Shale Maulana is Northwest summit coordinator for the Center for Environmental Citizenship and a student and activist at Seattle Central Community College.
Monday, 25 Aug 2003
This summer, I’m interning with the Center for Environmental Citizenship (EnviroCitizen), helping to organize a student summit, “Powered By Justice: Skills to Build Energy Alternatives.” It’s a 10-week internship, working on recruiting college students and getting media for our event.
The goal of our summit, and many of our other programs including student-led campaigns, is to develop students’ organizing skills so they can use them at their respective schools to build student power and effect political change, primarily around issues of clean energy.
One of our priorities in this summit (and all the work we do) is diversity. Why diversity? The environmental movement is dominated by the white middle and upper classes. If a movement is to benefit the people, it needs to reflect the people. Poor people and people of color are often most impacted by environmental destruction. In urban areas, corporations and the government are likely to pollute in poorer neighborhoods that have fewer resources to stop them. Our goal is to engage these people and act as allies to work with them to stop the destruction in their neighborhoods.
Within EnviroCitizen, staff undergo and facilitate “Dismantling Racism” training and participate in a caucusing process, developing a critical analysis of race and power in this country. At our summit, we will have a workshop on “Dismantling Racism,” to begin to change the patterns of the environmental movement and society as a whole.
As a woman of color, EnviroCitizen’s dedication to anti-racism was one of the things that made me consider this internship. I’d done a lot of other kinds of organizing at my college (anti-war, anti-FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas], anti-globalization, anti-tuition increase). I was continually making the connection between what I was opposing and racism. I could also see the connection between environmental destruction and racism in my own city, Seattle. I was turned off by the environmental movement for the most part because it was dominated by the white middle class and seemed disconnected from communities. I later learned about resistance to environmental oppression in communities of color and became more interested in that sort of environmental movement. I found more information on how communities of color are specifically impacted by the politics of environmental decision-making, and I wanted to get involved. EnviroCitizen was offering an internship, and as I learned more about the organization, it seemed in line with what I was interested in doing.
My internship is ending in a few weeks, and I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on what I’ve learned and the work I’ve done. I’ve learned a lot while planning this event and doing recruitment. I’ve learned the importance of making connections with people and organizations as well as relationship building. I’ve learned how to get donations, and I can make a mean flyer. I’ve learned about making detailed plans and following through on them (something which is often lost on student organizers). All of the skills and connections I’ve made here I will take with me when I go back to Seattle Central Community College in the fall.
Stay with me this week and see more about the great work I’ve done and am doing, and my experiences at EnviroCitizen!
Tuesday, 26 Aug 2003
EnviroCitizen has several ongoing campaigns that aim to engage students in the environmental movement and enable them to make changes at their schools and elsewhere. These campaigns include: Stop ExxonMobil, Clean Energy Now, and Campus Divestment. Part of my internship is to help shape these campaigns and spread the word about them to students.
The goal of all of our campaigns is to empower students and help them learn organizing skills so they can alter political relationships on campus and make changes to environmental policies. We offer paid internships to college students to run these campaigns at their schools, giving them the information and support they need while allowing them room to learn and experiment.
The Stop ExxonMobil campaign is run in partnership with Greenpeace. Since 1997, ExxonMobil has spent more than $46 million on lobbying to sabotage clean energy efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that addresses global warming. Internationally, ExxonMobil has a greasy record of polluting, committing labor and human rights violations, and destroying whole communities. ExxonMobil not only refuses to invest in any clean-energy alternatives, but does its best to stop them.
The way ExxonMobil operates is also contributing to environmental racism. The company destroys rainforests in West Africa, where the people do not have the resources to stop them. It exploits labor in Indonesia, taking advantage of the nation’s poverty. Pipelines are run under poor communities of color. It’s not a coincidence. ExxonMobil deliberately targets these communities of color because the company knows that they do not have the resources or political might to force them out.
In our campaigns, we support students in educating other students on this issue. We have postcards for students to sign and we send them to regional ExxonMobil affiliates. We also take pictures of students with speech bubbles that say, “ExxonMobil does not fill my tank” and other messages like that. We support students doing actions at ExxonMobil stations, but we do not offer legal support so all action is taken at one’s own risk. This multi-tiered campaign has shut down several ExxonMobil stations in cities around the country, including Los Angeles and New York.
Our Clean Energy Now campaign is focused on pressuring campuses to choose clean-energy alternatives. Students who intern with us on this campaign work to ensure that new buildings built on campuses are built “green,” taking advantage of clean energy and efficient lighting systems. Students work with cafeterias to see that biodegradable cups, plates, and utensils are used instead of Styrofoam and non-biodegradable plastics.
The Campus Divestment campaign works to make colleges and universities divest from companies that have environmentally unsound policies. Students mobilize and pressure their administrations to use the schools’ financial power to invest in environmentally sound companies. Students pay several thousands of dollars annually to institutions of higher education and should have a say about what is done with that money, especially making sure that the money isn’t damaging our environment and communities.
Students, by working together, have a lot of power within their schools. It’s a critical time for students to get involved in campaigns such as these. To help them, EnviroCitizen will be offering a student summit Nov. 14-15 at Seattle Central Community College — “Powered By Justice: Skills to Build Energy Alternatives.” This summit will be a great opportunity for students to learn organizing and action skills as well as get involved in our campaigns. We hope that by bringing students into these campaigns we will push clean energy and issues of environmental racism onto the political agenda, so that we can truly affect policy. It’s a free event, with travel scholarships available. Email emailE=(‘shale@’ + ‘envirocitizen.org’) document.write(‘‘ + emailE + ‘‘) or call 206.256.6429 for more information.
Wednesday, 27 Aug 2003
A large part of putting together our summit, “Powered By Justice: Skills to Build Energy Alternatives,” probably the largest part, is recruitment. One of our primary goals in recruiting students for this summit is diversity. We want our summit to speak to a broad base of students, because no movement will be effective in this country if it does not look critically at racism and work to change the course of things.
There is a lot of mistrust between environmental organizations and communities of color. A lot of this comes from the white-dominated nature of most environmental groups. If you are a person of color, being at a meeting that’s all white people besides yourself can be really intimidating and awkward, even if the group is not overtly racist. The strange looks, the way your comments and questions are received, the feeling of “What am I doing here?”
Many of the actions environmental groups take are not very accessible to communities of color. For example, actions involving arrest. Not that these actions are not a legitimate tool — they are in appropriate situations. However, being arrested means something totally different when the criminal justice system specifically targets people like you; it’s not going to mean just a slap on the wrist and a few hours in jail. A similar dynamic happens in rallies that have a high police presence. Often, organizers do not plan enough to keep people safe and out of jail, because it’s not such a concern for white activists. This is a very unsafe situation for most people, especially people of color.
The environmental movement often does not consider economic issues around environmental protection and how they will affect low-income communities, as well as communities of color. For example, Seattle is planning to build an extensive light-rail system. The light rail is potentially great for reducing air pollution. The problem is that it will run down the middle of a main street in Rainier Valley, the most diverse part of the city, with potentially devastating effects on the community. It will be underground north of Rainier Valley, in the wealthier part of the city. For these reasons, among others, engaging students of color in the environmental movement is challenging because of legitimate issues around trust.
So, where do we go from here? EnviroCitizen staff collectively participate in Dismantling Racism trainings and caucuses, which help us be critical of and understand race and power. It’s our foundation for achieving diversity, in a sense. We also spend a lot of time on messaging, to make sure the way we approach people is not alienating. We work hard to be genuine in our anti-racism. At our summit, one of our workshops is designed to look at the history of the environmental movement; institutionalized, cultural, and personal racism; and current intersections of environmental destruction and racism. In this way, we work to educate environmental activists and shape the future of the environmental movement to be more inclusive.
Some of our recruitment is broader, like class presentations. For these, we make arrangements with college teachers to give a short presentation at the beginning of classes. They are usually about five minutes. I start with a question like, “Who here has asthma? Who knows anyone who has asthma?” Then I talk about air pollution in Washington, and how Washington has the highest asthma rates in the nation. The highest asthma rates are concentrated in southeast and central Seattle, in the more diverse and poorer neighborhoods. I mention how clean energy alternatives can reduce the pollution and increase the health of our region. Then I announce our summit and hand out a flyer. It’s pretty simple, but effective. This is how we found most of our volunteers.
We try to be very intentional about our recruiting. We have meetings with student organizations and multicultural clubs. We do presentations at tribal colleges. We are very open about our goal of diversity, and are open to criticism about our approach as well. We know that we are not the ultimate in challenging racism; we are human just like anyone. So, we are always open to critique.
Recruiting for this event has been about building honest relationships and having truthful conversations around environmental racism, and finding appropriate ways to change this in the future.
Thursday, 28 Aug 2003
When I start my days, I always check my email, then get to the phone messages. The bulk of the emails I get are concerning our upcoming student summit — either volunteers or people interested in attending it. Today, I had a lunch meeting with a staff person from Jobs with Justice, a labor action organization, to talk about how students and labor can work with each other in the future. It was a good meeting, and we started to make plans for the fall. It’s great to be able to connect with other organizations and find out how we can collaborate.
Last week, my boss and I had a meeting with Yalonda Sinde from Community Coalition for Environmental Justice. At that meeting, we were able to get contact information for someone at Save Our Valley, an organization we had been hoping to work with on a campaign to ensure that a planned light-rail system in Seattle doesn’t harm low-income communities and people of color. I did a lot of research on this issue (bless the Internet), finding out the good side and the gruesome bad side of the light-rail plan. Unfortunately, as it turns out, a collaboration with Save Our Valley might not come together.
Seattle, my hometown, has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, and Washington state has the highest asthma rates, notably where there are poorer neighborhoods and people of color. Light rail would do a lot to relieve some of the congestion and pollution by providing alternatives to driving. A light-rail system would be faster and more reliable than the current Metro bus system. The bus system works for a lot of people, but bus service can be unreliable at times, and it often takes quite a while to get where you are going. I usually ride Metro buses to get around, if I’m not walking, and sometimes walking can actually be faster.
If the light rail is successful in getting cars off the road, it would help with Seattle’s air and water pollution, which is continually getting worse, causing more and more children to get asthma each year, and putting salmon increasingly in danger. Light rail would also reduce petroleum consumption and would be a great step in developing clean-energy alternatives, helping Seattle to grow in a healthier way.
But at the same time, there are a lot of Seattleites raising concerns about the lack of community accountability in the planning process and the way light rail will impact communities. Consider that most of the light rail will be constructed underground, but it is planned to be above ground in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, the most demographically diverse part of the city, with people of color and immigrants from around the world. An above-ground light rail would destroy many businesses and homes in that area. Most of these businesses are small, family-owned operations that can’t afford to move and would have to shut down entirely. The type of light-rail system being planned is also the most dangerous type in terms of fatalities and vehicle collisions. The light rail would run down the middle of the street every three to five minutes. Rainier Ave. and Martin Luther King Way, the proposed streets for the rail, have schools and businesses as well as homes along them. The light rail would also seriously affect emergency response, since only 14 of the 54 intersections of these major arterials would be available.
There is no reason why the light rail could not run underground the whole way, except that it would be more expensive. But one must weigh the monetary cost against the human cost. If the light rail is constructed above ground in the Rainier Valley, it would gravely hurt communities of color that are already struggling.
There is no structure within the light-rail planning process for community accountability. Since tax money is being used to construct it, and it’s made for the benefit of the citizens, there definitely should be a clearly defined way for community members to play an active role in this decision-making process — especially members of communities that will be affected the most.
In the struggle for a cleaner environment, there has to be a way for communities to be protected. It shouldn’t be an either-or situation, as it’s becoming with the light rail. What is the point, then, of a cleaner world if our communities are destroyed in the process?
Save Our Valley, a community-based organization working on this issue, recently lost a lawsuit against Sound Transit, the light-rail authority, which means that the light rail will likely be built as planned. It will be truly devastating to the Rainier Valley community. It’s not a coincidence that the planning of the light rail did not involve any community input, and that Save Our Valley lost the lawsuit. It’s all symptomatic of the racist way things are done in this city, and across the country. Communities of color almost always bear the burden of expansion and industrialism.
It is unfortunate that EnviroCitizen could not team up with the Save Our Valley effort. In organizing, things don’t always work the way you’d planned. In this movement, as in any, there will be successes and failures. Not to say that it’s totally over with the Rainier Valley. It’s not over ’til it’s over, right? But for now it looks gloomy. Now more than ever, we need to be doing anti-racism work to make sure things like this do not continue to happen.
Friday, 29 Aug 2003
Part of my internship at EnviroCitizen involves getting media attention for our summit, “Powered by Justice: Skills to Build Energy Alternatives.” Radio stations and student, community, and local papers around Washington and Oregon are our targets for the summit. Student papers are the most important, since it is, after all, a student summit.
Right now, we have about five media volunteers. We found most of the volunteers through class presentations announcing the summit, plus connections I’d made before at Seattle Central. I sent an email to all the volunteers yesterday to call a media meeting for next Thursday. Monday, I’ll make phone calls. Pulling together a meeting can be hard; everyone is so busy and has different schedules. Still, it’s important that we have this meeting to make sure we get all the media attention we need to publicize our summit. Hopefully, it will come together. If not, we can figure something else out.
Media coverage can make a huge difference in a campaign, good or bad. At the University of Oregon, Taylor Stevenson, who attended one of EnviroCitizen’s Summer Training Academies, ran a Vote Environment Campaign in support of Measure 27 last fall. Measure 27 was an initiative to require labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon. Although the issue was a big one in the state’s agricultural community, students were not well informed about it, so Taylor began doing voter registration and building awareness at her school.
The strongest part of her campaign was the media coverage. She had several volunteers write letters to the editor and articles to inform students of the importance of knowing what’s in their food and understanding the international implications around economic justice issues and agriculture. The campaign succeeded in getting 10 media hits on campus and in community papers, and the students voted overwhelmingly in favor of Measure 27. In this situation, media was an effective way to gain visibility on an important issue.
In the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, by contrast, protestors received a lot of bad press. While most protestors were nonviolent, a handful reacted to police intimidation tactics in less peaceful ways, and those few people were all over the news. The entire protest was labeled as violent, even as a riot. Meanwhile, the aggression and antagonism of the Seattle police were not portrayed in the media at all. Fortunately, people recorded the event, and videos, such as “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” showed the other side of the protest in a very different light than how the mass media covered it. The moral of the story is that it’s important to make sure media coverage is done in an effective way that supports your cause. Also, we can reclaim the media through alternatives such as the Internet, home videos, radio, and other venues.
One strategy to ensure that your media coverage is effective is having a clear message. We are currently working on a media message that we will use with our media volunteers on this summit. A media message should be short and memorable. It’s very helpful to have a message in mind when talking to the press or writing articles. A strong message will keep you on track. It should be something that will stick with people and that they can relate to, so that when they hear about the issue, they will think of your stance on it and why it should matter to them.
Creating such a message is one of the many things I’ve been working on for the past nine weeks. I’ve learned a lot about building relationships with reporters and creating effective strategies to get media attention. These are tools I will take with me back to Seattle Central in the fall, when I continue my student organizing there.