"It's in the Air": Redefining the Environment as a New Metaphor for Old Social Justice Struggles

By Checker, Melissa A. | Human Organization, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

"It's in the Air": Redefining the Environment as a New Metaphor for Old Social Justice Struggles


Checker, Melissa A., Human Organization


Recently, minority activists have formed a new grassroots movement, known as environmental justice, to address toxic waste in their neighborhoods. By comparing and contrasting two environmental justice groups, this paper explores how adapting environmental discourse to traditional struggles for social justice affected grassroots minority activism. As they came to view their air, water, and soil as another aspect of life subject to institutional discrimination, the activists described in this paper constructed ambiguous environmental narratives that served as contexts for multiple organizing strategies. These strategies were not limited to ecological concerns, but included the social justice issues that each group had historically prioritized. In addition, the ambiguity of the environmental narratives activists created facilitated alliances with new organizational partners. Although the specific needs, goals, and outcomes of each case differed, both examples illustrate how "the environment" served as a flexible but powerful organizing narrative. Thus, including the environment on their agendas for social change enabled minority activists to develop and sustain new strategies and alliances that strengthened their struggles.

Key words: environment, urban social movements, minority activism, social justice, United States

Mentioning the term "environment" to adults in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia, prompted them to tell of the dust that covered their walls and reappeared as fast as they could wipe it off. They talked about the toxic release sirens coming from Thermal Ceramics, a nearby factory, that sometimes blared for eight hours, forcing them to leave their homes and spend time at the mall or the movies to escape the noise. They told of how they had permanent tickles in their throats and how their children were never far from their asthma inhalers. They talked of how their children could not dig in the dirt around their houses or play in the ditches that lined the streets of their neighborhood. For the residents of Hyde Park, and for the activists of the Hyde and Aragon Park Improvement Committee (HAPIC),1 the environment is not something to be protected from human intervention and conserved for the preservation of wildlife. For them, because they are poor and black, their environment is poisonous and they need to be protected from it.

Hyde Park's environmental conditions are far from unique in the United States. In the Northeast, for example, a heavily trafficked bridge and a local expressway intersect the Williamsburg-Greenpoint2 neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and weave in and around a number of defunct manufacturing plants and factories in the area. Williamsburg-- Greenpoint is also one of New York City's most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, housing Latinos (including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans), Polish, Irish, Italian, Asian, and African Americans, as well as a large number of Hasidic Jews. Several years ago, in a church-turned-- community center on the south side of Williamsburg-- Greenpoint, I joined approximately 15 neighborhood residents for a meeting of the Community Alliance for the Environment, or CAFE. One of CAFE's founders, Luis Garden Acosta, cheerfully welcomed his fellow activists and commended their hard work to improve the environment in their neighborhood - according to Acosta, "one of the most toxic in the city" (see Checker 2001).

Comparing and contrasting two cases, this paper illustrates how minority activists are appropriating mainstream environmental discourses and applying them to social justice issues to construct a new social movement, known as environmental justice. I argue that "the environment" served as a flexible narrative, which activists applied strategically. By presenting two comparative cases, I am able to build a broader framework for analyzing the social construction of grassroots environmental justice movements and, more generally, of multiracial and ethnic movements. …

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