Environmentalism Is Not Just
Owls or Rain Forests

By Mark Lewis
American News Service

As an African-American from West Harlem, Peggy Shepard doesn't fit the traditional image of an environmental activist. When she visited an urban classroom a few years ago to discuss her agenda, at least one student was taken aback.

"Does New York City even have an environment?" he asked.

Fewer people would ask that question these days, thanks to the higher-profile activities of such inner-city groups as Shepard's West Harlem Environmental Action, known as WHEACT.

"Environmentalism has always equaled wilderness and the great outdoors, and nobody has ever talked about the urban environment," said Shepard, who co-founded the group. "People have been taking on these struggles and we just didn't know about it."

Many of these groups were formed in reaction to a single issue -- in WHEACT's case, a sewage treatment plant -- but now have broadened their agenda, working toward solutions to the full range of urban-environment problems.

Local environmental groups, rural as well as urban, make up the fastest growing segment of the environmental movement today, and the most dynamic, according to Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center in Atlanta.

Beginning a decade ago, "environmental justice" became the term used to describe efforts by citizens in the rural South to keep low-income and minority communities from being used as dumping grounds for pollution.

The movement soon spread to the cities, where such issues as lead poisoning and the overabundance of diesel fumes affect millions of people in their daily lives.

"When you think of environmentalists, you think of rain forests and owls," said Russell Lopez, executive director of Boston's Environmental Diversity Forum. "But piles of trash blowing around on vacant lots is a tremendous environmental problem."

These urban green groups evolved out of the civil rights movement rather than out of the mainstream environmental organizations, according to those involved.

Their agenda focuses less on conservation and more on health issues. "You're really talking issues of clean water and clean air and toxics, and these are all things that impact health," Shepard said. "There is a national movement."

So far, however, the groups have resisted forming a national organization, preferring to organize locally and regionally. "The groups that are in the communities are the ones that are leading the struggle," Bullard said, as opposed to national organizations, such as the Sierra Club, with headquarters in Washington.

There are now 8,000 grassroots environmental groups nationwide, many of them in urban centers, according to the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in Falls Church, Va. Bullard's organization publishes a directory called "People of Color Environmental Groups," which lists 300 minority-led groups nationally, plus 75 in Canada and 60 in Mexico.

"We're adding new groups every day," said Bullard, director of the center, which is associated with Clark Atlanta University.

Among them is the Green Institute in Minneapolis. It grew out of an effort to fight a garbage transfer station planned for the low-income Phillips neighborhood, which has a significant number of Native American residents. The institute's associate director, Annie Young, who lives two blocks from the proposed site, is a veteran of that battle.

"We were willing to lie down in front of bulldozers and we were willing to sue the county for environmental racism," she said.

Her group won. The transfer station project was canceled. But the site already had been cleared, leaving the victors with the challenge of how to use the land. Their answer was to turn themselves from a protest group to a community renewal organization and seek control of the empty site for what Young calls an eco-industrial park.

The institute already has opened a Reuse Center store near the site, retailing home-improvement supplies recycled from demolished buildings. Its next project, on the site itself, is to be a business-incubator building, providing technical assistance and advice to small companies that specialize in reducing pollution.

"It will house 15 to 20 green businesses and some environmental organizations," Young said. "Our mission is to develop models for sustainable development."

The West Harlem group has made similar gains in tackling its original problem, a city-run sewage treatment plant that plagued the neighborhood with foul odors.

The organization, with only 160 active members and no paid staff at the time, took on the New York City bureaucracy. Under the terms of a lawsuit settled in late 1993, WHEACT won $1.1 million for a trust fund to help the group address environmental health concerns associated with the plant.

The group also won a court-appointed role in the effort to reduce emissions from the plant. It can, for example, hire its own consultant to make sure the court-ordered repairs to the plant are having their intended effect.

David Golub, a spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the plant, said the agency had already begun to deal with the odor problems before the lawsuit. He acknowledged, however, that the suit served as "an effective tool" for raising community concerns.

For Shepard, the dispute highlighted the importance of active citizenship. "The problem we have is that we have left everything to government," she said. "Citizens need to take back control of what happens in our communities."

Inner-city activists have come to realize that environmentalism is not only "for tree-huggers and whale-watchers," said Bullard, adding that mainstream environmental groups "are recognizing that not everything is monochromatic and not everything is based in Washington, D.C."

Fern Shepard, a staff attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., said her group has taken on more urban-oriented work in the past few years. So have other big environmental groups, she said.

This is partly because groups like WHEACT and the Green Institute have raised the urban movement's profile, and partly because mainstream environmental activists are focusing more on the fact that most of the world's people live in cities.

"There has been more attention recently to urban environmental problems," she said. "If we fail to address those issues we're not addressing the environmental issues that affect most people."

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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