"Like Nixon Coming to China": Finding Common Ground in a Multi-Ethnic Coalition for Environmental Justice

Article excerpt

This article uses ethnographic fieldwork to illustrate how a multi-ethnic group of activists in Brooklyn, New York, formed a coalition for environmental justice in their neighborhood. Until the late 1980s local activists had organized in separate and antagonistic movements, competing over access to housing, schools, and police protection. However, as they increasingly realized that the environment was an urban concern, and was subject to discrimination, activists added it to their organizing agendas. In so doing, activists began to construct an expansive environmental narrative that cast all minorities in the neighborhood as united in the face of disproportionately high pollution rates. Activists thus found that they could enhance their environmental struggles by creating environmental identities that superseded rigidly defined identities based on ethnicity. Through organizing for environmental justice, activists redefined the meaning and significance of ethnic differences. [ethnicity, environmental justice, social movements, urban United States]

In the dimming light of a fall afternoon in 1995 I navigated the crowded sidewalks of Brooklyn, New York's Williamsburg/Greenpoint1 neighborhood on my way to a meeting of the Community Alliance for the Environment (CAFE). As I walked, I passed a typical array of taquerias, Chinese take-aways, and 99-cent stores. Within a few blocks, however, this diversity gave way to exclusively Spanish store signs and grocery stores containing traditional Latin foods. If I had continued walking a few blocks east and then south, I would have again found myself surrounded by monolingual store signs, only this time they would have been in Hebrew. Here, and within a ten-block radius, products from Israel lined grocery store shelves. Packages clearly announced which were milk and which meat. At the register a tzedakah (or charity) box waited to be filled with coins in a tradition dating back to biblical times. The close proximity of Latinos and Hasidim, along with a wide range of other ethnic groups, distinguished Williamsburg/Greenpoint from other New York neighborhoods and made it one of the most diverse (Greider 1993).

Continuing my walk, I crossed under the Williamsburg Bridge and arrived at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, headquartered in an old church in South Williamsburg. El Puente was crowded with teenagers that day, dressed in pressed pants and mini skirts and snacking on Caribbean food in celebration of Dominican Independence Day. Upstairs and away from the noise and bustle of the celebration, I joined approximately fifteen people seated in a circle of chairs. The faces around me represented the array of ethnic groups that I had passed on my way to the meeting. Meeting-goers included Latinos,2 Polish, Irish, and Asian Americans, white artists, a few African Americans, and several Hasidic men traditionally dressed in black hats, long black coats, and temple curls. Halfway through the meeting, an El Puente staff member introduced the only Hasidic woman present, also traditionally clad in a long skirt and wig. The staff member stood and quipped, "Rachel Goldenberg is going to do environmental education. Rabbi Niederman thinks she's the Jewish savior-that might not go along with the religion, I don't know [laughs]."

Although the humor of this remark remained unclear to me, what was clear was the teller's intent to make a joke and to demonstrate both his tolerance of and his familiarity with Hasidic culture. Making light of Jewish beliefs before a mixed audience signified a striking new cooperation between Latinos and Hasidim in Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s these two groups had fought fierce battles over access to police protection, housing, and schools. How, then, did it come to pass, on that autumn afternoon, that I sat among the members of a political coalition led by Hasidim and Latinos? How was it possible for the two groups, once locked in opposition, to chide one another about their ethnic particularities? …


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