The Clean Water Blog

Perspectives of a Hispanic Organizer

Many of the issues that environmental non-profits work on are problems that people of color (POC) face daily, but last year, as I attended a Clean Water Action staff retreat I looked around and noticed that the majority of the people there were white. I have a feeling that this is common in many environmental groups across the country. So why is it that POC, who are most impacted by environmental destruction, are not represented in the organizations that work to combat and address the harmful threats to their lives? I don’t know the answer to this question but can only infer from my personal experience and cultural background. From my perspective as a person of color in the field of environmental organizing I know that there are tribulations that affect us that might not be completely obvious to everyone.

Some of these include:

  1. Perceptions that are exacerbated and perpetuated.
  2. Differential treatment in information dissemination.
  3. Same actions, different repercussions for people of different skin color.
  4. Lack of being heard or treated fairly.

POC have always been a disenfranchised group in the United States; POC have received inferior education, lived in polluted environments, received lower pay and had their lives and families considered to be less important than white people’s. One result of this long history of inequity is that many people in communities of color have not had the opportunity to be informed about the kind of threats they are exposed to everyday or the different ways they can help address environmental degradation  Although I have been incredibly privileged in my life, I know that there are many who are not, and I believe that I am a minority in a majority white profession because I have had the opportunity to receive the education many of my counterparts have not.

Nevertheless it is a myth that POC are not engaged in environmental protection. The groups recognized and celebrated as "environmental groups" are not the only ones doing environmental protection. Many POC that are doing this work don't necessarily call themselves environmentalists, and their knowledge and work is often not recognized. For example, there are urban farms and partnerships in communities of color that aren’t necessarily broadcast to the masses; and the number of businesses that are creating non-toxic and healthy personal care products has increased dramatically in communities of color.

Throughout my upbringing I was taught to never waste resources, reuse things that could be reused and to take care of my surroundings.  But when I decided to pursue a minor in environmental studies I found that there was a lot I didn’t know about sustainable environmental practices. Much of the information that was new to me seemed to be things that my white colleagues already knew. Recycling, toxic chemicals, and the dangers of CO2 in our environment were never things we talked about in my family. Not because we didn’t care about them, but because we didn’t talk about them so formally; it was just an instinctual action. The other issue behind the misinformed perception that POC are not engaged in environmental protection is the negative representations of POC that are pervasive in our society. For example black women are seen as aggressive and angry when they speak up instead of being praised for standing up against injustices. As a result their asks and messages are held as invalid.

When leaders of majority white environmental organizations cannot hear and lift up the voices of people of color, the result is that these organizations are not welcoming to people of color.  History in the US has made it seem that our words are not as valuable as those of a white person. Every day the concerns of POC are being pushed aside and are only addressed when they begin to affect a white community or become a national headline. Not to say that this is always the case, but it is repetitive enough to generate a national movement that addresses the silencing of people across the nation - Black Lives Matter (BLM). The BLM platform, released in 2016, not only applies to police brutality but all issues that affect a person of color, including environmental issues.

In addition, there are many activities that are considered standard practice for activists that have much  heavier consequences for POC than for white people. Getting arrested, no matter the reason, reflects negatively on a person of color’s record because of the racist stereotypes we experience every day. Fear of fighting back against injustices because of the very serious consequences overwhelms many POC.

I have felt compelled and have been given the space to galvanize people in my community. One of the most important jobs I have is to educate my fellow people of color on environmental problems and give them the opportunity to fight back with me. POC are strong, resilient and powerful in our convictions, and I am sure that if there is a large awareness campaign about the health risks we face and best practices for our environment there would be a large amassing of power from communities of color.

In my work in Massachusetts, I am striving to ensure that Clean Water Action’s strategies that have been used to outreach to white communities about environmental issues also work in communities of color! Not everyone has the same lifestyle, the same interests or the same background, and in order to reach different groups of people we must cater to each group’s needs and customs—and we have to listen to their thinking about what the problems and solutions are. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with my Clean Water colleagues to build our collaborations in communities of color and to bring new people onto our team who represent all of the communities we work with and for.

In a way, I must use my identity as the vehicle to understanding how I can effectively outreach to communities of color. It is a hard task but very necessary in order to protect the health of the families and individuals living in a toxic world.