Environmental Justice week highlights MN efforts

The Environmental Justice task force of Macalester’s MPIRG chapter held a week dedicated to exploring environmental justice issues this week. Environmental Justice Week featured a keynote speech, a panel on environmental justice in the Twin Cities, a training workshop and a movie screening.

Henry Kellison ’17, a co-leader of the Environmental Justice task force and one of the organizers of the week, said the goal of this week’s events was to raise awareness of environmental justice on Macalester’s campus. Kellison defined environmental justice as lying at the intersection of environmentalism and racial justice.

“Not a lot of people know what environmental justice means, so we hoped to raise awareness of that and start a campus-wide discussion about the intersections of environmentalism and racial justice,” Kellison said. “I feel very strongly that, in today’s environmental movement, and with the organizing that we hope to do in the future, it’s impossible for those two to not go hand in hand.”

Kellison also said environmental justice recognizes the disproportionate impacts environmental problems have had on communities of color and low-income communities, and takes an awareness of that disparity in its organizing.

The week got off to a well-attended start on Monday at noon, with its keynote speech.

Although the large snowfall prevented Michael Dahl, who was the intended keynote speaker for the event, from traveling to Macalester, the event went on. Environmental studies professor Chris Wells, who was originally set to introduce Dahl, spoke in his place. Wells spoke about Honor the Earth, the organization that Dahl is active in, and the work that the organization does.

“The kinds of work that [Honor the Earth has] been doing in recent years, especially under the climate justice umbrella, has been really quite important, especially here in Minnesota,” Wells said.

Wells then introduced Andy Pearson, an environmental organizer who works with mn350.org. Pearson presented a video that Dahl has previously used in other presentations about work being done by environmental justice organization Honor the Earth.

The video, which was narrated by Winona LaDuke, an activist for American Indian rights who is also executive director of the organization, focused on the work that they have done in opposition to proposed pipelines that would run through reservation land in northern Minnesota.

Although Dahl could not be at the event, both Wells and Pearson praised the work that he has been doing.

“I’ve been very lucky to work with Michael fighting pipelines together,” Pearson said. “[He is] someone who I feel like I learn a lot from every single time that I’m around him.”

Discussion about environmental justice’s importance continued on Tuesday night, with a panel that focused on local environmental justice movements as well as others from around the country.

Tuesday night’s panel featured three panelists who were each able to bring and unique backgrounds and perspectives to the room.

Catherine Neuschler, ’02, from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, spoke about the assistance that government agencies and bureaucratic organizations are able to provide to environmental justice movements.

The other panelists, Sam Grant ’84, from the AfroEco organization, and geography professor Eric Carter brought academic and activist approaches to the panel.

All the panelists spoke about what environmental justice means to them and how they’ve noticed the movement change over time.

“Environmental justice is healing at its core,” Grant said.

Speaking about how the movement has changed over time, Carter presented research that he’s done on the changing nature of environmental justice movements, describing what he called ‘Environmental Justice 2.0.’

“There’s been a qualitative shift in environmental justice politics. What you see more and more is [the movement] becoming less reactive and more proactive,” Carter said.

Carter was also able to provide some historical background to the origins of the environmental justice movement.

“You find that people of color, and especially poor people of color, are disproportionately affected by toxins in their environment,” Carter said.

The panelists also talked about roadblocks they’ve run into while working on environmental justice.

“We have to figure out what levers we have,” Neuschler said, speaking about the legal and political limits and abilities of governmental organizations. “For a lot of these things, there’s no legal authority.”

Although there are limits to important movements like these, Grant stressed that fighting for these issues was the right thing to do.

“A great life isn’t living by great capital. It’s living by great principles,” said Grant.
The week continued with an environmental justice training lead by mn350.org’s Andy Pearson on Wednesday. Pearson, who is mn350.org’s midwestern tar sands coordinator, led participants in a workshop centered around organizing for environmental justice.

The week concluded with a screening of the documentary “Above All Else.” The film follows David Daniel, a retired high-wire artist from eastern Texas, who organized a tree-top blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline. The film was followed by a question and answer session over Skype with director John Fiege.

Kellison hopes that all the events this week will continue a conversation about environmental justice on campus and engrain it in the mindset of community members here.

“I hope [everyone] continues thinking about the things they’ve learned this week, and consider more the ways in which the environmental work we do, and sustainability work we do on campus, has broad-reaching impacts on communities in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota that are disproportionately affected by problems of environmental degradation,” Kellison said. “I hope the stuff we do at Macalester this week props students to think more critically about that.”

Kellison said this work is especially relevant as students here continue to take part in resistances against tar sands development in northern Minnesota and Canada. Indigenous peoples and First Nations are especially harmed by these developments, so that debate is a perfect lens to apply environmental justice.

“We [now] have a little more awareness about the different ways these projects actively work against different peoples, and now we have a greater perspective on how they actively affect different peoples,” Kellison said.

Joe Klein contributed to reporting.