by Casey Meehan, PhD
Director of Programming, Sustainability Institute
Sometimes I really like driving down a section of interstate highway where I know there are no on or off ramps for miles. You’re pretty clear about where you’re heading and how you’re going to get there; just set the cruise control, keep your hands on the wheel, and try not to get too relaxed.
If only making progress on the causes we are passionate about were so easy. Instead, I’ve found that advancing our work is more like driving the infamous Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photo Credit: Mike De Sisti
If you’ve never been on this serpentine juggernaut, imagine a point in a city, tightly bounded by tall buildings and other urban infrastructure, whereby four major multi-lane highways and a number of city streets merge. The multilayered tangle of ramps necessary to keep traffic flowing which seem to go nowhere and everywhere at once: a real Gordian knot. Although I’m sure it’s possible to cruise through in Zen-like calmness, every time I drive on it, even after living in Milwaukee for years, I can count on feeling a mix of anger, frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty as I perform the anxious dance of merging and separating across lanes of traffic full of other drivers who are involved in their own anxious dance.
The pivotal events of the past five months — COVID-19 and the protests against police brutality— have made it abundantly clear that, in advancing the movements we are passionate about, whether that be climate change, Black Lives Matter, or health-care reform, we aren’t driving on separate, easy to navigate highways. Rather, we’re on the Marquette Interchange that can evoke frustration, anger, anxiety, and much uncertainly. And it’s entirely necessary.
The environmental movement has been rightly criticized as overwhelmingly white and not particularly apt at inviting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) voices to the table. I don’t think it’s out of malice but instead out of a desire—consciously or not— to keep the focus on moving their particular issues forward. In other words, finding the “environmental” highway, setting the cruise control, and taking the straightforward route to the destination.
The Black Lives Matter movement is witnessing unprecedented levels of support thanks in part to their ability to organize large, peaceful and ongoing protests across the country and world in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. The George Floyd tragedy is a visceral example of systemic inequality, but the tragedy is not just in the needless death of a fellow human being. It’s also that the disproportionate harm and death Black and Brown people experience due to the world’s most pressing problems —from COVID to climate change— merge together in an anxious dance.
For instance, Black people in the U.S. are exposed to 56% more air pollution than they generate which in turn makes them twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Toxic dumps and pollution emitting industries are much more likely to be located near Black neighborhoods causing a litany of health problems in these communities. And communities of color are often the hardest hit by extreme weather, including heat waves, floods, and major storms, all increasing due to climate change often due to a combination of lack of access to resources and inferior infrastructure. In short, there will be no justice without systemic changes.
So how can an environmentalist help support BLM? The Black Lives Matter movement posted a list of principles to guide others in supporting their movement. Reflecting on those is a good place to start. After reflecting, I realize that I need to be comfortable "staying in my lane." This is not about me. Respect the Black leaders advancing this work and listen deeply to the BIPOC voices sharing their stories.
Then, do some of your own homework.
• Learn about the connections between racial injustice, climate change, and COVID-19 from the Mom’s Clean Air Force Juneteenth panel or from this interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, the “Father of Environmental Justice.”
• Listen to Dr. Bullard’s optimistic message about the future.
• Read this handout from the Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing by Anneliese A. Singh, PhD, LPC
The upshot of all this is that environmentalists should not think of other social movements as distractions, pulling resources and energy out of “our” cause. Doing so runs the risk of framing equally important social movements as "the competition." Instead, we must embrace the messiness of this Marquette Interchange moment of social movements and grant grace to those who are anxious, frustrated, even scared about how things all merge together. But above all, we must recognize that we are all struggling to address the same root problem: systemic inequality that prevents large groups of people from thriving.