I always felt like I had to choose to stand with social justice or environmental issues. I’m learning now that they are the same. It’s the same root of white supremacy.
– from a discussion with a friend on learning more about supporting both social justice and environmental justice issues
How does environmental and sustainability education connect to social justice and equity? In EVERY single way. Read on for brief introductions to Environmental Justice, EcoJustice, Environmental Racism, Intersectional Environmentalism, all of which are foundational aspects of equitable ways to share and care for the earth and each other. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this page to check out two handy Instagram posts you can share to amplify the work of local and inspiring Black and Indigenous activists! Stay tuned for more in this Celebrating Social and Environmental Justice Advocates series.
I have been learning a lot more in the last two months of June and July than I feel like I have in my entire life. I have especially been learning how complicated everything can be. Last month began with the well-intentioned but ill-advised #blackoutTuesday debacle on June 2 that did more to bury the Black Lives Matter movement than to uplift it when using the BLM hashtag, and officially ended with uneasy Canada Day “celebrations” on July 1st that left a lot of Canadians, myself included, unsure how to position a love of these lands we call home against the backdrop of the cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples and ongoing issues of land rights and intergenerational trauma. For many of us the problem isn’t in knowing we need to speak up and act out against social injustice, but to learn how to do so in a way that helps instead of hinders, in a way that supports Black and Indigenous voices without verging into white saviourism.
I’ve been digging a lot deeper than I had in the past about issues in social justice, human rights, equity, systemic racism as well as anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, racist police violence and police brutality, transphobia against Black trans folx, cultural erasure, cultural genocide, white fragility, intersectional feminism instead of white feminism, and how the capitalistic structures that prop up our western or Eurocentric society in Canada (and in North America more broadly) place more value on the economy than human lives. These are issues that are part of all of our lives; once you learn about them you can’t not talk abut and take action.
As a white person who has no doubt benefitted from generations of both systemic racism and colonization as a settler/colonizer, I’m already automatically implicated in both these power structures. I can’t change that but I can (and must!) acknowledge that, and I can do the work to not also be complacent in continuing to allow these power structures to continuously disenfranchise, discredit and destroy the lives of those it was not established to protect. One thing I keep seeing over and over is the message that it’s not enough to not be racist; it’s about being actively anti-racist. This message resonated and I have taken this to heart.
I can never understand these experiences of racism and hate, but I can do my part to listen, learn and rally and join the push for change. I hope to do some of this work to be supportive by using this space to share stories from voices other than my own, share resources for actions that communities are calling for, and highlight amazing activists, educators, artists, businesses and others who represent Black and Indigenous voices.
Like I had mentioned previously, this website’s focus is on how to integrate Environmental and Sustainability Education into all aspects of how we live, learn and love in our daily lives. I had also previously mentioned that “environmental and sustainability education isn’t worth anything if it isn’t intersectional”. This is why intersectional environmentalism is a huge facet of what this environmental and sustainability education space will be – because ESE doesn’t exist without social justice. And it’s as simple and as complicated as that.
And to make things even more complicated – I’ve also been ruminating on terminology to use in this article and in general. I previously thought the term “BIPOC” (referring to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) was inclusive, but have since read that some people feel this is a lazy way to lump people together and is not reflective of the very different experiences different peoples face (see a recent article from The New York Times here) . The advocates I’ll be highlighting in this section at this time are those who identify as Black, Indigenous or both Black and Indigenous. This is not done to exclude other People of Colour such as Latinx, South Asian, East Asian, South East Asian, and more. It is meant to highlight these Black and/or Indigenous change-makers since they are, respectively, directly reflective of the ongoing BLM movement and Canada Day which has recently passed and ties directly to Indigenous genocide.
This post is organized into the following three sections:
Sharing some definitions
to hopefully help clear up what these “buzz-worthy” terms mean
advocating for actions
you can take to support changes to dismantle systemic racism in your community
Celebrating Social and Environmental Justice Advocates
local Black and/or Indigenous activists to follow and support (compiled into handy-dandy shareable IG posts!)
Note: In writing about this topic I’m bound to get some things wrong – when I do, I welcome your feedback. I am happy to hear from you to further and support this conversation and better inform my own learning in this area and so I can also share that with others. So much of learning about these unjust structures of power deals with unlearning about what we’ve been taught our whole lives, and there is discomfort in that. It’s been said before, but it’s truly not the time to get defensive when faced with that discomfort. Like I’ve been taught by those in my community, it’s okay to feel that discomfort – we should feel that. We have to become ok with sitting in that discomfort – and embrace it and acknowledge it so we can then challenge and demand our inequitable institutions to do and be better. I am here for this conversation and I would love to learn from you.
I will, however, put out the warning that I don’t welcome racist, hateful, bigoted or other comments like these – there is no space for that here, just like there shouldn’t be space for that anywhere.
Sharing some definitionsEnvironmental Justice, EcoJustice, Environmental Racism and Intersectional Environmentalism - with so many terms that sound similar and share overlapping ideas, it can all get pretty confusing! Here's a brief introduction to help you make sense of these different concepts.
What exactly is Environmental justice?
Great question! I’m so glad you asked 🙂
Environmental Justice is meant to expose the environmental injustices that were – and still are – affecting People of Colour disproportionately more than other (white) populations, through measuring data and publishing impact reports, which have been imperative for proving the realities of environmental injustices and environmental racism in court in order to inspire change. These injustices include hazards like toxic waste dumps, unsafe housing, poor air quality and water quality, inadequate transportation, inadequate access to food (food deserts/food insecurity), and more.
One example that showcases the early beginnings of the Environmental Justice movement is said to be in the 1980s when Warren County, North Carolina – a Black-majority community – protested the establishment of a waste dump for a highly toxic chemical (PCB) that was proposed to be built within their community. The community’s protest was joined by the United Church of Christ (UCC) and church leaders helped to galvanize activism. In 1986, the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice began to expose what was happening in Warren County as a national trend through a survey tracking every registered toxic waste facility in the United States. The survey’s results led to a report, Toxic Wastes and Race (first published in 1987; updated in 1994 and again in 2007). This report provided unprecedented evidence of an undeniable correlation that communities with high concentrations of People of Colour were far more likely to contain toxic waste facilities. Race was found to be the most statistically significant predictor in which zip codes across the U.S. these facilities would be placed, even when considering socio-economic factors. In fact, the updated version in 2007 used more precise methodology and found racial disparities were even higher in some cases than previously revealed (Bullard et al., 2007)!
However, the official beginning of the Environmental Justice movement is most commonly associated with an event called the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit that took place in 1991. It was here that grassroots scholars and activists came together to create the Principles of Environmental Justice (linked here). At this Summit, Benjamin Chavis (who was one of the authors of Toxic Wastes and Race) spoke about how the Environmental Justice movement should be organized around Environmental Racism.
“Environmental Racism refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race or color. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting industry costs to people of colour. It is reinforced by governmental, legal, economic, political and military institutions” – Bullard, 1994: 98).
Therefore, it’s the concept of Environmental Justice, not traditional EcoJustice, that is typically what is being discussed when we are talking about social justice issues related to the environment. But there are more differences, as well as similarities, between these two terms…
- Bauman, W. (Ed.), Bohannon, R. (Ed.), O’Brien, K. (Ed.). (2017). Grounding Religion. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315206042
- Boff, L. (1995) “Liberation Theology and Ecology: Alternative, Confrontation, or Complementarity?” in L. Boff and V. Elizondo (eds) Ecology and Poverty: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
- Bullard, R., Mohai, P., Saha, R., & Wright, B. (2008). Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why race still matters after all of these years. Environmental Law, 38(2), 371-411. Retrieved July 22, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/43267204
- Kulnieks, A., Roronhiakewen Longboat, D. and Young, K. (2011). Indigenizing curriculum: The transformation of environmental education. In D. Stanley and K. Young, (Eds.), Contemporary Studies in Canadian Curriculum: Principles, Portraits & Practices, (pp.351-374.) Calgary: Detselig.
- Lee, C. (ed) (1992) Proceedings: The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit: The Washington Court on Capital Hill, Washington, D.C., October 24-27, 1991, New York: United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.
what’s the difference between environmental justice and
One easy way to conceptualize the difference is to view these terms as the following:
EcoJustice: a primary focus on how humans impact our ecosystem and the beyond-human beings that exist within it (i.e., environmental degradation affecting animals, nature or ecology, and our Earth overall, through climate crisis, deforestation, etc.). Primarily focused on advocating for justice for nature.
Environmental Justice: a primary focus on how human beings impact each other through unevenly distributing harmful environments amongst people (i.e., human oppression affecting fellow humans, through the presence of toxic facilities or activities – chemical plants, landfills, coal mines, fracking – and other social justice issues connected to overall structural issues of systemic racism, poverty, inequity, etc.) Primarily focused on advocating for justice for people.
This is one way to make it easier to distinguish between these two concepts because – as you’ve probably already guessed – there is a TON of overlap. EcoJustice primarily focuses on eco-systems, which considers how humans are impacting nature and animals, but we as humans are also very much a part of that ecosystem. Likewise, Environmental Justice‘s primary focus on the inequities that are tied to human oppression are very often conversations about factors that affect the quality of life for humans but also affect the earth and our ecosystem overall, like air and water quality.
One Brazilian theologian and philosopher, Leonardo Boff, who considered the connections between Christianity and ecology, attributed this overlap to the idea that these two problems of environmental degradation and human oppression “stem from two wounds that are bleeding” (Boff, 1995, p. 67) which have both been caused by domination and power struggles (which connects to what a friend mentioned about the root of white supremacy in the quote at the top of this page). He argued that both these problems have the same solution – an ecological sense of justice that brings together “respect for the otherness of beings and things and their right to continue to exist” and “respect and concern for people“ (p. 77).
So while EcoJustice and Environmental Justice aren’t interchangeable, I’d argue that they definitely can be used in harmony. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of EcoJustice touches on social justice by defining it as “the condition or principle of being just or equitable with respect to ecological sustainability and protection of the environment, as well as social and economic issues” (Kulnieks, Longboat & Young, 2011, p. 360).
This may be seen as conflating a traditional definition of EcoJustice, and so there is another term that serves as a bridge between both EcoJustice and Environmental Justice – and goes beyond, which brings us to our next definition…
OK, then what about “INTERSECTIONAL ENVIRONmENtalISM“?
Recently, there has been a push to propel environmentalism and environmental education even further than nature-centred EcoJustice and people-centred Environmental Justice, while considering how the many different layers of our identities intersect with nature and social justice at different moments in time. As an emerging term, this multi-faceted definition of Intersectional Environmentalism is best described by Leah Thomas of Intersectional Environmentalist:
“This is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.” – Leah Thomas
Advocating for actions
Whether you’re a longtime activist, have dabbled in sending off a few letters to elected officials, or are completely new to activism and supporting positive changes in social justice, here are some important actions you can take to get involved in a meaningful way.
1. Continuously practice compassion and ask critical questions: it may seem obvious to say, but so much of what is insufferable to so many may not even acknowledged by others if it’s not an issue they’re facing – i.e., racism if you’re white, or issues with destroying encampments for people without homes if you aren’t experiencing homelessness. We need to get out of our own heads to see what other people are experiencing in order to challenge practices, policies and mindsets of our mainstream status quo – a status quo which can reinforce unfair and unjust treatment. It’s important to learn about how things may affect other people beyond how they may affect you. Ask critical questions – if something seems strange or unfair, say so and ask why.
2. Raise your voice: Contact your elected officials – by phone, email and on social media. Tell them you want accountability for racist and violent police brutality. Check out defund.ca for templates and tips on how to contact and what to say if you’re unsure. Also see @stuffbyjustine for info on Toronto city council’s denied response to de-tasking and defunding the police force by 10% in order to allocated funds to the community.
3. Support peaceful protests: If you can safely join a physically distanced protest please do. if you can’t, in addition to contacting your local elected officials, you can still engage in “couch activism” (check out @theslacktivists for more info) by getting involved in petitions, for example, seeking justice for people who were killed by police brutality like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and sadly so many others. Note: the photos on this page are of Nathan Phillips Square, where Afro-Indigenous (AIR) Collective are currently occupying to peacefully protest police brutality and defunding police.
4. Donate to the right places if you can: If you are able to, donate what you can to causes to support Black and/or Indigenous support groups and funding pages for people and causes. But do your research first! There have been reports of people accidentally making donations to groups that sound similar to Black Lives Matter and others but aren’t actually the correct group – see the story here. Some local Toronto-based fundraisers I’ve researched and donated to include Black Lives Matter Canada and Justice for Regis as well as Afro-Indigenous Rising Collective but there are many others out there specific to encampments in Toronto and for specific people like Elijah McClain who have been hurt or killed by police brutality. Some groups are also accepting donations for specific items – for example, AIR Collective’s GoFundMe page states: “Although monetary donations are welcome, non-monetary donations such as tents, food, sanitary supplies or even just coming out are gladly accepted.” You can read their interview on The Canada Files here. A handy list making the rounds locally is found here.
5. Interrupt racist comments and conversations: It’s no doubt that the hardest conversations about racism are those you find yourself having with a family member, friend or colleague. Maybe it’s a surprise when you hear someone you love and/or respect make a gross “joke” or say something flat out inappropriate – or maybe it’s not a surprise because you’ve been dealing with it your whole life and always cringed but never knew how to approach them. Part of this colonial mindset is the pressure to keep the status quo, avoid conflict at any costs because the status quo works to reinforce this mindset and the systemic racism it allows to flourish if left unchecked. I’m encouraging you – please check it. It’s a good idea even if they get defensive – especially if they get defensive, because defensiveness is also an ingrained reaction to disrupting the status quo. You have no idea how many heated conversations I have had with people in my life who I love and respect – and they’re still very much in my life. It’s important to not judge or attack but to question and to help them see that what they’re thinking is rooted in something they may not even be aware of. For help getting started, see a great post from Privilege to Progress @privtoprog here about how to interrupt racist conversations. Note: Sadly, you will meet some some people who won’t listen and sometimes it is not worth your time and energy to continuously engage someone if it is detrimental to your wellbeing. While it is always important to speak up against these conversations when you encounter them, beyond expressing that you do not agree with what has been said, I think it’s important to do what makes sense for you and your wellbeing in the situation.
6. Dig into resources to learn more: Whether you know a lot about social justice issues already or not, there is always, always, always more to learn. It’s not enough to be “not racist” but it’s about being actively anti-racist and part of finding ways to demonstrate your support is becoming informed. This means learning about experiences and perspectives from Black people and communities and Indigenous people and communities. It’s up to each of us to do our part to read widely about these issues, watch short films and documentaries created by people who represent these perspectives, and diversify our social media feeds so we are learning from and encountering these perspectives every day. See Celebrating Social and Environmental Justice Advocates below for lists of local activists who consistently share recommendations for videos, books, documentaries, infographics, petitions, and more resources – please share these two carousels on Instagram! Be sure to check back for more in this Celebrating Advocates series if you enjoy it. and please tell me in the comments which series you would like to see featured next because I have lots of great ones to share with you 🙂
7. Shop from Black and Indigenous-owned brands and companies: This one is the most fun because you get to discover incredible new content to become obsessed with that maybe you didn’t know before. Support Black and Indigenous products, events, organizations and creators in your community and globally. Check out these great lists compiled by other community members below for a starting point on how you can support local entrepreneurs:
- Black-owned businesses in downtown Toronto (@caprisscorn)
- Indigenous owned brands (@elatecosmetics)
- 9 BIPOC-owned home decor & interiors small businesses (@nicolettemason)
- Support Indigenous Entrepreneurs (@citymoguls)
- Black Owned Toronto’s IG account
- Native Women Lead’s IG account
Even if you aren’t in a position currently to support with your dollars by buying items or paying for services, you can still support by following, liking, reposting and sharing their content (with proper credit, of course 🙂 ) to your friends and community.
celebrating social and environmental justice advocates - activists edition - shareable ig posts!Over the last two months I've come across so many talented social justice and environmental justice advocates that have taught me a lot about activism and exposed me to so many things. I wanted to share these people and their incredible work with you so you can also follow along, support and learn more. And so, the Celebrating Social and Environmental Justice Advocates series was born - and first up is a two-part series on Local Activists. Please enjoy, share these posts on IG, give these change-makers a follow and tell me who else I should follow in the comments at the bottom of the page!
your turn! tell me what’s happening with you
I hope you enjoyed this post and found links to useful resources and helpful tips for advocating for environmental and social justice in your own community! I have some more shareable posts for the Celebrating Social and Environmental Justice Advocates series in the works that I’m very excited to share. Next up will be either a focus on local artists advocating for change, local fitness and wellness entrepreneurs changing what the wellness industry stereotypically looks like, or local education leaders transforming schools and educational systems. Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram by clicking on Part 1 or Part 2 of the IG posts above which you would want to see next!
What are some social and environmental justice resources you’ve been loving recently? Who are some more amazing local activists that I missed included? Please share in the comments below or on IG!