What is environmental justice?
This seems to be a concept that has been trending in recent years as society continues to grapple with the impacts of climate change, racial violence and the toxic partisanship that has deeply divided our country. To some, environmentalism represents an abstract issue, such as saving endangered species or conserving rainforests in far off places. For others, it might mean an organized response from a group of concerned and well-informed citizens against faceless corporations polluting the land, or pushing back against fossil fuel dependency, landfills and over-consumption of earth’s natural resources.
But what does true environmental justice look like?
For generations, Black leaders and activists have led the charge in shaping the environmental justice movement.
In Northeast Ohio, the Black Environmental Leaders Association (BEL) was formed for the very purpose of highlighting and speaking out against the environmental and systemic injustices which communities of color all too often encounter in disproportionate measure.
Formed in 2018, BEL represents over 20 organizations and consists of both BIPOC members and allies who stand as stewards in the natural and built environment. It is our mission to uplift, advance and amplify the diverse voices of leaders who are the unsung heroes within communities directly impacted by the effects of environmental racism.
BEL has launched a statewide conversation titled ‘Black Landscapes Matter’ in which local, regional and even national leaders of color will speak to environmental and policy issues that affect BIPOC communities across the state of Ohio including in Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Youngstown/Warren, Toledo and Dayton. A series of town hall events will examine hyper-local issues within each one of these markets.
And there is perhaps no greater example within Ohio of environmental justice in action than in Lincoln Heights.
Since Lincoln Heights' incorporation in 1946 as a majority Black population looking to build a self-sustaining community, residents have had to fight against the intentional and reprehensible decision to place a law enforcement gun range and training facility right outside the line of incorporation, which also borders the municipalities of Woodlawn and Evendale.
There have long been complaints about the noise and its impact, but in 2020 the push to move the gun range to another location stepped up in intensity due to concerns around the noise, lead poisoning from bullets and the psychological effect of living so close to constant gunfire.
Studies show that all too often, African Americans are more likely to live near coal-fired power plants, oil and gas refining plants and other generating facilities while disproportionately suffering their ill-effects. The trauma of these environmental injustices reverberate deeper and louder than the gunshots that echo throughout the day.
Leaders such as Daronce Daniels and Carlton Collins from The Heights Movement and Cincinnati Black United Front’s Iris Roley have dedicated their lives to the community that they call home. It is the action, resilience and agency of the Lincoln Heights community in the face of intimidation and multiple methods of destruction that highlight what environmental justice means at its core.
Because environmental justice is being able to live in a place where the only choices aren’t between gunshots and taking your children to the park. It is the right to live in an environment where the soil, water and air are clean and clear from lead.
Environmental justice is addressing the generational trauma by not repeating the mistakes of the past. It is involving the communities that are affected not only in the decision making process of where the placement of these facilities go, but also in the eventual redevelopment and economic benefits that lift communities that have borne the brunt of these injustices for decades.
It is an understanding that the inherited decisions of the past do not need to be maintained into the future.
Above all, it sees the humanity and interconnection in all of us. That we are not apart from nature as much as we are a part of nature itself.
There is an African proverb that says: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” The Black Environmental Leaders embrace the belief that it is through our shared humanity and connectedness, that we can come together to confront and solve some of our most intractable problems.
We stand in solidarity with The Heights Movement, Lincoln Heights residents and advocates for change.
They are the face of the environmental movement and what true environmental justice looks like.
Please join us for our first ‘Black Landscapes Matter’ series town hall at 6 p.m. June 3 via Facebook Live to be a part of this discussion.
The Black Environmental Leaders Association operates a network of environmental information, resources and data relevant to Black communities. Its value proposition is to Advocate, Incubate and Inform (AI²). Together we are learning from and informing policy and programs within all sectors of the green economy, to strengthen the marginalized position of Black communities and create Environmental and Economic Equity with the same data.