This spring break I left the books at home and hung out with an environmental justice organization in Roxbury, MA. Known locally as ACE, the acronym stands for Alternatives for Community and Environment. Through a series of workshops, adventures, meetings and hands-on work, I had my eyes opened to what environmental justice can—and ought to—look like from the ground on up.
One of my first surprises upon entering the organization was how friendly and easy-going the staff were. I was there with a UMASS grassroots organizing class and the ACE staff had us dive right in—right from hour one. I quickly discovered that about 80% of the staff were between the ages of 17 and 24. They were young, furious, and working hard to improve their neighborhood and to fight for their community. Specifically, their environmental justice campaigns focused on better air quality for Roxbury, improved public transit, anti-gentrification and food justice.
One room of the office space was devoted entirely to the REEP program (Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project and part of ACE). REEP is a youth empowerment program that works with and recruits local high school students—and thus the office was always alive with spunk and energy. It was difficult to not join in the fun!
As a group, my class attended workshops led by the youth organizers. They taught us about environmental justice issues specific to Roxbury, gentrification 101, and the power of story-telling to effect social change. Each of us had to informally present on life experiences that influenced us to pursue environmental justice. Being from a rural town in Northern California, my daily concerns differed vastly from the youth of Roxbury. While I drew the following (and beautifully artistic) rendition of my hometown, the youth organizers from Roxbury were distributing flyers relating to transit justice within their own community (see flyer below). Roxbury is a 95% black neighborhood and has been historically—and notoriously— ignored and marginalized by transit development and air quality control.
My beautiful rendition of environmental hazards in my hometown in Northern California.
The flyers we distributed throughout Roxbury.
In fact, in 1997, REEP was founded by a high school led campaign to hold the MBTA accountable to the Massachusetts anti-idling law. Roxbury has a higher rate of residents with asthma than any other neighborhood in Boston and it was apparent that the MBTA’s bus parking garage was a major contributor to the problem. Buses were left idling on a daily basis, generating excessive exhaust that permeated the neighborhood. On a “Toxic Tour” of Dudley Square led by one of the youth, we were exposed to the air quality monitoring station that was installed as a result of their anti-idling initiative.
A view of dirty storm water from the Roxbury high school.
My biggest take-away from the week was learning the difference between environmentalism and environmental justice. In a 1987 study titled “Toxic Wastes and Race” by the United Church of Christ, it was determined that race is the most significant factor in predicting the distribution of environmentally hazardous facilities. A repeat study, conducted twenty years later, showed that people of color are now found to be even more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown. Thus environmental justice is focused on equality of healthy resources and environments for ALL people. To this end, ACE’s mission is to “build the power of communities of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts to eradicate environmental racism and classism, create healthy, sustainable communities, and achieve environmental justice.” Their Vision of Change is as follows:
“Systemic change means moving beyond solving problems one by one to eliminating the root causes of environmental injustice. ACE is anchoring a movement of people who have been excluded from decision-making to confront power directly and demand fundamental changes in the rules of the game, so together we can achieve our right to a healthy environment.”
After this experience I encourage all of us to move beyond popular narratives of environmentalism. Instead, we need to reevaluate our commitments to the Earth AND to its people.
To learn more about ACE, or to donate, visit: www.ace-ej.org.
-Odessa Aguirre is a senior at Smith College from Sonora, California. She studies Anthropology with a focus on immigration and Spanish. When she is not at Smith College, she is somewhere sunny and warm. Her future plans include backpacking in every feasible mountain range–and for the non-feasible mountain ranges, she has plans to train as a mountaineer.