By: Sarah Mack and Kenya-Jade Pinto
Level is thrilled to announce that we have selected “environmental justice” as our annual human rights theme for 2018/2019!
Recognizing and speaking out against environmental injustice is as important as ever. Unfortunately, we still live in a time where a significant number of First Nation communities in Canada are faced with boil water advisories and the effects of climate change can be seen and felt more than ever before. Additionally, waste by-products, mercury leaching, and a lack of access to nutritious foods significantly and disproportionately affect Indigenous and racialized communities in Canada.
About the Movement
Environmental justice is a social movement and theoretical lens that focuses on the fair treatment and involvement of low-income, racialized and Indigenous communities in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Researchers in this field take a multidisciplinary approach that involves examining the experiences of communities who shoulder a large burden of environmental injustice through the diverse lenses of health, biology, science, economics, and law.
Photograph by Jerry McFarland, Flickr
At the heart of the environmental justice movement is a desire to turn a critical eye to the power structures that create unequally distributed environmental harm to specific communities. Put another way, this movement is about the impact of environmental policies, laws, and actions on people. Similarly, at the core of Level’s mission is a commitment to working with people, particularly youth, to disrupt prejudice, build empathy and advance human rights. Level recognizes that law and social policy do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they are tools, that when placed in the right hands, can change the world for the betterment of all.
The environmental justice movement began in the early 1980s in the United States as low-income, racialized individuals galvanized across the country in a coordinated protest, rallying for greater environmental protection in their communities. It is believed that the catalyst for this movement emerged from a protest in Warren, North Carolina. In 1982, a predominantly African-American community was selected as the site of a new hazardous waste landfill accepting polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-contaminated soil. More than 500 protestors turned up and were arrested at this event. Although construction of the landfill ultimately proceeded, residents of Warren County mobilized individuals across the country and developed a national coalition of community groups to speak out against these injustices and devise strategic plans moving forward. The national attention garnered from these initiatives sparked several empirical studies which demonstrated that race, rather than income or neighbourhood prices, was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the United States. The most well-known of these studies was the 1987 report by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice which coined the term, “environmental racism” and defined it as: “intentionally selecting communities of colour for waste disposal sites and polluting industrial facilities.”
The movement also gained traction in Canada in the late 1960s as Indigenous peoples challenged the pulp-and-paper, aluminum, logging, and manufacturing industries which had been polluting their territories for decades, producing a torrent of health issues and premature death. These coordinated efforts culminated in the First National People of Colour Summit in 1991, held in Washington, DC. Out of this conference emerged 17 principles of environmental justice drafted by grassroots organizations and national global leaders. Collectively, this large-scale international resistance became known as the environmental justice movement.
Photo by uusc4all, Flickr
Over the past three decades, the movement has gathered strength as local residents of affected communities have transitioned to agents of change by recognizing that the power relationships within decision-making structures are fluid and contestable and can be shifted. The environmental justice movement is one that is fundamentally engaged in transformative politics as members forge relationships with new allies, lobby against toxic industrial practices, and ultimately persist towards the eradication of environmental racism. Collaboration in the environmental justice movement involves increasing the capacity of community members while taking great care to preserve their voices and decision-making authority.
In our next blog, we will highlight some of the stories of the communities who have been affected by environmental injustice in Canada and introduce our 2018/19 theme report. Level is committed to supporting environmental justice by creating opportunities for young leaders and changemakers to host panel discussions, facilitate documentary screenings, and contribute research through our student chapter program. Additionally, in 2018/19 Level will be partnering with Pro Bono Students Canada to draft a report on environmental justice and Indigenous ways of knowing in Canada.
Interested in getting involved in Level’s Campus Chapter program? Email Level’s program manager, Kenya-Jade at firstname.lastname@example.org .