Environmental policy must prioritize voices of color

Environmental policy must prioritize voices of color
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While the political world has been tumultuous lately, one takeaway stands out among the chaos. More and more, we see the importance of the role grassroots organizers and movers play in shaping our nation’s democracy and motivating our communities.

We’ve seen the power of the people unfold for the better and for the worse, but by the will of the people. And it is people who cannot be forgotten as we enter a new administration and renew our calls for environmental and climate action. 

Last year and 2021 have challenged our democracy as we know it, from our routines, daily existences and our preconceived notions of safety. As a nation, we’ve lived through more historical firsts than we ever expected, including the pandemic hitting and hurting the most vulnerable communities, record years for climate-fueled hurricanes and wildfires, followed by the response of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to years of police brutality and subsequent civil uprising. 

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As we look forward to a new administration and the new challenges and conversations to be had, this fact will remain at the forefront: the catalyst for change at higher levels, more often than not, is grassroots organizing. The organizations and community leaders spearheading these efforts should be heard and involved at all levels of change conversations, including in the Biden administration and Congress. 

These events as a whole have shed light on the intersectionality of the issues facing our country. Health crises and health disparities, climate inequalities, the Nature Gap and systemic racism work in tandem with each other. The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America, of which I am a co-author, along with Jenny Rowland-Shea from the Center of American Progress, refers to the lack of parks, nature and green space in communities of color and low-income communities. The Nature Gap is an example of an intersecting issue that has resulted from centuries of land theft and discrimination. The Nature Gap has left a legacy of poorer health and COVID-19 severity, higher stress levels, worse educational outcomes, lack of recreation and business opportunities and greater vulnerability to extreme heat and flooding in these nature-deprived neighborhoods. 

It’s increasingly evident that these issues must be addressed across sectors, including exploring the history and origin of these systems. In our work as conservationists, we can’t think about creating an inclusive outdoors without addressing the police brutality against the Black community — daily — in public spaces. We can’t protect land without acknowledging that  unaffordable housing leads to the sprawl that eats away at those lands. We can’t close the Nature Gap, unless we recognize that, without a solution to poverty, “green” gentrification could push out the families that need parkland the most. We can’t address wildfires without acknowledging the sovereignty of the Tribal nations who were managing them for centuries before 1492. We can’t have public buy-in for decisions based on climate science if the public does not have a scientific education. When environmentalists only think in terms of environmental benefits without the larger social context, every step we take will lead to a backslide. The same is true for trying to make change in every field.

We must focus our efforts on environmental justice — policies and investments that uplift marginalized communities, confront exclusion and discrimination. From addressing poverty to affordable housing, labor rights, education, infrastructure, criminal justice reform and health care. 

Grassroots organizations have worked to address these issues not in isolation, but as pieces of one very large puzzle. These organizations and the communities they serve act as the bridges where these issues intersect. For years, grassroots organizations serving disenfranchised communities have worked collaboratively to create sustainable change for the benefit of all members of society. The relationships that are built through grassroots efforts are personal, intentional and integral to forming long-lasting, comprehensive change at the national level. 

Moving forward into a new year, policy must reflect the importance of this intersectionality in Congress and within the Biden administration. All of us must prioritize and integrate the voices most often left unheard in our efforts for positive change in the nation.

Shanna Edberg is the director of Conservation Programs at Hispanic Access Foundation. She is a longtime conservation advocate and promoter of environmental justice in the U.S. and abroad.