Community organizer Nailah Pope-Harden emceed the event and said the results were all too familiar.
“Everyone except for the folks of color were shocked,” said Pope-Harden. “Like, 'How come there aren't people of color here? We did it in Oak Park, we made sure it was at an accessible time.'”
It's a symptom, Pope-Harden says, of the history of the environmental movement not being connected to issues affecting people of color. She’s been a community organizer for more than a decade and says Black and brown communities continually have to fight to stop things like natural gas pipelines and homeless shelters from entering neighborhoods that other zip codes don’t have to.
They’re tired of being looked over, and that’s why she and others formed the Red, Black and Green Environmental Justice Coalition last November. The colors from the Pan-African flag represent people of the African Diaspora and symbolize Black liberation. That freedom extends to a healthy, safe and clean environment. Members of the Sacramento Black Caucus and Green Tech Education & Employment are also involved.
“The basic principle of environmental justice is we speak for ourselves,” said Joelle Toney, one of the organizers. “We recognize that in Sacramento boardrooms and decision-making bodies … people of African Diaspora are not present. These decisions are being made to our detriment.”
Their goal is to inform public policy and to not just have a token Black voice at the table when plans about the environment are formed and decisions are made. The group aims to address what members of the community bring up, such as how African American communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, which contributes to respiratory issues and death.
This comes down to having to even ask city, county, state or federal leaders to not put something that could potentially endanger lives in their community.
“We deserve free Tuesday nights,” said Pope-Harden. “I don't want to have to have every Tuesday night going to city council, like that's the equity that I'm looking for.”
She says there’s often disconnect from well-meaning organizations that often offer services communities haven’t asked for. She recalls a moment when a group wanted to plant trees in her South Sacramento community.
“They got funding to plant trees in our neighborhood but never asked us if we wanted trees or what kind of trees,” said Pope-Harden. “They got money to do solar paneling or painting houses … and all of these things that they were getting through cap-and-trade funding, but never once came to the disadvantaged communities to listen.”
They want to be able to inform everything from the Mayors’ Climate Commission to Sacramento County’s Food Action Plan to revitalization efforts along Stockton Boulevard. But to get to that point the group needs to get fully organized, says Jackie Cole with the coalition, because all the volunteers have day jobs or are part of another advocacy group. Also, the pandemic has slowed organizing.
“We have got a wide breadth of folks who have been doing this anyway and so it's just trying to figure out how do we bring all of these things together,” she said. “How do we share the resources and the experience to help build and elevate Black voices?”
She says it is not that organizations aren’t always reaching out, but that there are many groups asking for similar information and time from the same community. That means fatigue from the community and diminishes the quality of participation and feedback, she says. It’s even more upsetting, Cole says, when people don’t see change after all those questions.
“They're demanding the attention of underserved communities from a thousand different ways and it's virtually impossible for everyone to participate in a meaningful way,” said Cole who works for a consulting firm on projects around environmental justice.. “We have to stop waiting for decision-makers to ask us what we want. We need to get organized and have our list of demands prepared.”
That’s why one of her goals is to streamline the process for community engagement. The group also recognizes that the topic of environmental justice isn’t sexy, but when it isn't addressed can prevent communities from getting the resources they need or changing the built environment around them.
“Environmental justice is not something that is really hip or popular in the Black community,” said Pope-Harden. “Part of our effort is to rope in some of the Black organizations and Black groups and say, ‘Hey, also, let's start tapping into like this language as well.’”
The group wants environmental organizations and governmental agencies to stop tokenizing Black people, to actually listen and then act on behalf of communities.
“I hope that our group is able to amass power,” said Pope-Harden. “I don't want decisions being made in South Sac or in North Sac or in any of the disadvantaged communities without the city checking in with us first.”
The group plans to have a community listening session this summer where people can talk about what is happening in their neighborhoods and daily life. The event will be posted on their Facebook page.
“We want it to be reflective of community priorities and community concerns,” Cole said. “I think that we'll have a better idea about what that looks like after the town hall. At this point it's time for folks to just jump in. If we mean to take leadership and direction from the community, we've got to get them to the table.”
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