Max Weintraub is the executive director of the Environmental Justice and Health Union and a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 7 Oct 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

What the heck was I thinking? Starting a nonprofit when funding is down, focusing on poor and minority communities when I am from neither, trying to bring people together who have not cooperated well in the past … A set-up for failure, right? Yet, here I am, three days from the launch date of the Environmental Justice and Health Union, a brand-new nonprofit oganization, and at this point it’s clear that we’ll actually get off the ground.

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Let me back up a bit. After spending many years trying to understand the relationship between environmentalism and civil rights, I decided, over a decade ago, to take action. I invited African-American environmental activists and scientists to speak at an elementary school in a low-income, African-American community. The children loved it. The questions they asked, though, proved that their perception of the environment differed greatly from mine. To those children, the environment consisted of their immediate surroundings, rather than some distant animals and forests. One speaker, lecturing about the nascent environmental justice movement, helped me understand a new way to see the relationship between people and the environment.

Based on that experience, I decided to become an ally to the environmental justice movement. I gained expertise in environmental toxins. I worked with community groups around the country that fought environmental disease. I came to see that environmental justice activists and environmental health professionals, sometimes separated by training, race, policy, and class, often have difficulty working together to develop the best solutions for communities. I decided to found the Environmental Justice and Health Union to overcome those barriers and help people work together to eliminate environmental disease in poor, minority communities, an important step toward a broader vision of environmentalism.

Of course, I could not take that step alone. I invited several activists and professionals to serve on an advisory board and help keep the Environmental Justice and Health Union true to its mission. They will also guide the development of the EJHU Catalyst, our monthly newsletter.

The first goal of the Environmental Justice and Health Union is to increase awareness of the problems of environmental justice. Surprisingly, data on disparities in environmental disease by race and class has been compiled in few places. The Environmental Justice and Health Union will serve as a clearinghouse for such information.

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Today, I have been working with a web designer and programmer to fine-tune our website. The site includes more than 20 pages (and more than 100 links) with information for environmental health professionals and environmental justice activists on disparities data, training, law and policy, and research. By tomorrow afternoon, the EJHU website will be live at www.ejhu.org. I can’t wait!

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Tuesday, 8 Oct 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Only two more days until the launch of the Environmental Justice and Health Union. I am incorporating the comments of the EJHU advisory board in the first issue of Catalyst (our monthly newsletter). The biggest change is in the newsletter name. My first choice, the Union Call, was considered a bit too staid.

The advisory board is small; at present, it consists of four colleagues with whom I share many personal connections. Lynn Battle is a lead poisoning prevention activist who founded the Citizens Lead Education and Elimination Project. Michael Green heads the Center for Environmental Health, the fiscal sponsor for the Environmental Justice and Health Union. Swati Prakash is the environmental health director of West Harlem Environmental Action, a key organization in the Northeast Environmental Justice Network. And Alejandra Tres is a colleague from the Environmental Leadership Program who directs the Association of Environmental Health Accreditation Programs.

I consider the advisory board integral to the success of the Environmental Justice and Health Union. These are people whose judgment and experience I trust. They are well-connected to the environmental justice and environmental health groups that EJHU hopes to reach. They understand the importance of the problem EJHU seeks to solve, and they have varied perspectives and ideas about how to do so. I consider myself very fortunate to have their support and guidance.

Today, though, I worry about their input. They only had two business days to review the Catalyst before I submitted it to our brand-new website, which goes live today. I made some calls this morning to get any last-minute comments, but I am not sure they all had a chance to review the newsletter before it was placed on the website. When I invited them to serve on the advisory board, I promised I’d give them a week to review each newsletter. Now I’ve missed on the first try. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do better as the process becomes smoother.

I am ecstatic, though, about getting the website up and running. I have been collecting information for the site for months, and I know it contains plenty that will surprise and intrigue environmental health professionals and environmental justice activists. Of course, we still have a few glitches to work out, but I am optimistic that we can get it all squared away this week.

I have two more big tasks for the week. The first, distribution of Catalyst, requires that I track down every email address and listserv related to environmental justice and environmental health I can find. As the newsletter is the primary means to inform people about the existence and actions of the Environmental Justice and Health Union, it is critical that I send the premier issue far and wide. My second (and more fun) task is to get ready for the Environmental Justice and Health Union launch party on Thursday. So far, 20 people have made online reservations using Evite.

The common theme throughout all of these activities is electronic communication. The website, newsletter, and party invitations all depend on the web. The Environmental Justice and Health Union has little staff support. Using these electronic means promotes quick and easy communication. It also frees me to focus more on the critical task of the Environmental Justice and Health Union: gathering and organizing the information that environmental justice activists and environmental health professionals can use to eliminate environmental disease in poor, minority communities.

Wednesday, 9 Oct 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Today has been tough. The Environmental Justice and Health Union website is up and running (as of yesterday), but I cannot stop myself from tinkering with it. Meanwhile, the newsletter, Catalyst, is done, and while the content is great, I am not thrilled about the format. So after all that worrying yesterday about getting the newsletter on the website, I decided to wait until we come up with a better format before posting it. Until then, I will simply email it to EJHU members. And then there are the other things I’m worried about, like food for the launch party tomorrow night. What am I going to feed these folks? Plus, I still have to write my speech.

Within an hour after the website went up, I started receiving congratulatory emails from friends. I truly appreciate such support. While the goal of the Environmental Justice and Health Union is to support the activities of other people, to provide information and promote communication between environmental justice activists and environmental health professionals, I enjoy the recognition for the hard work I put into creating the website. I believe it uniquely explains how environmental disease threatens poor minority communities and what solutions exist. I also know, though, that the website would not be nearly as strong as it is if I hadn’t had the help of at least a dozen other people.

One of the greatest challenges for the Environmental Justice and Health Union has been to bridge the digital divide. After all, some environmental justice groups have limited access to the Internet. So the question is, how can EJHU serve them despite having so little staff support? Through discussions with many people, I have come up with a number of partial solutions.

First, we designed the website with the assumption that folks have dial-up Internet connections on old computers with limited memory. The web pages are simple, with few graphics, and fit well on smaller computer screens. The goal was to create a website that is easy for any computer to access and read. Second, we designed a “Tech Tips” section, which lists services available at no cost to support the technological development of small community groups. Such services include free computers, software, and translation. Third, membership in the Environmental Justice and Health Union is free to small community groups. EJHU seeks to support such groups, and their limited budget makes a membership fee a more onerous burden than it is for larger groups. Fourth, we offer the option of receiving our newsletter by fax rather than email. Catalyst is one of the main benefits of becoming a member of the Environmental Justice and Health Union and we wanted to take advantage of ways to distribute it to members without the expense and administrative burden of regular mail. Finally, we give folks the opportunity to submit their thoughts. Both Catalyst and the website provide means to give feedback and encourage readers to do so.

But we know that even such efforts do not entirely solve the problem of limited and unequal access to technology. Thus, communication via other means became critical. The most obvious option is to actually go out and speak to people. To that end, I will be going to the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., later this month. I attended the first summit in 1991 and look forward to seeing old faces and new at this event. Throughout the summit, I will be letting folks know about the Environmental Justice and Health Union and encouraging them to join.

Thursday, 10 Oct 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

The administrative tasks surrounding the startup of the Environmental Justice and Health Union were interrupted by a philosophical challenge. EJHU is focused on bringing environmental justice activists and environmental health professionals together to eliminate environmental disease in poor, minority communities in the U.S. A member of our advisory board asked me why I used the term “poor, minority communities.”

I had already given the issue some thought. In my daily life, I use the term “low-income communities of color” as it more accurately represents the class and race idea I want to convey. I prefer that term because, for many people, “poor” has multiple negative connotations, including implications about character; meanwhile, “minority” is somewhat vague, as it may relate to sexuality, religion, race, and so forth. “Poor, minority” has been used repeatedly to construct histories that validate racist social structures. However, I worry that “low-income communities of color” may be perceived as either unduly academic or “politically correct” by people who are unaware of why that term may be preferred to “poor, minority communities.”

Because the goal of the Environmental Justice and Health Union is to invite people to participate, I discussed the issue with several people over the past few months but did not gain a consensus on which term to use. It is not difficult to see why. The longer term is more accurate; the shorter term is more widely used. I wanted to strive for both, and I thought it might even be possible to reclaim “poor, minority” by using the term to describe a difficult situation without blaming the victim, as is too often done. In the end, I simply chose the shortest term. In hindsight, I should have had a clearer rationale for my initial decision so that I could more readily defend the choice. Instead, I await further feedback and discussion with the advisory group before making a final choice.

Meanwhile, I have started to pull together my launch speech for the party tonight. I intend to give a short explanation of why I decided to start the Environmental Justice and Health Union, what its mission is, and what tools will be used to achieve that mission. The challenge will be to keep it short. So many people have given so much to get me to this point. My family exposed me to the different ways people live and encouraged me to follow my dreams. My friends and mentors taught me about the complex relationships between race, class, and the environment, and participated in my struggle to develop the language to discuss such issues. My responsibility now is to make sure this organization gives to others even more than has been given to me.

So, that’s what I plan to discuss over appetizers, drinks, and four extra-large pizzas (two veggie, two combo). Now, if only I could get the darn email to work right …

Friday, 11 Oct 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Wow, what a party! Dozens of friends turned out last night for the launch of the Environmental Justice and Health Union. The unseasonably warm weather we’d been having in the Bay Area came to a sudden end, so rather than hold the event outside as planned, we all squeezed into the offices of the Center for Environmental Health, our fiscal sponsor. It was just as well.

When starting a new group, you have little to show other than an idea. Thus, I extended more invitations to friends than to colleagues. I did, though, have five computers set up in the offices with access to the Environmental Justice and Health Union website and to this diary. Copies of parts of the website and some of the diary pages were also printed up and posted on the wall for people to read. I also showed off the newsletter and gave a short speech about why the Environmental Justice and Health Union is important and what it hopes to achieve.

In my speech, I noted that our nation is in flux. Discrimination based on race, class, and gender continues. The threats to our environment remain real. But, unlike in the last century, mobs no longer lynch people and rivers no longer catch fire. Instead, the burdens on both people and the environment have become more subtle, although the threats are no less real. They are not as easy to see even as the body count continues to rise.

At every income level, people of color are more likely to be poisoned or suffocated; lead, mercury, pesticides, and asthma are just a few of the better-known threats. Low-income people of color carry the heaviest burden of discrimination and environmental degradation. The Environmental Justice and Health Union recognizes that new solutions are needed and will work toward eliminating this problem.

How will we do this? First, we must recognize the players. In just a little over 10 years, the environmental justice cause has become a national movement. Activists from hundreds of low-income communities of color have formed community groups and regional networks to tackle the problem. Concurrently, environmental health professionals have begun to recognize the severe problems such communities face. Research and resources created to remedy similar disparities in other diseases are beginning to be applied to environmental health issues as well.

Second, we must recognize the challenges. Misunderstandings between middle-class white health professionals and low-income activists of color are unsurprising. Such misunderstandings are exacerbated by the mistrust created by medical outrages ranging from forced sterilizations to the hundreds of men used in research without their consent as part of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Third, we must share information. Activists understand the character of their communities; professionals have technical expertise. Both are necessary to create effective and efficient solutions to environmental illness.

The Environmental Justice and Health Union provides information for solutions through an extensive website with links to more than 50 other organizations as well as a monthly newsletter with up-to-date resource, events, and funding materials. It also builds bridges by reaching out to activists and professionals and, by providing common information, enabling a common dialogue. With equal representation of environmental health professionals and environmental justice activists on our advisory board and among our newsletter contributors, the Environmental Justice and Health Union unites people who did not interact before.

The journey to success will be long, but it will be joyful. For as the Environmental Justice and Health Union helps to eliminate environmental disease in the communities at greatest risk, it will also bring people together.