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What does environmental justice have to do with tenant organizing?

By John Tieu - Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, August 21, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The Our Power National Convening kicked off on August 6th, 2014 in Richmond CA, a diverse city that houses the Chevron Richmond refinery. This refinery is also one of the larger greenhouse gas emitting factories in the nation. The city itself is an example of what happens when capitalism’s method of exploiting the working class, extracting their profit, and commodifying our environment reaches a peak. An alarming number of people in Richmond have suffered, and are currently suffering from breathing issues such as asthma due to the city’s harmful air. Crime has been consistently high, and disinvestment in the city is affecting urban space. The refinery itself, which provides jobs to a sizeable amount of the population in Richmond, is also a highly unstable and dangerous work environment.

At a community vigil on August 6th, participants of the convening learned about and paid tribute to the victims of an explosion that happened at the refinery two years ago in 2012, sending 15,000 to seek treatment.

The city’s population itself is constantly being reminded of their struggles with bombardments of smoke plumes and advertisements from Chevron citing modernization and expansion as positive changes. I’ve never seen or experienced any neighborhood like it on the east coast. A resident in the city of Richmond seems to have almost every aspect of their life permeated by the Chevron corporation, as it seems to always and constantly be in the collective conscience of the neighborhood. As an intern who did not have any background in environmental studies, did not focus on issues in my own neighborhood that dealt with clean air and energy issues, and did not ever have to live in the shadow of a massive refinery, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I became involved with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities this past summer, and had dealt with multiple issues ranging from organizing tenants in Chinatown, to doorknocking in NYCHA owned complexes, to putting on a screening of Delano Manongs, a film about the Filipino Farm Workers movement. While all somewhat varied in its subject, the projects had no readily apparent connections to the themes of the convening, which were mostly based on environmental and climate justice. Throughout the event I struggled to understand my place, as well as CAAAV’s place in the fight for a just transition into a new economic system, when there hasn’t been a direct connection of organization’s work focused on these issues. It had taken the majority of the conference to understand why Grassroots Global Justice would want to send Jeff (a fellow member) and I here to Richmond…

The workshops, the centerpiece of the 3-4 day gathering, were key in understanding the ultimate goal of the shift towards a new economy, and how everyone has a part in it. I attended a youth workshop on the first day of the gathering that focused on “mapping the future”. The participants were invited to draw on, as well as contribute ideas to what their idea of a fair and just city looked like. The food systems, the schools, as well as the general development of the city would be revolutionized to fit our plan of how a city in the new economic system would function. Food and food distribution was our topic, and we wanted to reclaim food as something more personal and special. While we decided that you would be able to go into a grocery store (locally owned, or co-op, not a chain) to get your produce, the city should also invest in better soil throughout the parks and lands so that community and personal gardens could also be created. We also decided that schools should place an emphasis on farming as well, establishing a closer connection between a person and their food.

The youth workshop was an extremely broad one, aimed to develop preliminary ideas of what we would want our new society to look like. Other workshops focused on the more technical aspects of how to get there. A workshop on carbon trading explored the more technical aspects of how government and the people are holding corporations responsible, demanding that polluters pay the fine. We explored different legislation and policies that essentially try to fix the problem of pollution by incorporating it into capitalism’s favorite solution to everything: Create a market for it that has supply and demand. In this case, it’s in the form of tradeable permits that businesses can buy and sell to each other. Polluters and other greenhouse gas emitters also have to invest a percentage into neighborhoods in decline, as well as into other forms of energy as they go over their “cap” of pollution, with the ultimate goal being that the cap is closed entirely.

It was an extremely interesting, but also very tough workshop, with the main problem being that it was full of jargon that I didn’t fully understand at the time. I then thought back to a tenant meeting that was held last week. One of CAAAV’s staff members Wai Yee had asked the tenants to choose between going through a workshop that would be about rezoning, or a workshop that would be about global warming. Unanimously, the tenants chose the workshop on rezoning, with their reasons being that the global warming workshop would be too technical. They feared they wouldn’t understand what was going on. They also stated that the rezoning workshop would be much more relevant to what everyone in Chinatown would be going through.

Looking back, this tells us two things about our members: Firstly, they seemingly don’t feel connected enough to the earth to learn more about how we can alter our patterns of behavior in order to coexist peacefully with it. Secondly, the language and information that is conveyed in some of these workshops may need to be modified so as to not be as intimidating to some other members (including me).

Another realization that I don’t really understand why it took me so long to have is in regards to the different intersections of the environment and urban studies and spaces. When Hurricane Sandy hit my apartment complex in the Two bridges neighborhood, I didn’t make the connection that the storm seemed to only be affecting neighborhoods where low income people of color predominantly reside. This was clearly not just coincidence, but instead I should have realized there has been a systemic pattern of environmental racism where the lower class has been placed in areas that are more likely to be in the danger zones in the event of a natural disaster. Environmental justice therefore is not limited to just “global warming” or saving trees. The environment is not just limited to greenery. The environment is the community that you and I live in. For me, the environment is my apartment. It is the corner store, the pathway along the pier where I jog, and almost everything else that I see on a daily basis. Justice for your environment therefore entails each resident the right to reclaim and rework the land in the manner that they see fit. They can shape and mold their neighborhood however they see fit, while also building a closer relationship to the earth. The national convening was an amazing first step in building national awareness, while also providing the tools essential for understanding what we’re going up against. What’s next for CAAAV, as well as for the rest of the nation is to start the just transition into a better economy.

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