The Green Movement Turns Black and Brown

In collaboration with the online magazine theRoot.com, Tell Me More speaks with a panel of writers and advocates. Environmental justice activist Majora Carter, along with Dayo Olopade and Kai Wright from theRoot.com tell us what they think about being both black and green.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

We're going to continue our special Earth Day coverage with a conversation about why the environmental and conservation movements so often seem so lacking in diversity.

Now think about it. If you went to any Earth Day celebrations this weekend, look around. Who's there? Do the leading voices look like America? Probably not. We want to ask why that is, if it matters and what can be done about that.

To have that conversation, we've teamed up again with the online journal The Root, which published a collection of essays about that very issue. I'm joined not by three of the contributors.

Here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio, Dayo Olopade. She's Washington reporter for The Root, and she contributed a report about urban gardening in minority communities.

Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root. He wrote about the changing face of the environmental justice movement. He joins us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana.

And environmental justice advocate Majora Carter, winner of a MacArthur Genius Award, explains in her piece about how the green economy can help alleviate poverty. She's the founder of a nonprofit, Sustainable South Bronx and is president of the Carter Group, a consulting firm, and she joined us from the studios of Stanford University.

Welcome to all of you. Happy Earth Day.

DAYO OLOPADE: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

MAJORA CARTER: Thank you.

KAI WRIGHT: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now you've all written in one way or another about the lack of diversity in the environmental movement. Kai, I want to start with you. You wrote about the environmental justice movement, and you say it's historically been centered in sort of a defensive fashion, sort of fighting threats to minority communities like the proverbial, you know, garbage dump next to the housing project. But you say that that idea needs to be expanded. Explain why.

WRIGHT: Well, I mean, I think that environmentalism is one of those movements that is difficult to connect the threat with your day-to-day life. With environmental justice, it's easier to see the threat. There's a bus depot across the street. There's a slum lord you can point to who will not take the lead paint off the wall.

And so we've learned over years to see that kind of threat, those health-based threats. But the bigger picture is harder to connect to day-to-day injustice, and right now, as we enter into a time when the nation at large is really talking about how do we use green jobs to reshape our economy, that becomes an essential part of the conversation for racial justice and for economic justice in the country.

MARTIN: Majora, if you would, talk to me about this whole green-jobs thing. We had a conversation earlier in the program with Van Jones, who is, of course, the new White House green jobs czar, if I can use that term. But how - I think a lot of people still have trouble seeing how the environment and environmental preservation connects to economic growth and connects to repairing economic disparities, because many times, people see those as being very much at odds. They see economic empowerment as sometimes at odds with protecting the environment.

CARTER: It's not surprising that there is this false choice between either jobs or the environment. So either you have one or the other, but you can't possibly have both. What the green economy does, particularly through the development of green jobs around it, is it actually says that you can alleviate poverty and remediate the environment with the same exact thing, which is green jobs, so that you're using folks, real people who need those jobs in the first place to actually do the work that needs to be done, you know, whether it's installing solar panels or building the national grid or restoring wetlands.

So it makes sense that we're finally - I like to think of it as a reconciliation mode between people and the environment, because what environmental justice has always traditionally been about, to my knowledge, is, you know, recognizing that we're a part of one ecosystem so that we can do things to support each other, because we're all part of the same doggone thing, which it gets right down to it.

MARTIN: Dayo, I want to bring you in. You write about efforts to bring urban gardening to minority communities, and one of the things you write about is that, you know, it's interesting that African-Americans are seen as disconnected from the environment because historically, African-Americans have been so connected to the land.

It used to be very common to have, you know, this patch, no matter where you lived, to have a patch of something growing. So in doing your reporting, how did you understand that? Why did growing ones' own food become - why did black folks get disconnected from the land in the way that they have, which is a relatively recent phenomenon?

OLOPADE: Yes, I think that's very true. I mean, you know, soul food is the original type of recycling in many different ways. And so it's very interesting that there's this disconnect, because, you know, black people who were brought here, their interest was just, you know, to work the soil. And so it's very ironic to see public policy and cultural stuff sort of get in the way of access for people of color to fresh foods and vegetables.

And what I focus on is, of course, the White House garden. As a political reporter here in D.C., that was a big step forward, but it was also very striking because it was a black family that had planted the garden.

And I think that you've seen policies that have kept good, nutritious food out of communities of color for a number of reasons, and that might be part of the reason for this disconnect.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue our conversation about being black and green, expanding the concept of the environmental movement when we come back. I'm visiting with Majora Carter, Kai Wright and Dayo Olopade. Please stay with us. I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're continuing our conversation now about the green movement and what it means or doesn't mean in minority communities.

In a special collaboration with the online journal The Root, we brought together a roundtable of writers and activists who contributed to a collection of essays about the green movement published today in theroot.com.

I'm visiting with Dayo Olopade. She's the Washington report for The Root, Kai Wright, senior writer for the root, and environmental justice advocate Majora Carter.

Dayo, we were talking before the break about the fact that it's a little strange in a way that African-Americans and other minorities, including Latinos, are now considered kind of disconnected from environmental activism and conservation since these were vital functions in these communities in earlier generations.

Do you think that part of it is - you talked about the important of having a role model, like First Lady Michelle Obama planting a garden. But a lot of us had those role models in our grandparents. Do you think part of it is that it became not cool?

OLOPADE: Yeah, I think there's a certain sense that, you know, it was for people who liked to play Hacky Sack, and so, you know, it was something that was separate and something that was elite. And I think that that perception not only has changed, but really must change.

I mean, when you look at the sort of odds that are stacked against us in terms of climate change that, you know, is catastrophic, and it does disproportionately affect poor communities, lower-lying communities, people who are just closer to the ground, I think that it can't just be this sort of 10- percent, Hacky Sacking phenomenon. You really need more people.

And so for it to become cool is really an important step forward, I guess, when we try as a country, and move forward into a greener economy.

MARTIN: But a lot of people know that their neighborhoods don't have adequate sources of good food. This is an issue in a number of cities and towns where there's not one full-service, you know, grocery store. I just wonder, do you see - is there a disconnect in people understanding that food security, safe and wholesome food is a priority, or is it they just don't understand how to access it or how to advocate about it or work around it?

OLOPADE: I think a lot of it is public policy. I mean, what they can do is, you know, help zoning, which will change, you know, getting a grocery store to be in another development, you know, that's underneath some apartments and stuff. And that's public policy at a local and central level.

MARTIN: Majora, what's your take on this? Because one of your early initiatives was an urban-gardening initiative in the South Bronx. So what is your sense of this? Do you think people understand that their sources of food are a problem?

CARTER: No. The food deserts, areas where you just do not have access to healthy and affordable produce, you know, they are created as a result of policies. I mean, it's absolutely right. Like, why do you go to poor communities and you can find 10 fast-food joints, you know, to one, little, itty-bitty not even farmer's stand, but just like a place that sells, you know, whole vegetables and fruits?

I also think that there's also some issues within our own communities, you know, that to be close to the land is something that, you know, our grandparents did do. So therefore, we're not supposed to do that if we've grown beyond it.

I know I've actually taken some hits. You know, we started one of the country's first green jobs training and placement system and really looked at training folks, you know, many who were formerly incarcerated, many who'd been in the public welfare system for a very long time, to look at horticultural work, you know, as a tremendous way to get them into the job market with living-wage jobs.

Those were like - that's one of the first green jobs that we started, you know, in this country. And, you know, there were folks who were just like, oh, you know, you're training people to be field hands. So there is that perception out there that has to be taken back because we are so much a part of our land. And the fact that, you know, we've been stripped of the legacy that actually allowed us to see ourselves as a part of this planet and as real - not just caretakers, because, you know, we're on somebody's plantation, but because we actually, you know, have a deep reverence for what it can - how it supports us and how we can support it.

MARTIN: It's interesting, because I had an interview a couple of months ago with Chef Garvin, and he talked about how when he was training to be a chef - and, I mean, who would have thought that being a chef would be a sexy job? Because he was saying when he was training and he would come home and his people would tease him, saying who do you think you are, Uncle Ben? You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Yeah. I remember that.

MARTIN: The joke's on them. But what about that? I mean, all around the world, people are fleeing farming because they don't believe that it can sustain a family in the modern economy, Majora. So how do you make the argument that greening the economy does lead to a higher quality of life and a livable wage?

CARTER: Well you're actually right. Right now, it can't, because there's things like, you know, big agriculture policies that have destroyed things like small family farms. Those things actually were more than beautiful ways to support families. So we're again talking real policy change here. You know, why is it easier for farmers that just grow soybean and corn that we know, has a huge impact on actually making our communities more obese? Why is it easier for them to get subsidies to grow their stuff and export it even to poor communities around the world, than it is for a farmer who wants to grow carrots?

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with a roundtable of writers and activists, who contributed to our conversation on the online journal theRoot, published today that talks about diversity in the environmental movement, what needs to change to change the concept of the environmental movement to be more inclusive.

Kai, in your piece, you talked about the fact if why people of color need to get on board the environmental movement. You write that all the economic initiatives that have preceded Obama's massive agenda share a trait beyond being big and bold, they left black folks out in the cold. We're locked out of postwar home buying subsidies, nickled and dimed on military generated manufacturing, jobs and got little out of the GI bill's higher education initiatives. So you make the point that, you know, policies have changed that openly advocated and supported racial bias in government backed program is now unthinkable.

But you argue that to overcome historic disparities that people of color need to be involved in the green economy. Again, explain why?

WRIGHT: There are two conversations that are running parallel in Washington with some heat. And that's one - what do we about this longstanding historic wealth gap? There is a huge disparity between the amount of wealth, never mind wages, the amount of wealth that a family of color holds versus a white family. Instead, I think from black to white it's 10 cents to every dollar. And that grows out of years and years and years of decades of choices. Every time we've rebuilt the economy, and we've done this before, we built in inequality. And the wealth gap we're fussing over now is the result of that.

At the same time that we're running(ph) about that, we have this heated conversation about how to build, rebuild the current economy into one that is based on green jobs. And so, we've an opportunity that we had at reconstruction, at World War I, at World War II. We have that opportunity like we have not had in a long time. If we once again build an economy where inequality is built into it, we may never correct that problem.

And so, while its unthinkable, yes, that you know, with a black president and in 2009, that we would explicitly exclude people of color - if we don't explicitly include it, it's the same problem. So we've been talking about farming, but green jobs includes retraining all of the laid off autoworkers and all of the people who've lost jobs in manufacturing, retraining their skills to be useful in a new economy.

And if we don't make sure that those training programs - where the money is handed out evenly, where the money is focused in the neighborhoods that most need it, then we're going to look up and say, oh no, people of color were left out again.

MARTIN: How do you respond to what Majora was saying, and also Dayo was saying, about how, you know, there's structural issues and then there's attitudes. And then what do you say about this attitude that it's a good thing to move to the city to leave the farm behind, either as a black farmer or as a Latino farmhand, that for some people say, gee, I associate living green, or I associate that part of the economy with being backward and being left behind.

WRIGHT: One of the things that's great about Michelle Obama's Victory Garden is that I agree with that, I think it's made it cool again. I live in Brooklyn. I'm just got through putting in my own victory garden. And I was in the grocery store and listening to the Home Depot had adds-on, clearly it's on urban radio and clearly targeted African-American women, where the women were exchanging stories about how expensive the onions were. And they said, forget this, let's get out here and go build our garden, you know,...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: ...music.

And so, it's cool and hip, and that's great, because that attitude problem is relevant. But one thing that's going to take care of the attitude problem real quick is money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: And if people who're laid off in Detroit, in Cleveland, in Indianapolis, in Brooklyn - and if we say, listen we're going to give you money to get you a job in this new economy, then that's going to change attitudes real fast.

MARTIN: Dayo, I think Dayo has to be our cool arbitrator.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think she's been, how can we put it, our fresh diva, you know, she is our youngest diva.

OLOPADE: I'll take it.

MARTIN: So Dayo, do you think, among people your age - I'm going to make you spokesperson for your entire generation, hope you don't mind. Do you think what we are saying here is true that it can be both an attitudinal shift to not make it corny and like grandma, that it's not just like for, you know, white folks with nothing better to do.

CARTER: Yes, I think it's the answer. You know, people who are under 30, on a whole host of issues, are coming a lot closer to one another in terms of their attitude politically. Certainly when it comes to green, I think that there is something very trendy, very hip about - you have a lot of celebrities that are going on, you know, television talking about turning off our lights for one day, you know, driving their pri-i(ph) - is that the plural? - prii?

MARTIN: I don't know, but I must tell you I don't see very many celebrities of color driving...

CARTER: Yeah I think that's very true and I think a very big part of it has been this sort of, you know, hippie versus, you know, street smart cool divide?

MARTIN: But I also think it's people who are deprived. I think people who have historically been deprived, you know who have been - their houses have been too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer and have had to do without and there's the proverbial having-to-get-your-clothes-from-Goodwill don't see that as recycling. They see it as having to get your stuff from Goodwill.

CARTER: Yeah I mean I think that just informing people about the type of work that are available, about the type of money and the opportunities that are available. Even friends of mine have started a coalition called Win-Win. There are brand new jobs out there where they are going door to door, small businesses in New York city helping them, you know, restaurant, nail salon, barber shop - whatever it is, lower their energy costs and so I do think that its not just young people of color. Young people of all ages - they are not only feeling like it's hipper and that there's something in it for them, but that it's imperative because this is you know our planet now.

MARTIN: ... Or will be soon. I want to ask you too in the time we have left to talk about, you know, we've talked about the personal, now to talk about the political - what are some of the policy initiatives or ideas that you think are important in order to make the environmental movement more inclusive - I don't know - Majora why don't you start it?

CARTER: There is a movement already, you know, whether or not people openly acknowledge that they are a part of the environmental movement or not - the thing that I'm concerned about is to speak directly to Kai's point you know was like if we've created structural problems and inequality you know that if left poor people and people of color out of traditional economic booms(ph) this is the time we make sure we bring them into it. So building things like the national grid, green roofing in urban areas, urban forestry management, on a huge large scale so we can sort of bolster up Mother Nature, you know, and this earth that we are living on so that we don't have to seriously continue to think about ways that we've got to like create more energy when we could just be conserving it and providing huge jobs in the process.

MARTIN: Kai?

WRIGHT: I'd echo that and I'd say that the most important thing is to just make sure that we make the appropriate investment - that we invest where it's needed most and that means follow the jobless data and unemployment amongst African-Americans is in double digits and certain cities and certain towns that are hit worst and I think we have to make sure that where we invest in a new green economy we invest in those places where it needs it most.

MARTIN: And Dai you're a reporter not an advocate, but I give you the final thought in terms of what your reporting indicated about what would be useful to the people you spoke to.

OLOPADE: Right, I think, you know, trying to really look from a federal level I mean, if you looked at the American reinvestment and recovery act on its own it would have been the biggest clean energy bill that's ever been passed in America. I've got a bunch of other bells and whistles too but that's important. There's a lot of money coming out of the Federal government and you know on a larger sense like the U.S. has really has to sort of put up our shop when it comes to climate change in that we have a conference in December this year in Copenhagen that's going to sort of be the next Kyoto.

And the U.S. has to really put a lot of important tangibles on the table before we get to that meeting. I don't know if we are going to have a price on carbon this year but if we have an army of people in America who have suddenly been converted to the cause of green that could show for a lot when we get together to meet the other nations in the world to try and fix this big problem we've got.

MARTIN: So Dai have you started your garden?

OLOPADE: Oh I have a window sill. I'm aiming to start it. You'll see my dirty knees soon. Don't worry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Dai Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root. She joined me here in our Washington D.C. studio. Environmental justice advocate and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Majora Carter joined us from the studios of Stanford University and writer and editor Kai Wright, senior writer for The Root joined us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. Thank you all so much for joining us.

WRIGHT: Thank you for having me.

OLOPADE: Thank you.

CARTER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Each of our guests today contributed to a collection of essays marking Earth Day for the online publication The Root. You can find a link on our Web site as well. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

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