‘Real talk’ with two environmental justice leaders
Last Friday, Fix hosted an Instagram Live conversation between two leaders in the fight for climate justice: Yudith Nieto (a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer) and Mustafa Santiago Ali (who nominated her!). Ali is a thought leader, strategist, and the vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation. Nieto is an artist, activist, and organizer working with Another Gulf Is Possible. They discussed what environmental justice means to both of them, how things are playing out in this moment of cultural reckoning on systemic racism, and the importance of solidarity and intersectionality.
Below are some highlights from the conversation. You can watch the full video here.
The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.
Ali: A lot of folks now want to talk about environmental justice. Right? It’s everywhere now. So when you hear the words “environmental justice,” what does it mean to you?
Nieto: It means so many things. It means that we have a lot of work to do — there are so many justices that we need to fight for, and the environment is a big one because we have this planet to coexist in. I feel like environmental justice for me has been a way of life.
I grew up in the East End of Houston, which is predominantly Latino and people of color, and we don’t have environmental justice. We’re far from it, I feel. There’s so many industries surrounding our communities and hurting us. And in the age of COVID, it just makes it extremely dangerous to be there. I think that honoring all of that is also environmental justice, honoring the ways that we can continue to implement these ideals and these ways of life that are a little bit healthier for the environment and ourselves.
Ali: That’s real. That’s so real. You know, sometimes people try and put environmental justice in this small box, maybe for their own personal needs. But I tell them, “Well, hold up now. I appreciate you wanting to talk about the environmental aspects, but it is also housing justice and transportation justice. It’s economic justice. It is public-health justice, it’s food justice. It’s all these things coming together — then we have the totality of what’s really going on.” And we’ve got a lot of intersection points for folks who have expertise in all those various aspects.
Nieto: Yeah. You know, I co-founded a language-justice collective here in New Orleans — aka Bulbancha — and that was part of that intersectional work, where I was seeing that a lot of people in my community were not able to be at the table; they were not able to be at these public hearings where major decisions were being made, because there was no language access. People were not being included in these conversations. They still are not. But now, that narrative is changing. Folks are now advocating for language access, for interpretation, for translation of documents. That’s one of the ways that intersectionality has hit home for me. And we’ve done something about it, which feels really empowering.
Ali: There is a huge spotlight now on environmental justice. And part of the reason is because of all the hard work that you and others have done over the years, but also because we’re in this transitional moment for the country right now. The mirror is being put up, and the country has to look at itself — at the systemic racism that has played a huge role in the policies that have pushed Black and brown and Indigenous and lower-wealth white communities into many of these locations, and then the disinvestment that goes on there. Let’s talk a little bit about the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, and how that is playing a role in environmental justice.
Nieto: It all is interconnected. You know, we’re dealing with these racist policies and all these health disparities; it’s all the same thing. The Black Lives Matter movement has been happening forever as well — right now, it’s a pivotal moment where folks are just not taking it anymore. We cannot lose any more of our people. We cannot lose any more of our communities.
I think Dr. Bullard mentioned this in an article that I read recently; he said something about how COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement went hand-in-hand. Because if you look at redlining maps, you can see how these rates of COVID-19 are linked to the way that people were segregated into sections of cities. And now COVID-19 is just affirming that truth. This is hitting us a lot more extremely than other communities that have better protections, that don’t have industrial facilities next to them, and that are not being murdered by police officers. I feel like right now environmental justice is in a pivotal moment where we can connect all of these things.
Ali: What do you think the climate movement can learn from what’s happening in this space right now? You know, the climate movement for quite a while didn’t have a whole lot of flavor. And everybody knows I work on climate — so don’t go hitting me up in the DMs! We have real talk here, and the real talk is that a lot of folks of color were not invited into that space. The climate movement for a long time didn’t care about what was happening in our communities — even though the pollution that was killing us and making us sick is the same pollution that is now warming up the oceans and the planet.
Nieto: Biggest lesson: Let people speak for themselves. Invite them to the table so they have that voice. I think a lot of what the climate movement could really learn is how to step back and make space for the folks that are most impacted, and have some real talk.
You know, some of these things are hard to hear. It’s not sexy to talk about everything that ails us and the things that are making us sick. But that’s the reality of things.
And there should be a focus on empowering people — it is disempowering to victimize the folks who are most impacted and use them as examples, but then not open up the floor for them to give their piece. Don’t just invite someone to share their tragic story of where they’re coming from, but also let them share their vision of what their solutions really look like. They embody that. They’re hungry for that. We want to be the solutions. So just open up the resources, open up those gates that you’ve been keeping, and let folks do the work — because they are already doing the work. That’s what solidarity looks like.