Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity.

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I. Our discussion leaders asked: Are stakeholders useful or esoteric? 

According to this week’s readings, you need income equality and participation to achieve sustainability.  Students’ opinions on this ranged from that meaningful participation is necessary in order to strengthen democracy, for government accountability, and to accurately give voice to the lived experience of environmental and social exposures, vulnerabilities, and resilience. Some felt there has to be a mid-level of organizational engagement, not just grassroots or the federal level, but the heads of organizations.  It’s hard to change when the executive bodies in the middle level, when their interest is to keep the system running.

A classmate encouraged us to question what is the role of government, grassroots movements and hybrids: involve community in a tokenistic way, or integrate them into the structure, and do they work together?  If community is too integrated into the structure of government, will they be eventually co-opted?  Is there a need for community to be outside of the government for accountability purposes, or do we want to strive for a government truly “of the people”?  Or as a hybrid, perhaps there is need for the “inside-outside” game? 

II.  Our facilitators put up a conceptual model of how they think sustainability plays out for us to consider:

Theory–>  Mentality–> Politics–> Norms and Institutions–> Practice–> Physicality

We were asked to engage critically with it.  I would like people to respond to their ideas on whether this model holds with their lived and work experiences around sustainability as we’ve been discussing it.

For example, we could consider an alternative conceptual model:

Power and privilege–> Institutions and systems–> politics–>  practice–> physicality–> mentality–> institutions and systems

(ie. Our institutions and systems are created as a way to maintain current or emerging orders of power and privilege and economies.  These systems determine the politics needed to maintain them, which determine our practice, which leads to the physical world we create, including environmental, social, and economic inequities.  This physicality creates the mentality, including the unconscious implicit bias we discussed that causes us to recreate the institutions and systems that keep business as usual.)

III.  We discussed several dichotomies that arose from the readings:

  • Reality vs. utopia
  • Theory vs. experience
  • Urgency vs. normativity

Re. reality vs. utopia, a classmate suggested we should be “radically rewriting what we consider capital, where there is not someone at the short end of the stick”.  Please respond to what reimagining this new form of sustainable capital could look like.

IV.  Narrative and stories:

One strategy we discussed was communicating your story of the daily and immediate experience of environmental degradation, not the oil spill in the ocean, but the daily experience and priorities of most families.  For example, that you can wipe the soot off of your window each day in West Oakland and also know someone near you experiencing asthma.  For framing, public health has been powerful in understanding how it impacts you personally or your community.

Our readings said that there had to be an EJ movement that creates a constituency that demands sustainability.  Do people have ideas about why we don’t currently have a health movement that demands health equity as part of sustainability?  Esp. if this is a lever point for sustainability?  Or perhaps people have ideas about how to create a health movement to forward sustainability.

V.  Equity at the core of sustainability:

Prof. Acey laid out the historical creation of racialized space and de facto segregation with the help of discriminatory policies and city planning.

  • In 1868, after slavery, the 14th Amendment was adopted that enforced federal law over states rights in providing a level of protection to everyone.
  • Racial covenants which restricted people’s ability to sell houses to non-whites and Jews (who were not then considered “white”).
  • Redlining
  • Not investing in low-income inner core neighborhoods.
  • Low income and people of color couldn’t get loans to invest in their communities and also couldn’t move out.
  • Metropolitan filtering where people with economic or race privilege moved to new housing stock on outskirts, while the old stock in inner city declines with VOCs, lead, etc.

If you put up the map from the 1930s showing old redlined neighborhoods and current maps of predatory lending, it’s a perfect correlation.  It’s reverse redlining.  The institutions leading to the unequal exposure and bads are still there, and we have to still wrestle with them now to create sustainable communities.  Clearly in the predatory lending crisis, the banks are the main institution implicated.  What are the other institutions that currently produce these disparities in an ongoing way?

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10 thoughts on “Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity.

  1. I really liked the first question you posted on governance because it raises a critical issue about grassroots empowerment and the role of community in government decision-making. Given the current imbalance of power within government institutions, co-optation and tokenism is still a tool that can be used to the detriment of social movements, however, getting community representation, having a seat at the table, and making institutional change is part of a long-term process for systemic change. Social justice movements and grassroots organizing have been the drivers of policy change at all scales of government. However, these policy changes have not been enough to change institutional practice, power dynamics, or the system as a whole.

  2. Hi everyone,
    Here is a video of john powell speaking at UM about corporatization and corporate alignment. Around 17 minutes, he talks about MIT not being allowed to teach about climate change because their private donors that they rely on will pull their funding if they do. Pertinent to our discussion about private or corporate funding of our public goods re. sustainability.
    http://mediasite.umaryland.edu/Mediasite/Play/de63d38ad2c7454c95301a7d855a6cc41d

  3. Thanks for the breakdown of all the questions. I agree with pretty much everyone’s comments above about the need for community stakeholder involvement in policy-making or and project design. From a community organizing standpoint, problem-solving could be viewed as people with different types of expertise coming to the table, not only to analyze and come up with solutions to planning problems, but also to be the ones who can help implement such solutions (to varying capacities. The government still has a responsibility to fulfill). Knowledge and expertise can mean understanding economics and planning theory or successful best practices, or it could mean a deep understanding of community dynamics, cultural issues, history, neighborhood strengths and weaknesses. The latter is necessary because there’s a substantial amount that happens on the ground that doesn’t get captured in academic studies or professional reports. Plus, as has been mentioned in other articles, sometimes those most connected to the problem have devised other methods to address it, including the incorporation of local or indigenous practices.

    As mentioned in the blog post, anything – even community engagement – can be done poorly, even with the best of intentions. Such processes take a lot of thought and work to be done well. When it comes to any type of program or policy, the issue is not just an issue of design but also one of implementation, and being mindful of not only potential benefits, but potential challenges and unintended consequences as well. Relationship building, challenging traditional notions of power, and open and principled communication are key.

    Storytelling is so key! So many organizers talk about the need for effective (and principled) communications strategies to win policy changes or build up a strong grassroots movement. Beyond just simple messaging and framing techniques, everyone’s talking about the power of storytelling (to do education, or to win over people in positions of power). I know it seems touchy-feely; however it really can help people relate personally to the cause being presented – and give hope that change is possible. People may not be able to recite facts, but they may be able to share a compelling story with a friend or family member. The emotional buy-in and commitment to a cause is what makes such movements powerful – and sustainable. Because in the end, we all know that this work is hella hard. People get burnt out fast (that’s why I went back to school!). Dealing with the hurdles of bureaucracy and politics can make you think that change isn’t possible. Beyond having a good political analysis and having resources, this work is sometimes about moving the spirit of the people – both through passions, as well as engaging in on-going self-care (some call that latter work “spirit and sustainable practice”).

  4. ewolfson2014

    Lauren, it was interesting to hear your story related to your experiences in the Port of La. In my experience as both a student researcher as an environmental educator who worked with activists, the question of tangible health problems are usually what causes a community to fight back. The question of NIMBY is an important point to consider, and I believe that those who have a voice will continue to push environmental hazards onto communities with a voice.

    The EJ movement has been a powerful tool in fighting NIMBY movements. The Bayview area of San Francisco has had a history of environmental injustice. Once a booming industrial area during WWII, it became a dumping ground for the city and unemployment in the area was climbing. To add insult to injury a PG and E powerplant was built in this neighborhood which contributed to the already polluted environment. The site around heron’s head park and India Basin was declared a superfund site. Despite these seemingly insurmountable problems a community group emerged and fought back. http://lejyouth.org/ Lej encouraged youth members to fight for the community and with the help of neighborhood groups as well as a few influential people, were able to clean up many areas and build a park called herons head park where I spent a large portion of my time teaching and educating for San Francisco Recreation and Parks. http://www.sf-port.org/index.aspx?page=210

    The power to enlist change comes from understanding the needs of the community, but I would agree that the EJ movement is much more locally focused. Many people (including friends who have lived in SF) didn’t know that this history existed. What needs to change is a regional focus versus a local focus.

  5. I think all the points are well summarized in the above posts, I would rather avoid repeating and point out few tricky points:
    — Sustainability can not be achieved in non democratic society

    — Sustainability is limited to individual initiatives and implemented by grassroots organization more than being influenced by central government and high-level policies.

    — The proposed alternative conceptual model is:
    Power and privilege–> Institutions and systems–> politics–> practice–> physicality–> mentality–> institutions and systems
    I think it is an amazing one and can with some improvements be an integrated chart that takes sustainability forward. Simply because it will identify the weakness of the process and guide practitioners to enhance their implementation practices.

    — Again the discussion of daily environmental degradation versus the oil spill is a (scale) issue, which has been discussed, in previous posts. I think all scales are complementing and one can not focus on one and ignore the other.

    — The inequality related to race shall be a point of history to learn from but I think the current days, the inequality is more among economic classes more than different races (or at least I think so).

  6. ehannah27

    I believe that community and stakeholders are essential for the creation of a meaningful narrative that can frame sustainability within the local context. Without community engagement, policymakers would be putting forth initiatives that are crafted on their vision of what is needed around sustainable planning for a community. Oftentimes, policymakers are influenced by outside stakeholders or pushing forth ‘best practices’ that may not be fully suited their community and constituents. Many cities rely on outside consultants to perform their climate action planning or GHG analysis, and citizen involvement and response to this process is what will make them accountable.

    Furthermore, community involvement in the sustainability planning process allows for greater potential that the proposed programs and initiatives will take hold. If citizens are part of the decision-making process that builds the solutions they will also be more likely to be part of the implementation process. When working for the City of Boston, my office had a community-based energy efficiency program that relied on community members getting their neighbors and friends to sign-up for home energy audits. By working with engaged citizen groups who helped craft the structure of the program and saw to its implementation, many more Boston residents engaged with energy efficiency upgrades than if the initiative was just put forth by our central office. Additionally, the supportive community approach led to more sustained behavior change, as neighbors were holding each other accountable to participating in the program. By providing some ‘ownership’ of the program to the community, residents became more engaged, and results were more substantial and ultimately more far-reaching.

  7. I wanted to expand on the idea you posed about the health movement demanding health equity as a part of sustainability. I would argue that the health movement is similar to the green movement in that we know what should be done to improve outcomes, but there are multiple scales of intervention from behavior to environment, etc and many actors involved, which makes it a wicked problem. In public health there is a big focus on prevention, but many prevention techniques require a lot of infrastructure and upfront work like eating healthy, having good behaviors, etc. But there are also environmental factors like living in a hazardous environment with pollution or non-walkable neighborhoods, etc. Then we add on the incredible costs of accessing healthcare where not everyone has access. If someone has good insurance they might not think twice about how their environment impacts their health or the health of others around them. I think its the same thing with the green movement, where so many can just be ignorant to it because they aren’t feeling the burden of it. The EJ movement has been really influential in using health equity as a frame to motivate people and fight against environmental hazards. I grew up in a neighborhood near the Port of LA, where the rate of asthma is double the national average. Working as an activist there, people weren’t really concerned with what was happening at the Port or if a freeway was expanding until you brought up the health burdens that we were commonly experiencing in the neighborhood. It became such a powerful motivator to get people invested in community issues and showing up at city council meetings. It’s easy to fight against something that is harming you, but the next step is getting people on your side who aren’t directly impacted. I think that is the next step for the EJ movement, thinking more about regional equity and how we are all connected to the struggles of one community. I thought Prof. Acey brought up a really thought provoking point at the end of class about how maybe we would stop producing so much waste if we all had a toxic waste facility in our neighborhood. People still trapped under the veil of ignorance can’t stay there for much longer because we are all being impacted by climate change and will soon have to fight it together in order to survive.

    • ewolfson2014

      Lauren, it was interesting to hear your story related to your experiences in the Port of La. In my experience as both a student researcher as an environmental educator who worked with activists, the question of tangible health problems are usually what causes a community to fight back. The question of NIMBY is an important point to consider, and I believe that those who have a voice will continue to push environmental hazards onto communities with a voice.

      The EJ movement has been a powerful tool in fighting NIMBY movements. The Bayview area of San Francisco has had a history of environmental injustice. Once a booming industrial area during WWII, it became a dumping ground for the city and unemployment in the area was climbing. To add insult to injury a PG and E powerplant was built in this neighborhood which contributed to the already polluted environment. The site around heron’s head park and India Basin was declared a superfund site. Despite these seemingly insurmountable problems a community group emerged and fought back. http://lejyouth.org/ Lej encouraged youth members to fight for the community and with the help of neighborhood groups as well as a few influential people, were able to clean up many areas and build a park called herons head park where I spent a large portion of my time teaching and educating for San Francisco Recreation and Parks. http://www.sf-port.org/index.aspx?page=210

      The power to enlist change comes from understanding the needs of the community, but I would agree that the EJ movement is much more locally focused. Many people (including friends who have lived in SF) didn’t know that this history existed. What needs to change is a regional focus versus a local focus.

  8. edermartinez

    I completely agree with you final thought.
    To complement your point of view, I would like to provide another example.
    I have had the opportunity to study the housing market in Latin America. According to what I have read, the first priority for developing countries is to reduce the housing shortage. As a consequence, non-profit institutions – working with people without shelter – advocate for the production of high number of units. Under this belief, more low income people will be able to leave their illegal settlements and live in new decent homes.

    On the other hand, environmentalists stand up for the incorporation of sustainability in affordable houses. This means for instance, the construction of units with high quality insulation or with Energy Efficient Double Panel Windows which will save energy in the long term.

    Here is where sustainability and equality collide:
    Sustainable houses mean a rise in costs to produce each unit which at the same time reduces the amount of units that certain government can afford given a constrained budget
    Consequently, Equality (provide shelter to all people) is affected when sustainability is taken into account (and vice versa).
    .

  9. skonala254

    I appreciated that you pointed out the importance of the daily experiences and priorities of families as a strategy to frame sustainability. Last semester, I was in a class that helped work on the City of Richmond’s Climate Action Plan. At a community meeting, our class made a presentation on the need for the city to adopt a CAP and described how the process of making a CAP would work. By communicating with Richmond residents and environmental justice activists after the presentation and looking over surveys administered, I realized that most attendees came because of their concern for public health. The main concern was over the air pollution emissions from the Chevron Refinery, which is located in the city limits. One person even asked if food grown in the community was safe to eat because of the fire at the refinery in 2012.

    Essentially, the main concern of residents at the meeting, understandably, was about public health and environmental justice and not climate change. However, residents realized that their goals to improve public health aligned with the goals of climate change activists.

    Even though different groups may have different objectives, having a more sustainable community often improves the lives of the community members. Whatever, their individual goals may be, different groups can work together for the same cause.

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