Where does each fit within each other?
Part book review. Part rant.
I’ve spent much of my life stuck choosing between my love for the environment -- often one of the only black women, or black people, in many of the programs I’ve done to satiate this love -- and the need to make life better for black people. (If I had a brand, which I hate the idea of, it’s likely the black girl in Tevas, with Freedom is a Constant Struggle tucked in my bag, off in some country studying climate change or agriculture.) And while I, in my own personal work, have aspired to meld the two worlds into one, I find frustration in both the whiteness of the environmental movement (and their inability to center racial equity) and the dismissal in the black liberation movement of the environment and its effects on black people due to more pressing issues such as poverty, gun violence, police brutality, etc.
I opened Carl Anthony’s book out of an internal calling (duty, really) to learn more about Anthony's life as a black man committed to merging the worlds of environmental justice and racial equity. (It also seemed that he too was wrestling with some of the questions I am now.) Anthony, born in Philadelphia in 1939, is an architect, regional planner, and social justice advocate. After graduating from Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Anthony traveled the world (mostly to Africa to veer away from the belief that Europe, with its “ancient and Renaissance cities in Italy, and great cathedrals in France and Germany”, was the only place with worthy architecture), then went on to teach at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.
After teaching, Anthony went on to join the board of the Earth Island Institute (EII), where in 1989 he created the Urban Habitat Program with a mission to build multiracial leadership for sustainable metropolitan communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. After leaving EII in 1997 due to “a major disagreement with colleagues,” Anthony took his interests for environmental justice and social equity to the Ford Foundation. Anthony served as their Acting Director of the Community Resource Development Unit, and later Director of the Sustainable Metropolitan Communities Initiative.
While there are many interesting pieces in the book -- which I recommend reading if you’re interested in the intersection of architecture, urban planning, and social and environmental justice -- the most compelling idea and connection presented, one that I had not yet myself made, was the parallel in the way black people and the environment have been exploited at the hands of the white people.
He writes, “Africans were thought of as beasts and treated accordingly. Forced to do the bidding of their masters, they contributed substantially to the penetration of the North American wilderness by Europeans -- and, tragically, to the conquest of the land’s original inhabitants. Slavery helped set the pattern for squandering land and natural resources in America.”
After sitting with Anthony’s realizations, it struck me how interconnected black oppression is with the annihilation of the planet. The force, power, and complete disregard for the inherent value of the earth are one and the same with the inability to see the black body as human. Or worthy.
So, given this.
Where does the environment fit within the black liberation movement?
In my own life, I feel the need to get answers to this question. To bring closer the two movements that have historically existed as archipelagos, islands unto themselves. I feel the pressure most because recently, I have expressed interest (and made brief introductions) into two organizations seeking to advance social justice and equity along these two movements respectively. And given the time is a limited resource, I have been forced to choose between the two.
With one. Where I cannot bring up the climate and environment issues out of fear of derailing the conversation on police brutality, the imprisonment of black people at alarming rates, the crippling poverty many black communities face, etc.
And with the other, the environmental organizing movement that historically has adopted the mindset summed up nicely in an interview question I was once asked: “Would you prefer a just transition or the quickest?” My heart sunk. I knew instantly that an organization that would even ask such a question was not the organization for me. They -- environmental progress and racial equity-- weren’t mutually exclusive.
As time has progressed, more of my time has shifted towards working with the environmental organization, a team of young people in Chicago and across the country looking to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process. But I’m still uneasy. And still, feel like I am leaving a part of myself behind advocating for the planet when there are more urgent issues facing black people.
I do not have answers. But more questions. (Like Carl, honestly just tryna find something to contain my whole being.) So I will end on that note.
How do you diversify the environmental movement? How do will instill values of racial equity without steering away from the ultimate goal of a fossil-fuel-free economy? (And an economy free of corporate money in politics.) How do we talk about black liberation in the context of climate change? What does it mean to be liberated as black people, (if we ever get there) if we only perpetuate human domination over the planet? Why hasn’t the black liberation movement rooted platforms or principles in stewardship for the land? (Outside of the environmental justice and food justice communities.) Where is the org/movement rooted in values of black liberation, feminism, and environmental stewardship? (black eco-feminists?)
On the topic of black people and the environment. Two things I want to plug. First. Culture: A Belonging of Place by bell hooks. I cannot begin to explain the depth of love and gratitude I have for all 230 pages of this book. Second. 4 Black Women Leaders on Climate Justice and the Green Promised Land. Representation matters. To see the possibility for leadership in environmental space (by black women) is powerful. https://grist.org/article/4-black-women-leaders-on-climate-justice-and-the-green-promised-land/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=beacon