On my first day of a job at an organization that works on a variety of domestic environmental issues and defines itself as a national progressive non-profit, my boss and I took half an hour out of our days to get to know one another. After explaining that my parents had immigrated to North America from East Africa, my boss asked me if I “had crazy immigrant parents.” I was in shock.
This question illustrated privilege because my boss didn’t recognize the reasons why immigrants may be culturally different from them, nor did they need to. Instead my boss saw non-mainstream American culture as “crazy.” More than being offensive, this conversation embodied my frustrations of working in the environmental movement for two years. The campaigns on which I worked refused to acknowledge that environmental issues affect the poor, working class americans, immigrants, and people of color far more than they do mainstream Americans.
My Experience With the Environmental Movement
When coal-fired power plants pollute our air, it’s poor families that don’t have the resources to pay for the increase in asthma related hospital trips. When factories pollute our water, it’s those who only have access to tap water that are hurt the most. Those who can only afford to live in low-rent, environmentally unfriendly housing are forced to pay disproportionately high utility bills. The list goes on, but the organization for which I was working never highlighted the social justice implications of environmental issues in its messaging, it did not organize in low-income communities, and it did not employ people coming from the communities most affected by environmental injustice. Just as my boss displayed privilege by ignoring the realities of an immigrant experience, the organization displayed its privilege and classism by ignoring marginalized Americans.
A Movement Wide Problem
I don’t think that my experience was unique. Classism and racism pervade the larger environmental movement. The idea that environmental issues are social justice issues has been around for decades (environmental justice), but it hasn’t taken root in the mainstream progressive movement. At a comical level, the privilege of the environmental movement is evoked by pop culture’s depiction of an environmental activist: an upper-class, white, idealistic young person. A deeper examination also reveals the environmental movement’s classism. The websites of our country’s leading environmental advocacy nonprofits contain little or no discussion or interest in how the lives of the poor and people of color are affected by the environment.
What We Can Do About It
Environmental and social justice organizations have already taken steps to dismantle the privilege that exists in the green movement. For example, the Sierra Club and the NAACP have formed coalitions to both work on specific campaigns and also educate the public on environmental issues. This is a great start, but these kind of initiatives and partnerships need to become a priority for environmental organizations not just a secondary project. As anti-classist and social justice activists we need to take ownership over the environmental movement. These issues affect us and the people we work with more than they do other sectors of society, and they should be a priority. Only with equal access to clean air and clean water can there exist class and race justice.
Tareq Alani grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His passion for social justice comes out of his parents’ experience as immigrants in North America as well as his own experience as an ethnic and religious minority growing up in the US.