Quita Sullivan is staff attorney for Alternatives for Community & Environment, where she also directs a pro bono network of professionals to assist communities with environmental justice issues. She is a member of the Montaukett Tribe of Long Island, N.Y. and a fellow of theEnvironmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 14 Oct 2002


It seems a little odd to start a journal that is mostly about work on a holiday, but then, it’s probably appropriate considering the holiday. For many people in this country, today is Columbus Day. For me, it is the start of Indigenous Peoples Week. For my seven-year-old son, today is Invasion Day. His politics are clear and simple. They invaded our country and they were wrong. He has no solutions to this issue. He just knows what the issue is.

Quita, son Padraig, and mother-in-law Anne, out on the town yesterday.

Holiday or not, I still have things I need to accomplish for work. I have a packed week ahead of me. Next week is the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Our entire office is traveling to Washington, D.C., for this event. We’ve been planning this for some time and it will all come to a head this week. So far, there are at least 40 individuals riding in the bus we’ve chartered to take us there. Logistics need to be finalized, the Northeast Environmental Justice Network’s newsletter needs to be finished, and I have a workshop to put together.

I’m not responsible for the logistics, but the last two are definitely my headache. I’m still not sure we should publish a newsletter right before the summit if I cannot get enough articles from most of the states that make up NEJN. I’ll give it a shot though. I have until Thursday to get it finished. By the end of today, I should have distilled the various newspaper articles faxed to me from Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation in Albany and written a couple of articles.

The workshop is what is really worrying me this morning. I am responsible for a workshop on community-based lawyering and I cannot seem to get in touch with the people I had hoped would participate. By tonight I intend to have a description of the workshop and a list of possible participants. I ‘d like to get these to the summit’s workshop coordinator by Wednesday, at the latest.

One of the goals of this workshop is to discuss better methods for working with communities facing environmental racism in legal struggles. There is a real disconnect between the lawyers who work on an issue with a community and those who have to live with it every day. At ACE, we have been working toward a set of operating principles to ensure that those most affected are the most empowered — that community people become their own advocates and the lawyer takes a secondary, if not tertiary, role. In other words, the community is the expert on its own experience, not the professional.

This is a hard concept for many trained professionals, especially lawyers, to grasp, because they are not trained to think this way at all. As holders of specialized knowledge, we lawyers sometimes think we have all the answers. As director of a pro bono network of professionals for environmental justice, this is an issue I face all the time. How do I convince other professionals that they are a resource to the struggle, not the saviors of it?

Not all of my work today involves the summit. I have a motion that I need to file with the Middlesex Superior Court sometime this week, preferably tomorrow. That means I need to get the final draft to another attorney to provide a second set of eyes. This has been a very complicated case and this motion will essentially end my involvement in it. It’s difficult for me to end this case, not because I don’t want to get out — I do, it’s really time for me to go — but because it has come to a point where two individuals are stalling a community decision. The group originally decided together to file an appeal; the majority of the group wants to settle, and now two members are holding out. I sympathize with those two, and I understand that after years of struggle they are reluctant to give up the fight. Still, ACE assistance is limited to groups in lower-income communities and communities of color, not individuals.

That’s enough for a day off, isn’t it? Write an article, write up a description of a workshop for a national summit, email a final draft of the motion — and celebrate the beginning of Indigenous Peoples Week with my family. Mondays are my husband’s only day off, so at least we can celebrate together. And oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my mother-in-law is visiting …