Fighting for Green Justice: In the Race for Green Jobs, Environmental-Justice Advocates Don't Want Urban Communities to Get Left Behind

Article excerpt

Since the 1980s, the environmental-justice movement has linked the pursuit of a greener economy with the needs of urban minority communities that have suffered more than their share of environmental assaults. Though the best publicized new jobs in the clean-energy economy are ones building wind turbines or solar-energy technology, environmental-justice leaders insist that green jobs are also about cleaning up brownfield sites, abating inner-city lead levels, monitoring urban air and water quality, developing urban gardens, and mitigating asbestos.

Beyond merely offering employment opportunities, activists say the jobs should also pay decent wages, have safe work environments, and be unionized or offer workers considerable say over how businesses operate. But now that green economic development has become fashionable, environmental-justice advocates fear that the green-jobs movement will leave their communities behind.

For two decades, the environmental-justice movement has combined protest with organizing for education, employment, and development. In 1988, a New York City urban activist named Peggy Shepherd stood on Manhattan's West Side Highway and blocked traffic to draw attention to pollution from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant that was creating respiratory problems for poor and minority residents in nearby Harlem. Another of the protestors, collectively known as the "Sewage Seven," was David Paterson, who would later become governor of New York. The activists sued the city's Department of Environmental Protection over the issue and used some of the money from the 1994 legal settlement to expand their fledgling group, WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Shepherd, the organization's current executive director, was the 2008 winner of the Jane Jacobs medal for Lifetime Leadership given by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Today, WE ACT has a staff of 17, an expansion of the team of three formed with the help of that 1994 grant. The staffers research issues affecting community and public health, educate community residents on environmental issues, and train residents to get involved in research and advocacy. For example, WE ACT's Environmental Health and Community-Based Participatory Research projects have instructed residents on surveying and mapping so that they can assess the risks of high concentrations of bus diesel fumes in their neighborhoods.

But at WE ACT's recent 20th-anniversary conference, held at New York's Fordham University in January, broad concerns emerged about how much of President Barack Obama's $780 billion economic-recovery package would actually trickle down to urban communities of color. In a keynote address, Rep. Charles Rangel, Harlem's longtime congressman, reassured the conference by announcing that the House had included $10 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for community-organization work on energy efficiency and pollution education. But he ducked audience questions about whether those funds would target minority organizations and communities.

The money in the final stimulus bill fell far short of Rangel's $10 billion. The actual money for worker training and new employment in energy projects was below $5 billion. And the government's policy on targeting communities long suffering high employment remains ambiguous.

The story of the environmental-justice movement, since its inception, has been one of promising initiatives dogged by questions of scale and impact. Now that everyone seems to be jumping on the green bandwagon, from columnist Thomas Friedman to polluting-industry lobbyists touting "clean coal," environmental-justice activists see their communities being potentially excluded once more.

For example, post-environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, argue that the environmental-justice movement has historically been too narrow in scope to really be effective, even for its own communities. …