The Mickey Leland Center at Texas Southern University (TSU) is a university-community center that conducts community research, analyzes policy, and designs innovative program practices and community initiatives. Its goal is to cultivate leadership that addresses environmental and health challenges and is responsive to populations/communities at greatest risk. The Center brings together the expertise of its staff and faculty; the passion of students; and knowledge and needs of the impacted communities. The intended outcome is to advance education, training, research, and practice of environmental justice, health equity and sustainability. The Center has four major components: (1) Education and Training, (2) Research and Policy Analysis, (3) Community Engagement and Technical Support, and (4) Information Clearinghouse.
We provide technical assistance and support services on a range of environmental justice, transportation equity, fair/smart growth, and related issues to at least five low-income and people of color groups. Assistance is provided to community groups that are affected by adverse environmental health conditions by linking them with appropriate institutions, professional associations, planning organizations, legal, media, and other relevant resources. A major element of the Center includes synthesizing research from multiple disciplines, including environmental scientists, social/behavioral scientists, urban planners, health professionals, and public policy experts to solve today’s environmental problems—with a special emphasis on environmental and sustainability challenges of low-wealth and people of color communities.
While we do not organize, we do provide research, technical, scientific, legal and other support to community based organizations (CBOs) and environmentally-impacted communities. The Center has a small, dedicated staff whose motto is “get the job done.” As a historically black college and university (HBCU), TSU and the MLCEJS both have a proven track record in service to people of color and the disenfranchised in the United States and abroad.
The Center is just one of a handful of university-based environmental justice centers located across the nation. Much of our work supports the efforts of individuals and groups who are struggling to build healthy, livable, and sustainable communities. Having worked in this field for over two decades, I’ve seen environmental justice move from an obscure concept to a potent national grassroots movement. Environmental justice is now a major unifying theme across race, class, gender, age, and geographic lines.
The decade of the 1990s was a different era from the 1970s when I first began this work. Some progress has been made in mainstreaming environmental protection as a civil rights and social justice issue. When I started in 1970s, few environmentalists, civil rights advocates or policy makers understood or were willing to challenge the regressive and disparate impact of this country’s environmental and industrial policies—policies that resulted in benefits being dispersed nationally while burdens were localized.
Today, we see some civil rights and environmental groups beginning to tackle the hard issues of race, class, and environmental decision making. Groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Center for Constitutional Rights, Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, National Lawyers Guild Sugar Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, and other legal groups are teaming up on environmental justice and health issues that differentially affect the poor and people of color. Environmental racism and environmental justice panels have become “hot” topics at conferences sponsored by law schools, bar associations, public health groups, scientific societies, and social science meetings.
The MLCEJS will make a deliberate effort to disseminate its work through books, scientific journals, articles, newsletters, videos, and the internet. We want to reach a general audience while at the same time capture the interest of other environmental and economic justice activists and academics, students, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, community activists, political officials, planners and policy analysts, and government policy makers. As a people of color organization, we subscribe to the “Principles of Environmental Justice.” We strongly believe that people of color must speak for themselves and do for themselves. Many of the issues addressed by the Center can be subsumed under the broad umbrella of equity, fairness, and the struggle for justice. We often get calls from communities who need help. We do not “parachute” into any community uninvited. However, when called upon, we will do our best to serve those most in need of our assistance.
After more than two decades of intense study, targeted research, public hearings, grassroots organizing, and leadership summits, environmental justice struggles have taken center stage. Environmental racism is out of the closet. Still, all communities are not created equal. Some neighborhoods, communities, and regions have become the dumping grounds for all kinds of toxins. From West Dallas to West Harlem and from Southside Chicago to South-Central Los Angeles, people of color are demanding and in some cases winning solutions to their environmental dilemmas.
Environmental justice leaders have also had an impact on public policy, industry practices, national conferences, private foundation funding, and academic research. Environmental justice courses and curricula can be found at nearly every university in the country. It is now possible to build an academic career-and get tenure, promotion, and merit raises—studying environmental justice issues. A half dozen environmental justice centers and twenty-two legal clinics that focus on environmental health and racial equity as core areas have sprung up across the country. Three of these centers are located at HBCUs: Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (Dillard University of Louisiana-New Orleans, LA), Thurgood Marshall Environmental Justice Legal Clinic (Texas Southern University-Houston, TX), and Environmental Justice and Equity Institute (Florida A&M University-Tallahassee, FL).
Environmental justice groups are beginning to sway administrative decisions their way. They even have a few important court victories. Groups have been successful in blocking numerous permits for new polluting facilities and even forced the federal EPA to permanently relocate an African American community in Pensacola, Florida from a toxic waste dump. This dump was nicknamed “Mount Dioxin”.
Environmental justice has trickled up to the federal government and the White House. Environmental justice activists and academicians were key actors who convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under the Bush Administrations) to create an Office on Environmental Equity. These leaders quickly got the Clinton Administration to establish a National Environmental Justice Advisory Council or NEJAC to advise EPA. On February 11, 1994, President Clinton signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898. Yet, we are a long way from achieving a fair and just society in the environmental arenas.
In part, because of this success, the environmental justice movement has received a backlash and its members attacked politically through frivolous lawsuits known as SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuit against a Public Person), investigations, and other forms of intimidation. However, these tactics have not worked. We are seeing an increase in the number of grassroots people of color environmental and economic justice groups emerge across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico. This is also the case in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Transboundary and international collaborations are forming among nongovernmental organizations to address global human rights, environmental, and economic justice issues.
The MLCEJS lead a team of scholars who wrote the 2007 United Church of Christ’s Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report that found race to be the most potent predictor of where commercial hazardous waste facilities are located. Environmental injustice in people of color communities is as much or more prevalent today than 20 years ago. People of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities and more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered facilities
The twenty-first century offers some old and new challenges that will need to be addressed if we are to achieve a just and sustainable society. Global climate change looms as a major environmental justice issue of this young century. Climate change poses special environmental justice challenges for poor and communities of color that are already overburdened with pollution and environmentally-related illnesses. As seen in Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, the environmental effects of climate change are real. We all witnessed the adverse impacts fall heaviest on the poor. We also see people of color and the poor being left behind in post-Katrina clean-up, rebuilding, reconstruction, and recovery.
Changing climates are expected to raise sea levels, alter precipitation and other weather conditions, harm fish and many types of ecosystems. It will also threaten human health with a broad set of problems, including heat stress and heart failure, increased injuries and deaths from severe weather such as hurricanes; more respiratory problems from drought-driven air pollution; an increase in waterborne diseases including cholera, and increases in vector-borne diseases including malaria and hantavirus; and mental health problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress. Those most affected must have a voice at the table in shaping the solutions. Working together, we can achieve the goals we have set for ourselves and impact the future.
People of color make up the majority (56%) of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities and more than two-thirds (69%) of the residents in neighborhoods with clustered facilities.
Environmental racism is out of the closet. Still, all communities are not created equal.
We do not “parachute” into any community uninvited. However, when called upon, we will do our best to serve those most in need of our assistance.
We are seeing an increase in the number of grassroots people of color environmental and economic justice groups emerge across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico.