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NCEL Honors Black History Month

February 2022

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This piece was written by Olivia Amitay, NCEL Communications Intern. Olivia is a recent graduate from Boston University where she earned a B.S. in Public Relations and a minor in Environmental Analysis & Policy.

Each February, Black History Month serves as both a celebration and reminder of the immeasurable contributions, triumphs, and rich cultural heritage of Black Americans. As we reflect not only this month, but every month of the year, NCEL strives to uplift the work of Black legislators across the country while recognizing and reversing the disproportionate climate and environmental burdens faced by Black Americans.

Black History Month Learning List

As Black History Month almost comes to an end, NCEL recognizes that our learning and active participation in antiracism does not stop here. The following list can help fuel your participation in environmental and racial justice 365 days a year.  

Read

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

  • The story follows the evolution of Darren aka ‘Buck’, from an unambitious young Black man in his twenties to the best salesman in New York. Black Buck is a pertinent commentary on white supremacy, gentrification, racism, and inequality.   

A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington 

  • Harriet A. Washington dismantles the notion of intelligence as an inherited trait and instead uses copious data to point to a different factor of the reported IQ gap: environmental racism.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

  • Serving as a vivid reminder that the people most impacted by climate change are often the most politically and economically vulnerable, Okorafor’s novel set in post-apocalypse Africa is an artful mix of politics, poetry, and fantasy. 

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility by Dorceta Taylor 

  • In this captivating read, Dorceta Taylor shows how low-income, minority communities were intentionally and systematically exposed to environmental hazards through segregation, zoning policies, and redlining. 

The Land-Healing Work of George Washington Carver by Brianna Baker  

  • This article from Grist revisits the work of George Washington Carver that advanced sustainable and equitable agriculture. This is part of a series of posts honoring the overlooked legacies of Black environmentalists from the past. You can find the rest of the  compilation at the bottom of the page. 

Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage by Dianne Glave 

  • Contrary to the institutionalized belief that African Americans are “disconnected” from nature, this book reclaims the history and connection Black people have to nature and the Earth. It also delves into the ancestral knowledge and skills of Black people throughout history. 

Watch

Whose Streets? 

  • Whose Streets explores a monumental period in modern Black history ignited by the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The documentary is told by the activists who turned their grief into resistance, advancing the Black Lives Matter movement and a whole new generation of leaders. Watch a trailer here.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 

  • As she fights the tide of violence against trans women, activist Victoria Cruz probes the suspicious 1992 death of her friend and legendary LGBTQ+ activist Marsha P. Johnson. Watch a trailer here

Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek 

  • This documentary follows Derrick Evans, a Boston teacher who moves home to Mississippi when the graves of his ancestors are bulldozed to make way for the expanding city of Gulfport. Derrick and his neighborhood stand up in their struggle for self-determination and environmental justice. Watch a trailer here.

An American Ascent 

  • This film documents the first Black expedition to tackle North America’s highest peak, Denali, while the climbers seek to shrink the “adventure gap” by building a legacy of inclusion in the outdoor community. Watch a trailer here.

Why This Town is Dying From Cancer 

  • This AJ+ report investigates the high cancer rates faced by the communities in the small town of LaPlace-Reserve, Louisiana, a town that is Black and low-income. 

Listen

“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – Marvin Gaye

  • Marvin Gaye became one of the first R&B singers to address environmental issues in a song with “Mercy Mercy Me.” Read more about the inspiring lyrics and motivation behind the song here.

We All Live Downstream: A Clean Water Action Podcast 

  • Each episode interviews a leading environmental and clean water activist about their work in the field. In recognition of Black History Month, the podcast is featuring stories of Black leaders in the clean water movement, including Vernice Miller Travis, Executive Vice President for Environmental and Social Justice at Metropolitan Group. 

Breaking Green Ceilings 

  • Breaking Green Ceilings spotlights passionate environmentalists from historically underheard communities including Disabled, Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and people of color.  

“Rainforest” – Noname

  • In Noname’s “Rainforest,” she brings attention to the destruction of natural spaces (“Because a rainforest cries, everybody dies a little”) while also using the metaphor of a rainforest to point towards anti-Blackness and economic inequality. 

Broken Ground Podcast 

  • Presented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, Broken Ground digs up environmental stories in the South focusing on marginalized communities. 

The ‘Double-edged Sword’ of Being a Black First – Code Switch 

  • Hosted by journalists of color, Code Switch tackles the subject of race with empathy and humor. For Black History Month, this episode discusses Constance Baker Motley – a trailblazing civil rights judge who paved the way for many to come after her. 

Black Nature Narratives 

  • This podcast explores Black perspectives on issues relating to the natural world and our relationship with nature. Each episode interviews a black leader within conservation, ecology, outdoor education, and environmental justice talking about their work and journeys into a field with skewed representation.

Join

Black Leaders on Environmental Justice and Beyond

  • Join Green 2.0 and Hip Hop Caucus on February 24, 1:00pm ET for a discussion with Black leaders in the environmental sector about what needs to happen to move the needle in the mission to achieve justice and equity in the environmental movement.

Black Farmers, Black Land, & Black Food: A Virtual Advocacy Panel

  • The National Conference of Black Lawyers will be hosting a panel featuring advocates and leaders from the Black farmer and Black land movement. The event will take place February 24 at 6:00pm ET. Register here

WE ACT for Environmental Justice 

  • WE ACT for Environmental Justice works to empower low-income people of color to build healthy communities for all. The organization often holds educational events around environmental justice and racial equity in the environmental space.

Working with Communities to Address Cumulative Impacts

As racist policies regularly place different environmental and public-health hazards in low-income and communities of color, the negative consequences compound and intensify. This unjust reality is referred to as cumulative impacts, or the impacts from multiple pollutants from multiple sources over time, on their own and by interaction with each other. By taking into account the cumulative impacts these communities face, states can help protect the health of well-being of these environmental justice communities.

Public Health Implications 

  • Black Americans are 40% more likely to have asthma than White Americans and Black Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma related causes.
  • Nationwide, Black Americans are exposed to greater-than-average concentrations of PM 2.5., a dangerous class of air pollutants that have been linked to premature death, particularly for those who have chronic heart or lung diseases. 
  • More than one million Black Americans face a “cancer risk above EPA’s level of concern” due to unclean air.

State Action 

To account for cumulative impacts and achieve justice, one must work with the impacted communities. These frontline communities have lived experiences to help inform the needed changes and solutions. But the work cannot be left up to the communities alone. Legislators can ensure that the communities are leading the work while being fully supported in the legislative process.

Many states are working to ensure cumulative impacts are addressed and considered in legislation: 

  • In 2020, New Jersey passed S. 232, which requires that a new or expanded facility that plans to be located in or near an “overburdened community” prepare an environmental justice impact statement. Facilities include sewage treatment plants, incinerators, landfills, and others that are major sources of air or water pollution. 
  • In 2021, Minnesota introduced H.F.2334, a bill that would require the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to analyze the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of a community near a given facility before issuing or changing permits. This means that the agency  would be required to consider the nearby population’s ability and resources to withstand, respond to, or recover from exposure to additional pollution.
  • In 2021, Washington passed SB5141, or The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act. The bill defines “environmental justice,” requires the use of a cumulative impacts analysis to determine and address the burden of environmental threats, creates a framework to guide state agencies on how to consider environmental justice in their work, establishes an environmental justice council to guide the work of agencies, and includes a provision to increase community participation in decision making.

Green Spaces and Outdoor Access: Bridging the Gap 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that access to green spaces and outdoor recreation is a crucial component in our overall physical and mental wellbeing. It has also become increasingly clear that decades of systemic racism have barred Black Americans and people of color from enjoying these outdoor spaces. It’s essential that green spaces and outdoor experiences are accessible for all people regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or other factors.

Historical Barriers to Access 

In order to address current inequities in outdoor access, it is important to acknowledge a disturbing history of racist policy that have prevented Black Americans from reaping the benefits of natural spaces. 

  • Starting in the 1930s, public and private loan corporations took part in redlining– a system that rated neighborhoods from A to D according to their perceived mortgage stability. This racist policy not only shut out Black Americans from home ownership— a key cause of the racial wealth gap— but also led to numerous infrastructure and urban planning decisions that reduced the amount of green space available in Black neighborhoods. While White homeowners had the ability to lobby city governments for trees and parks, Black people largely excluded from home ownership rarely saw their landlords invest in green space.
  • Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people of color were either banned from or segregated in public recreational sites, including national parks.
  • Racist economic and employment policies have left Black Americans with higher unemployment rates and lower incomes than White Americans. This means Black Americans have less disposable income and leisure time to take trips for outdoor recreation.

Current Disparities 

  • Communities of color are three times more likely to live in “nature deprived” neighborhoods, or areas with little to no access to green spaces, parks, and paths. The disparity is greater in Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York, where over 90% of people of color live in “nature-poor” neighborhoods while less than 15 % of White people live in the same conditions.
  • Data collected by the National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Services Project (VSP) report that only 2% of National Park visitors are Black. 
  • The lack of green spaces in Black urban neighborhoods contribute to the urban heat island phenomenon in which some urban temperatures are higher—sometimes as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit— than other urban, suburban, or rural areas in the vicinity.  Urban heat island impacts communities of color the most. For example, almost half of all New Yorkers who died from heat between 2000 and 2012 were Black.

Benefits of Green Spaces and Outdoor Access 

The benefits of green and outdoor spaces extend far beyond the aesthetic appeal of natural beauty. Natural spaces provide a swath of physical, emotional, and mental health benefits while improving the overall quality of the environment: 

  • Spending time in green spaces and nature lowers heart rates, reduces stress, increases short-term memory, and can even reduce the symptoms of clinical depression.
  • The CDC found that urban forests, including wooded areas and street trees, can reduce local air temperatures by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Young children with high-quality outdoor access see improvements in nutrition, self-regulation, academic performance, self-confidence and concentration, and stress levels.  
  • Green spaces can mitigate the risks of flooding, improve air quality, and absorb many of the heavy metals found in the ground, reducing the concentration of pollutants and increasing soil health.

State Action 

States are working to make green spaces and outdoor access more equitable through legislation: 

  • Colorado HB 21-1318 created an Outdoor Equity Grant Program in 2021 to increase access to the outdoors for underserved youth and their families. This was modeled after New Mexico’s 2019 Outdoor Equity Grant, the first Outdoor Equity Fund in the country.
  • Washington and Minnesota have created “No Child Left Inside” programs that fund grants connecting underserved youth to nature. In 2021, Washington tripled the investment in the program to $4.5 million. 
  • Hawaii SB507 and Iowa H.F.2029 introduced bills this year to provide resources and support to public agencies, private organizations, and individuals in establishing and maintaining outdoor education and recreation programs for children.
  • California SB624 would establish the Environmental Equity and Outdoor Access Act, which sets forth the state’s commitment to ensuring all Californians can benefit from, and have meaningful access to, the state’s rich cultural and natural resources. 

View all 2022 outdoor engagement legislation: https://www.ncelenviro.org/outdoor-engagement/ 


Transit Equity Day

February 4 is honored as Transit Equity Day to commemorate Rosa Parks’ birthday and highlight access to reliable public transit run by clean energy as a civil right.

Environmental justice communities have long suffered from increased air pollution due to disproportionate proximity to highways and traffic hot spots. Black households, regardless of economic status, face higher exposure to particulate matter than all other groups including those living in poverty. Communities of color also tend to rely more on public transportation, so transit policies have significant impacts on these households. Among urban residents, 34% of Black individuals report taking public transit daily or weekly. As such, it’s crucial that they are involved in the design and implementation process of public transit policies, the most affected parties.

Leaders in Transit Equity 

On December 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, an act of civil disobedience that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the eventual desegregation of public transportation.

Parks’ act of bravery is only the most famous in a long history of Black Americans protesting segregated transportation systems:

  • In 1863, Charlotte Brown was one of the first Black Americans to legally challenge racial segregation after filing a lawsuit against a San Francisco streetcar company for forcibly removing her from a segregated streetcar.
  • In 1941, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell led a boycott against two private Manhattan bus lines for refusing to hire Black people for jobs other than a porter. After a one-month boycott, the bus lines agreed to hire 100 Black bus drivers and 70 maintenance workers.
  • In 1949, Jo Ann Robinson was ordered off of a nearly-empty segregated bus, motivating her to become the president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) in 1950. After Rosa Parks’ arrest, she and three others distributed approximately 52,500 leaflets calling for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

States Working to Ensure Transit Equity

The following states are working to ensure transit equity through legislation this year.

  • New Jersey S.1158/A.1484: establishes “New Jersey Transit Bus Riders’ Bill of Rights;” ensures riders will  have the right to reliable, affordable, and on-time transportation; protection against discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; safe buses, bus stops, and bus terminals; etc.
  • Vermont H.552: provides for zero-fare public transit; prioritizes deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and microtransit in communities that are underserved or disadvantaged
  • Hawaii S.B.2505: fosters transportation-oriented development by requiring at least one hundred thousand housing units to be developed near a major rail station. Requires a minimum of eighty percent of those housing units to be priced as affordable

If you’re interested in advancing transit equity in your state, feel free to reach out to Ava Gallo, NCEL’s Climate and Energy Coordinator, to learn where to start.

Additional Resources:

  • Each year, the Labor Network for Sustainability hosts and amplifies virtual and in-person rallies, educational events, and tablings to emphasize the need for equitable and clean transportation.
  • Learn about the crucial intersection of civil rights and transit equity through the Labor Network for Sustainability’s Education and Youth Organizing Tools.
  • The Transportation Equity Caucus is focused on driving transportation policies that advance economic and social equity in America. View more of their resources.