnesses annually, and additional thousands of illnesses later in life.

The environmental justice movement has made tremendous strides over the past decade.  When the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was convened in 1991, there were no environmental justice network or university based environmental justice centers or environmental justice legal clinics.   Today, there are a dozen EJ networks, four EJ centers, and growing numbers of university-based legal clinics that have environmental justice as an emphasis.  It is important that we infuse the environmental justice paradigm throughout the academy,” said Bunyan Bryant, a professor at the University of Michigan.  Professor Bryant’s program offers a masters and doctoral degree in environmental justice—the only such program in the country.

In 1991, there was only one book published on environmental justice.  Today, there are over 100 books in print on the subject.  “We all know that knowledge is power.  It’s important that we have researchers, writers, and academicians at the Summit,” said Robert D. Bullard, author of Dumping in Dixie.  “As people of color, we have to document our struggles and tell our stories.”   For the first time in the environmental justice movement’s history, six leading environmental justice authors were brought to the Summit to have a dialogue and discussion on their books, writings, and research.  Much of these authors’ work laid the foundation for environmental justice theory, policy, and legal practice.

Several general themes emerged from the four-day meeting.  There was general consensus among the Summit II participants that environmental justice must be a top priority in the 21st century.  Despite improvements in the way government carries out environmental protection, gaps persist.  Community groups are faced with rollbacks and the steady chipping away at civil liberties, basic civil and human rights, and environmental protection.

Summit delegates called for youth and students to be integrated into the leadership of the environmental justice movement.  “Growing new leaders must be a top priority of the movement.  Leadership by example and mentoring will go a long way in training young people to take up the torch of environmental justice,” said Angelo Pinto, a youth delegate and student at Clark Atlanta University.

Building a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-issue, anti-racist movement is not easy.  Much work is still needed to build trust, mutual respect, and principled relationships across racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, and age lines.  These issues were around long before the 1991 Summit. They were present at Summit II. And they permeate the larger society.   Language and cultural barriers still hinder communication across the various ethnic groups.  Nevertheless, the strength of the environmental justice movement is in the diversity of its constituents and organizations working together for positive change.

Summit II delegates reaffirmed the “Principles of Environmental Justice” and  “A Call to Action,” both adopted at the 1991 Summit.   “These principles are as true today as they were eleven years ago,” said Pam Tau Lee, a program coordinator at the University of California-Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Center.  Delegates adopted three principles (Principles of Working Together, Youth Principles, and Principles Opposing the War Against Iraq) and presented fifteen resolutions.  The working groups put many hours into developing these documents to complete the work necessary to develop the documents.  “These documents belong to the people. Because of their work, they have complete ownership of the work product,” said Lee.

Participants were especially concerned about the “War on Terrorism” and militarism and their negative impact on the quality of life for poor and people of color. “While government officials have met with industry on homeland security issues related to oil refineries, petrochemical plants, seaports, and other industrial installations that might become targets of terrorist attacks, only minimal government contact has been made with “fence-line” communities and their leaders,” said Marjorie Richard, a resident of Norco, Louisiana who lives near a Shell Oil refinery.

The Summit II ended with the leaders reaffirming their commitment to go back to their respective communities and work for environmental and economic justice.  The resource papers and other meeting documents will be posted on the Summit II website at www.summit2.org.

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