Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association, answers questionsNo
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m president of the African American Environmentalist Association.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
The African American Environmentalist Association, founded in 1985, is one of the nation’s oldest African American-led environmental organizations. We are dedicated to protecting the environment, enhancing human, animal, and plant ecologies, promoting the efficient use of natural resources, and increasing African American participation in the environmental movement.
AAEA has sponsored creek walks, river tours, Chesapeake Bay tours, internships with most of the mainstream environmental organizations, and tours of toxics sites, power plants, drinking-water plants, sewage treatment plants, and conservation farms. We lobby Congress and state and local agencies to protect the environment. We speak all over the country. We recently participated in programs of the New York Urban League, Black Enterprise magazine, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. We work on environmental justice. We challenge the traditional environmental community to expand their budgets, agendas, and staffs to include African American participation.
Our main goal is to deliver environmental information and services directly into communities. We work to clean up neighborhoods by implementing toxics education and energy, water, and clean-air programs. We welcome all races interested in working for improvements in the African-American community.
In a perfect world we would eliminate smog, acid rain, and global warming through a combination of plug-in fuel-cell electric vehicles, wind power, photovoltaic power, nuclear power plants, clean coal, and ocean-based electric generation systems.
What are you working on at the moment?
We recently testified in the Maryland legislature to help pass a clean-cars emissions bill and a four-pollutant bill. We are currently working with a coalition to take nuclear-waste management out of the Department of Energy and place it in an independent nuclear-waste management agency. We are also working to amend the Clear Skies legislation to include an Environmental Justice Allowance Reserve amendment. It is basically designed to protect minority and low-income communities if the legislation is passed.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I have been a professional environmentalist for 26 years. I started in 1979 with the Environmental Policy Center/Institute (now Friends of the Earth). I directed the Energy Conservation and Transportation Project and started AAEA in 1985.
I became a chronic, acute asthmatic in 1991 (the hottest year on record at the time). I became a single parent with full custody of my son after a divorce in 1994. These two events led to a reevaluation of how I could and would approach my environmental work. I gave up on building a very large organization and downsized to work to accomplish large victories through small, concentrated efforts. As a result, AAEA is a small, volunteer organization. We have been reasonably successful in accomplishing the missions we target. We have supported some environmentally friendly development projects.
These adjustments were reasonable because I went into respiratory failure on July 21, 1991, and again in 1996. I attribute these near-death experiences to smog.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
There are always hundreds of emails in my various inboxes. I designed, built, and now run 15 websites and have to check emails on all of them. I feel like I am on the Nebuchadnezzar (Morpheus’ ship in the movie The Matrix) monitoring multiple computer screens viewing the matrix.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I am pained by the way the black community and the environmental community are prisoners to the Democratic Party. This leaves the communities out in the cold whenever the Republican Party wins. The Republican Party now runs the White House, Congress, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures. So the biggest pains I deal with are close-minded people who are afraid to wander off the plantation. My fellow blacks and greens: Free your minds and your butts will follow.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
The Nature Conservancy. I say this because they completed our Diversity Survey knowing that they would not do well. It was still a sign of respect for what we are trying to do. Most of the other large groups ignore us. It is arrogant. It is racist. It is an indicator of how they feel about the black community and individual blacks. AAEA looks forward to working with The Nature Conservancy on cooperative projects.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Thomasville, N.C. I now live in Fort Washington, Md. I was born in the segregated South. My mother’s parents were tenant farmers in eastern North Carolina. Thomasville is mid-state, and my parents lived at home with my paternal grandmother when I was born. My parents dropped out of A&T State University when I was born. My father later went back and got his degree (and more degrees later). They then moved to Greensboro, N.C., where I spent the early part of my life.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When I have personally and professionally crashed and burned and taken time to come back (it has happened twice). Our budgets flatlined in 1994 and again in 1998. Regrouping usually takes about two to three years. Interestingly, these worst moments led to me spending more time with my son. So worst moments have led to best moments. The 1991 and 1996 respiratory failures were pretty bad moments too.
What’s been the best?
Passing national energy and civil-rights legislation. I helped write and pass the Shared Energy Savings Program of 1986, which was signed by President Reagan. I also assisted in the passage of the NO FEAR Act of 2002, the first civil-rights legislation passed in the 21st century, which was signed by President Bush. The Notification of Federal Employees Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation (NO FEAR) Act holds federal agencies responsible for acts of discrimination by taking monetary judgments out of the offending agency’s budget instead of out of the general treasury. The legislation came out of a case where Marsha Coleman-Adebayo successfully sued the U.S. EPA for discrimination and won a $600,000 judgment during the Clinton administration.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Smog and the lack of political and societal will to prevent it. The average person places the blame for smog somewhere else. It is corporate America, or the utilities, or “traffic,” or factories, or pollution from other states or countries. Yet we want all of the amenities of America — televisions, computers, large cars and trucks, big houses, second homes, and every gadget that man and womankind can think of. Yet nobody wants a power plant, pipeline, or power lines anywhere near him or her. We want power everywhere, but we want to build absolutely nothing, anywhere near anything (BANANA) — not in my backyard (NIMBY). If we BANANA NIMBY anytime and anywhere, we should not expect electricity and gas all the time and everywhere.
Who is your environmental hero?
Dick Gregory. He was talking about environmental protection and nutrition back in the 1960s. I consider Gregory to be the godfather of the environmental-justice movement too. He was talking justice and environmental protection well before the formal EJ movement started.
Gregory was a founding board member of the African American Environmentalist Association. He also personally helped me when I had asthma trouble in the 1990s. He arranged credit at a health store for me. He would even give me rides home on occasion (albeit in a Rolls Royce), which I greatly appreciated, since I did not have a car in 1991.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
My current nightmare is the “opposition dogma” of the mainstream environmental movement. It appears that this community has adopted a philosophy of opposing everything. OK, traditional environmental groups support clean air, water, and land. But it appears that they oppose all innovative ways to get there and rely on old techniques of opposition politics. I think this is what led to the declaration by Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Werbach that “Environmentalism Is Dead.”
Unfortunately, the air is still polluted and many rivers are still unfishable and unswimmable. And water in urban areas can be dangerous to drink. The low-hanging fruit has been picked. We should be open to trying new ways to get to the high-hanging fruit instead of settling for nothing.
What’s your environmental vice?
I do not eat right. I should be trying to “get back to garden,” but I am a little lazy in this area. I know we were not designed to eat too much meat. It should only be on special occasions. The Woodstock Nation turned out to be a fat nation.
What are you reading these days?
Christie Todd Whitman It’s My Party Too (just finished it). I read five or six newspapers every day. I read National Journal, Energy User News, Pollution Engineering magazine, Business Week, Black Enterprise and Jet magazines and various blog sites. I surf the web. I read the Bible.
What’s your favorite meal?
Lobster and bluefish stuffed with crab meat (with a full carafe of white wine).
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I am a black conservative environmentalist. None of the stereotypes fit me.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The Chesapeake Bay. When I lived in Annapolis for three years, I loved fishing under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I had Black Walnut Creek in my backyard and a beautiful bay view. I became a bird watcher because of the many birds in my backyard.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Raising money. The environmental movement is now a $6 billion per year industry. My particular complaint is that virtually none of this money is invested in the black community or in black people via staff. (Yes, there is a black community in virtually every city and town in the U.S.)
The money has made the groups arrogant and has blinded them to any self-reflection. They have the truth, the light, and the way, and they do not need to hear from anybody disagreeing with them. In fact, they will try to discredit you if you disagree on dogma. So the environmental community is good at raising money. Unfortunately, the money has made them lose their souls. Blue-state foundations support their segregation and racism.
(Note to Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Werbach: They are not dead financially.)
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Diversity. The environmental movement is either anti-black or ignores the black community. They do not hire black professionals. They cannot retain blacks when they do hire them because of the hostile personnel and policy practices at most of the groups.
They could do better by hiring blacks and considering reviewing some policy positions that would make it easier for blacks to accept operating philosophies. They can open accounts at black-owned banks. They can invest in small minority organizations (not us — we are not self-promoting here). We are open to cooperative projects.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would allow car manufacturers and utilities to expense the manufacture and sale of 20 million fuel-cell-powered electric vehicles per year in the U.S., powered by hydrogen produced from nuclear power plants, wind turbines, hydro, photovoltaics, and ocean-powered electric power plants.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Sly & the Family Stone. My favorite band now is U2. Of course Lenny Kravitz and Prince are not bands. The Rolling Stones are probably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. I was a big Jimi Hendrix fan too.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Entourage on HBO. The Matrix trilogy.
What are you happy about right now?
I am above ground. My son is healthy. My bills are paid (for the most part). I have a functioning car. Most of my computers are working OK. I am encouraged about the opportunities for good environmental legislation.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Send Grist a donation.