Discussion points from recent forum on Environmental Justice: Growing Disparities

By Beatriz Vera, Moderator of the Forum and EPSJ Team Member

The El Paso Social Justice Education Project, held a Social Justice Forum titled Environmental Justice: Growing Disparities in the Distribution of Environmental Burdens and Benefits on Sunday June 24, 2018 with speakers:

Dr. Jayajit Chakraborty, Professor of Geography in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and the Director of the Socio-Environmental & Geospatial Analysis Lab at UTEP. (https://faculty.utep.edu/Default.aspx?tabid=73205)


Kevin Bixby, environmental activist, Founder and Executive Director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, NM.  SWEC works to protect wildlife and restore habitats.  (http://www.wildmesquite.org/who-we-are)

Dr. Chakraborty presented a historical perspective of what is now defined as Environmental Justice. This history is recognized going back to Warren County in N.C., where the dumping of PCB in a 75% African American community.  Residents feared that their groundwater would be contaminated by PCB. Local leaders organized protests which attracted the support of civil rights groups against the construction of a landfill where 31,000 gallons of PCB would be stored after the community rejected that they be dumped on the side of roadways in 14 NC counties. This event attracted national attention to the issues ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM now seen as the beginning of the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM). The following videos go into the beginnings of EJM.

By 1994, the Environmental Justice Movement had identified the intersection of Race and Class and PLACE (where we LIVE, WORK and PLAY) as its focus and received a major impetus when President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, known as Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations where the EJM identified INJUSTICE to lie.  Its purpose is (was) to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income communities with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.

Dr. Chakraborty ended his presentation with an update on the EPA since Scott Pruitt was appointed and the many delays, policy rollbacks, and cuts to funding for previous activities. This includes the discontinuation of data basis which are used in research and policy analysis. The words “investment” and “business” have now substituted the words “environment” and “human health”. For more from Dr. Chakraborty see his recently published, co-edited book The Routledge Handbook of Environmental Justice.

During his presentation, Kevin Bixby, Founder and Executive Director of the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC), spoke about the mission and work of SWEC.

SWEC, established in 1992, is a grassroots conservation organization based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, whose mission is to protect and restore native wildlife and their habitats in the Southwestern borderlands through advocacy, education and on-the-ground projects.

Bixby explained the many projects SWEC has historically worked on to protect and restore vital habitat. He also gave examples of this work in the Otero Mesa and the Rio Grande as well as with endangered species like the Mexican Grey Wolf.

Currently, the Border Wall is of major concern in that it affects precisely the interests and survival of the issues SWEC is constantly trying to address. Specifically, Bixby explained how wildlife is threatened by the creation of major obstacles to their free roaming for food, water, and mating, which is particularly important in sustaining a diverse genetic pool in order for populations to live and thrive. Even though most people believe the wall is not yet being built, there have been efforts to continue building and replacing important sections of the wall using many of the prototypes solicited by the Trump administration. Some of these are more damaging to wildlife than others.

SWEC seeks alliances and collaborations with many other groups, including those with similar missions in conservation and habitat protection. Kevin also explained that even though SWEC has “environmental” in its name, the common enemy that other EJ Organizations share is INJUSTICE, which also drives SWEC to seek alliances and collaborations with other groups who are denouncing and protesting the building of (Trump’s) Border Wall, in particular groups fighting for the Human Rights of Immigrants and Families.

In reality, Bixby explained, it is animals and wildlife who have no voice vis a vis power structures for their defense. This is the work SWEC does. And, because the Lower Rio Grande Valley has one of the most ecologically diverse populations and habitat in the United States, the Border Wall will have a grave impact not only on humans, but also on the ecology of the entire region.

Discusssion:  Partcipants had many comments and questions. A summary is attempted below. After answering questions regarding each of their presentations, a lively discussion ensued among the participants.

The most salient points brought up were the fractured efforts of environmental groups in El Paso, as opposed to Las Cruces, N.M. where there appears to be a lot more collaborative efforts. Some of the discussion centered on the difficulty of getting younger people involved. However, participants pointed out that this is not only a difficulty with environmental issues but with most issues that require commitment and activism. Some successful strategies mentioned revolved around not expecting younger people to care about our causes when we haven’t demonstrated interest in what they seem to care about. The Women’s March El Paso and March for Our Lives were mentioned. (Contact Beatriz Vera if interested at beatrizvera00@gmail.com)

A second set of difficulties which were addressed were the lack of paid positions in environmental and human rights  organizations. Several participants offered contacts to get paid internships, n The UTEP Center for Civic Engagement could play a role in providing service-learning opportunities, course credit (or partial credit in lieu of research papers) or a limited number of paid internships as founder Kathy Staudt mentioned. (Contact the CCE director Azuri González azurig@utep.edu).  Martha Valadez, MSW, is the SWEC Field Organizer: Contact her at martha@wildmesquite.org; Office: 575-522-5552; Cell: 734-344-2372; Fax: 575-526-7733.

The third set of topics centered around how the participants to this forum could stay in touch and perhaps, explore possible collaborations. Please write Beatriz Vera with your ideas and suggestions. beatrizvera00@gmail.com

As a side, after the powerful presentations and discussion, we invite you to listen to this interview, heard  June 25 on NPR-Fresh Air with Terry Gross.