The Time Is Now: The State of Environmental Justice

Honor The Earth

The West is burning. The South and East are flooding. There’s a drought in the Midwest. The rapid onslaught of climate change is here, and with it, a paradigm shift; from the global pandemic to the massive migration of people seeking refuge from destruction, violence, natural disasters, and wars, the entangled roots of our white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society are being exposed.

Environmental injustice, including climate change, impacts communities of color the most. In fact, race is the number one factor for the placement of toxic facilities in the U.S. Inaction at the federal level to fix poor infrastructure and exposures to chemicals like Uranium, toxic waterways, oil pipelines that threaten whole communities and sacred land, contributing to drought and fires across the nation. Indigenous tribes across the U.S. experience some of the harshest effects of these climate disasters.

Yet out of the thorns of entangled roots, our grantees lead the way working at the intersections of reproductive justice. The right to raise our children in safe and sustainable communities is a core belief within the Reproductive Justice movement, and that looks like Climate and Environmental Justice. We bring you three grantee stories from Indigenous- and Black-led organizations facing the realities of climate and pollution today.

A statewide organization, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) works with indigenous communities, women, and women of color to address reproductive justice issues, recognizing that women and children are more vulnerable to toxic chemical exposure, a major problem in AK, especially for Native Alaskans. Using a combination of public health research, organizing, advocacy, and outreach, ACAT has helped change state, federal, and even international law around toxic chemicals.

In 2021, The White House announced the appointment of Vi Waghiyi, Alaska Community Action on Toxics Environmental Health and Justice Program Director, to the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Vi is a Yupik mother and grandmother and tribal citizen of the Native Village of Savoonga on Sivuqaq (St. Lawrence Island). She and fellow council members are tasked with providing advice and recommendations to the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council on how to address current and historic environmental injustices. She will be a significant voice for Alaska Native and all Arctic Indigenous Peoples.

“Although I am honored and willing to serve as a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, I want to make sure that our advice to the Biden Administration results in meaningful protections for communities such as mine that have been suffering the harms caused by military and industrial contamination for decades,” stated Vi Waghiyi of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “We don’t want more promises. We want real actions to achieve environmental justice, enforcement, and to hold industry and military polluters accountable.” -Vi Waghiyi

The Rapid Response Fund recently granted Honor the Earth, based in northern Minnesota, funds to support direct action efforts around the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project in northern Minnesota. If completed, the pipeline would carry more than 750,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands oil a day across Indigenous land and fragile ecosystems. Honor the Earth planned a direct action on August 23 through August 26 where indigenous water protectors and allies held space at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Honor the Earth’s mission is to create “awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities. Honor the Earth develops these resources by using music, the arts, the media, and Indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint dependency on the Earth and be a voice for those not heard.” To learn more about their mission and efforts to stop Line 3 pipeline visit https://www.honorearth.org/

Over the last two years, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC) has worked with groups led by councilwoman Raquel Castaneda Lopez to help craft the Detroit River Protection Ordinance bringing into the space voices of the community. This legislation will now require owners and operators of riverfront property to notify local authorities if another major structural failure occurs. The city council voted unanimously to pass this ordinance on September 28th.

The testimony from Eradajere Oleita, a Detroit organizer, after the ordinance’s passing, gives us a clear vision for why water protection is imperative to our survival:

“As I reflect on yesterday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I think about all the rituals and practices that Indigenous communities used to protect this land, and how far we have strayed from it.

Since starting at MEJC, I’ve been working on the Detroit River Body Protection Ordinance — a protective measure for our riverfront that came out of the dangerous collapse of an industry site into the river near Fort Wayne in November 2019.

At first, I felt as though I was entering an unwinnable battle. In the environmental justice movement, we often take on “unwinnable” battles simply because we must. Rather than relishing in our accomplishments, we simply pivot to find other ways to get our initiatives passed. WE WON because of the residents and activists who came together and didn’t give up even when we were told this measure was not needed or unpassable.

Before the vote, trying to feel hopeful, I had a conversation with a friend about fostering resiliency through fighting. She shared some of the practices that her grandmother and great-grandmother had shown her. I thought about my future kids and the humans of tomorrow. Indigenous communities and tribes have long been the stewards of this land — their care and tending allow for there to be a space for us even now. Honoring their continued stewardship, I want to make sure that I don’t give up because there are still people fighting and practicing generations-old traditions of care.

I like to think the ordinance passed because we care for our river. Because people understood our water is more important than any industry we have. Because we as human beings have had enough. Because for the first time in a long time, Detroiters mattered and our futures mattered.

When the Revere dock first collapsed, authorities stayed silent for too long. We didn’t know what was happening! We didn’t know if the water from our tap was safe to drink.

I am grateful to Detroiters for letting their voices be heard and their pain felt, and grateful to my colleagues who put care and dedication into crafting this ordinance! This is one win in a series of long, tiring battles. When we remember that we’re fighting for peace, breathable air, drinkable water, for smiling faces and healthy bodies — we know that we can keep fighting. And that there’s somebody behind us who’s willing to pick up where we left off.”

As we step into Native American Heritage Month, remember that less than half a percent of total foundation grant dollars go to Indigenous organizations and communities. Philanthropy must fund Indigenous-led organizations and communities across the country fighting to save our planet, and we must fund them to scale.

Earlier this year, Beata Tsosie-Peña from Tewa Women United spoke to Guardian about Amaranth — an ancient seed that is being farmed by a group of women in northern New Mexico. Maria Aurelia Xitumul, a member of Qachuu Aloom, puts this into a clear perspective: “the goal is to share experiences, not necessarily generate income, like capitalists. What we want is for the whole world to produce their own food…For the seeds, distance doesn’t exist. Borders don’t exist.”

We have one planet — the time for bold action is now.

To learn more about our plan to move $100 million to the grassroots, please visit seeusliftusfundus.org.

We support a stronger movement for reproductive and gender justice. Read more at www.groundswellfund.org