Today I will dive into the question of: If someone is not doing work alongside the communities (or their communities)—outside of academia—can they do environmental justice work?
This is question I usually pose to my class or audience while guest lecturing. It is interesting to hear their responses as everyone has a different view on what environmental justice or signifies. Environmental injustices have been impacting communities of colors for centuries. For communities of color, environmental justice is not a choice, but a means for survival.
While diving into academia, environmental justice has become a co-opted term utilized by many to describe their research—despite their research not being community-based or centered. So can this really be environmental justice?
Personally, I have witnessed my relatives, parents, and community members advocate for environmental justice. Some of these cases include; the fight against Monsanto, overcoming a civil war that forced indigenous children to fight first, advocate for the protection of our natural resources, etc. The list can go on and on. As a result, my views on environmental justice are different than most academics. I believe that if you are not part of the community who is taking action to address the environmental injustice—you are just doing research and not really environmental justice work. Why? Because environmental justice is not just a fancy word that can be thrown into your paper, unless you have sacrificed as much as the community themselves. Sometimes I ask myself when reading a paper that includes "environmental justice"—is this paper helping the community it mentions or helping the author more advance their career in academia? If the answer does not include any benefits to the community, it is another environmental injustice as it is allowing an author or scientist to conduct research and use a word that has a deeper meaning that cannot just be used loosely.
It is permissible to use this word if it centers the community that is doing the work on the ground and outside the ivory tower of academia. Also if the community understands the pros and cons of having a paper that mentions the work they have done or are doing published, then this is a participatory paper that has the consensus to be published. However, if work or research is done without consulting the community or asking them what they need, it is not environmental justice work. It is also a fine line between the white savior complex and doing environmental justice work.
Dr. Robert Bullard, the professor who introduced this term of environmental justice never really said that he did environmental justice work. He talked about environmental justice from a third-person as he centered the communities impacted. "Robert Bullard says he was “drafted” into environmental justice while working as an environmental sociologist in Houston in the late 1970s. His work there on the siting of garbage dumps in black neighborhoods identified systematic patterns of injustice. The book that Bullard eventually wrote about that work, 1990’s Dumping in Dixie, is widely regarded as the first to fully articulate the concept of environmental justice." He advocated for the term so that the communities of colors impacted would have a louder voice, but he never specified how he was doing environmental justice work. This is how the term has changed in meaning. I have met several individuals saying they do environmental justice, but no one can do environmental justice work, only an entire community can.
You have to be an activist and an academic—especially if your work is labeled with the "environmental justice" term. I advocate for "environmental justice" not to be thrown out loosely just because it is a new term that is being more and more heard of.
Welcome to my personal blog! My blog is intended to cover topics regarding food, environmental, climate, and health justice through a decolonizing lens—centering indigenous voices, experiences, and principles. Please feel free to leave comments on blog posts to continue dialogue.
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