Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press). Copyright 2015 by Wen Stephenson
Already, climate change is shaping up to be as unfair as disasters have ever been…. It too is a democracy question, about who benefits, who loses, who should decide, and who does. Surviving and maybe even turning back the tide of this pervasive ongoing disaster will require more ability to improvise together, stronger societies, more confidence in each other. It will require a world in which we are each other’s wealth and have each other’s trust. —Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, 2009.
Even if segregation is gone, we will still need to be free; we will still have to see that everyone has a job. Even if we can all vote, but if people are still hungry, we will not be free…. Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind. —Ella J. Baker, speech in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, January 21, 1964 (quoted by Howard Zinn in SNCC: The New Abolitionists).
Hilton Kelley stood smiling in the clear April sunshine outside Kelley’s Kitchen in Port Arthur, Texas, his beloved hometown, and extended his hand. A big-framed man, with generous, gentle eyes and white stubble, Kelley was fifty-three years old when I met him that day in the spring of 2014.
The sign on the small corner restaurant read “Delicious Home-Cooked Food,” but Kelley’s Kitchen was no longer serving. Kelley had opened it up in 2010, and managed to keep it running for about two and a half years. “It was going fairly well,” he told me. “But, you know, the town really doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic on this side of Port Arthur anymore.”
Kelley’s Kitchen was the only structure left standing on its block of Austin Avenue, just two blocks from Procter Street, the Gulf Coast city’s main downtown thoroughfare. In every direction were more vacant lots and dilapidated buildings—windows blown out, many of them empty for years, even decades. In the bright sun, the streets at midday on a Friday were ghostly quiet.
“This area was once a thriving community,” Kelley said. “It was traffic up and down Austin Avenue here.”
Kelley invited me inside, out of the glare, and we sat at one of the tables in the well-kept place, which he still rented out for private parties and special occasions—there was even a small dance floor complete with a shiny disco ball. But that’s not all that went on at Kelley’s Kitchen. The space doubled as the office of the Community In-Power & Development Association, or CIDA—the small, tough, grassroots community advocacy and environmental-justice organization that Kelley founded in 2000, soon after returning to Port Arthur from California, where he was working in the movie industry as an actor and stuntman. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his environmental-justice activism. Kelley has testified before the Texas Legislature and the US Senate, addressed UNESCO in Paris, and met President Obama at the White House.
Just a few blocks from where we sat is the historic African American community of West Port Arthur, where Kelley was born and raised in the Carver Terrace housing project, on the fence line of two massive oil refineries—one owned by Valero (formerly Gulf Oil) and the other by Motiva (formerly Texaco). In fact, the recently completed expansion of the Motiva refinery, which Kelley’s group fought hard against, made it the largest in the nation, having more than doubled its capacity to six hundred thousand barrels of crude per day. Nearby are five more petrochemical plants and the Veolia incinerator facility. Port Arthur is also on the receiving end of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline, the southern leg of which—cutting through East Texas communities—went operational in January 2014. But the industry had brought few jobs to West Port Arthur, where unemployment was over 15 percent. Many workers commute to the plants, and economic development has moved north since the eighties, along with white flight, to the newer Mid-County area along Highway 69 toward Nederland, where you’ll find a sudden explosion of malls, big-box stores, hotels, and theme restaurants with busy parking lots.
And yet the economic abandonment of the downtown area and West Port Arthur, in the very shadow of one of the world’s most profitable industries, isn’t even the whole story—there’s also the pollution, some of the most toxic in the country. “One in five West Port Arthur households has someone in it with a respiratory illness,” Kelley said. “One in five.” The county’s cancer mortality rate is 25 percent higher than the state average. Toxic “events”—whether from gas flares or accidents—are common, emissions often darkening the sky, fumes wafting into the neighborhood. The community is downwind of several of the refineries nearby. “If one isn’t flaring or smoking, another one is,” Kelley said. “At least twice a month, we’re going to get some flaring and smoke from one of them.” As much as he can, he documents the events with photos and video. “Sometimes it’ll be really pungent,” he told me, “to the point where it stings the nose and eyes.” But apart from these incidents, he added, there’s the constant day-to-day toxic menace in the air. “It’s not always what you see—it’s what you don’t see. A lot of these gases are very dangerous. Sometimes newcomers will smell it and we can’t, because we’re desensitized to it.”
Kelley had offered to show me around and give me the fence-line tour on the west side, the community where he grew up. I knew about his accomplishments with CIDA—among other things, how they’d successfully pressured both Motiva and Valero, the former to install state-of-the-art equipment to reduce toxic emissions and pay for a community development center, and the latter to fund a new health clinic. And I understood that CIDA is more than an environmental-justice group: its mission is to educate, empower and revitalize the community, working especially with young people. I knew that Kelley has made a real difference since returning home.
But before we left Kelley’s Kitchen, I needed to ask him about another threat—one that, given Port Arthur’s economic and racial marginalization, its proximity to dangerous petrochemical infrastructure, and its location on the gulf, could ultimately be the most devastating of all.
Yes, he answered, “we are seeing some of the impacts of climate change around here, as a matter of fact.” The rising sea level has washed out parts of Highway 87 between Port Arthur and Galveston. “They’ve abandoned the road,” Kelley said. And the ferocity of hurricanes, from Katrina and Rita to Ike, has shaken even Port Arthur natives like him. They were spared the worst of Katrina in 2005, “but Rita came very soon after that, and that’s when we got hit hard,” Kelley said. “I mean, a lot of the houses are gone. You can still see the FEMA tarps on some of the roofs today. A lot of homes that were once inhabited are now abandoned, because the federal dollars didn’t come in soon enough and the houses just dry-rotted.” The residents of Port Arthur haven’t faced the kind of epic flooding that was seen in New Orleans, but with Hurricane Ike they came close. “Ike brought in a huge surge, and it reached right to the top of our hundred-year levee but didn’t breach it.” Even so, the roof of Kelley’s old office was torn off: “The rain just poured in and destroyed everything.”
I’d heard about Port Arthur, well known to environmental-justice advocates as one of the country’s most egregious “sacrifice zones.” But nothing prepared me for the physical reality of the place—a decaying, all-but-forgotten urban landscape inhabited by a struggling and precariously resilient community. As you drive west and north out of downtown, the refineries stretch for miles, at times towering over you like something out of dystopian science fiction. And yet this is not some futuristic scenario—it’s here and now. And those same smokestacks that are poisoning the inhabitants of Port Arthur are part of a global fossil-fuel infrastructure that has trapped us in its political-economic grip, threatening civilization and the future of life on Earth—threatening not only the children of Port Arthur but everyone’s children, everywhere, including my own.
But here’s the thing: if you live in West Port Arthur and toxic emissions have ruined your health, or your child can’t go to school because she can’t breathe, or you can’t find a job and feed your kids and see no way out of the projects—or all of the above—then you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one. You inhabit an apocalyptic present. And what’s true of Port Arthur is true of communities across the Gulf Coast and across the continent—and the world.
. . .
The struggle for climate justice is a struggle at the crossroads of historic and present injustices and a looming catastrophe that will prove to be, if allowed to unfold unchecked, the mother of all injustices. Because the disaster that is unfolding now will not only compound the suffering of those already oppressed (indeed, is already compounding it); it may very well foreclose any hope of economic stability and social justice for current and future generations.
Why, then, does the term “climate justice” barely register in the American conversation about climate change? Lurking in that question is a tension at the heart of the climate struggle: a tension between the “mainstream” climate movement (dominated by largely white, well-funded and Washington-focused green NGOs) and those—most often people of color—who have been fighting for social and environmental justice for decades.
Nobody has worked longer and harder at this intersection of climate and environmental justice than Robert D. Bullard, the celebrated sociologist and activist, author of eighteen books, who is often called the father of the environmental-justice movement. In 1994, he founded the Environmental Justice Resource Center, the first of its kind, at Clark Atlanta University, and since 2011 he’s been the dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. It was Bullard who introduced me to Hilton Kelley, and I knew he could offer insight into the relationship between the environmental-justice and climate movements.
“Climate change looms as the global environmental-justice issue of the twenty-first century,” Bullard writes in 2012’s The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities, coauthored with his longtime collaborator Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. “It poses special environmental justice challenges for communities that are already overburdened with air pollution, poverty, and environmentally related illnesses.” Climate change, as Bullard and Wright show, exacerbates existing inequities. “The most vulnerable populations will suffer the earliest and most damaging setbacks,” they write, “even though they have contributed the least to the problem of global warming.” As if to prove the point, their book project was delayed for more than two years by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed the Deep South Center’s computer files and devastated Wright’s New Orleans East community. Her chapters documenting the unequal treatment of the city’s African Americans in the Katrina recovery are essential reading.
Bullard’s landmark 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality established the empirical and theoretical basis—and, for that matter, the moral basis—of environmental justice. Through his early work, beginning in 1978, on the siting of urban landfills in Houston’s African American neighborhoods—as well as the siting around the country of toxic waste and incineration facilities, petrochemical plants and refineries, polluting power plants, and other industrial facilities—Bullard has systematically exposed the structural and at times blatant racism, which he names “environmental racism,” underlying the disproportionate burden of pollution on communities of color, especially African African communities in the South. His work has done much to set the agenda of the environmental-justice movement.
In 2014, the movement was marking the twentieth anniversary of Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in February 1994, which explicitly established environmental justice in minority and low-income populations as a principle of federal policy. That year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—a fitting coincidence, as Bullard liked to point out, because the “EJ” executive order reinforced the historic 1964 law. Nevertheless, as Bullard and his TSU colleagues wrote in a report titled Environmental Justice Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964 to 2014, “The EJ Executive Order after twenty years and three U.S. presidents has never been fully implemented.” That would qualify as an understatement.
I sat down with Bob Bullard that April in his office at TSU, where we had two lively and substantive conversations. I’d interviewed him once before, the previous August, and in the meantime he’d been much in demand. In September, he had received the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, its highest honor (and the club went on to name its new environmental-justice award after Bullard); in March, he had delivered the opening keynote address at the National Association of Environmental Law Societies conference at Harvard Law School, assessing environmental justice after twenty years (former EPA chief Lisa Jackson was the other keynoter). When we sat down together in Houston, I’d seen him just a few days earlier in Cambridge, where he received two standing ovations from the jam-packed Harvard audience.
Bullard, who grew up in small-town Alabama, speaks with an orator’s cadences and a comedian’s timing. At sixty-seven, he had a fighter’s glint in his eye and an irresistibly mischievous grin above a Du Boisian goatee (he calls W. E. B. Du Bois his intellectual hero). In Houston, I asked him about the relationship between environmental justice, traditionally understood, and climate justice.
Bullard likes to start with a history lesson. In 1991, he helped convene the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, where seventeen “Principles of Environmental Justice” were adopted. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, those principles were circulated in several languages, but it wasn’t until 2000, in The Hague, that Bullard joined other leaders and groups from around the world for the first “climate justice summit,” which met in parallel with the sixth United Nations climate conference, or COP6.
“It was a very transformative time,” Bullard recalled. “When environmental-justice groups and groups working on climate, on human rights and social justice and civil rights, came together in The Hague in 2000, ‘climate justice’ was not a term that was universally used.” At that summit, he told me, “we said that climate justice has to be the centerpiece in dealing with climate change. If you look at the communities that are impacted first, worst, and longest—whether in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or here in the US—when you talk about the majority of people around the world, climate justice is not a footnote. It is the centerpiece.” Globally, he points out, climate justice “is not a minority view, it’s the majority view.”
Here in the United States, Bullard said, “equity and justice get a footnote.” In terms of framing the climate conversation, he said, it’s been a struggle to make sure that justice is given parity with the science. “That’s the rub,” Bullard told me. “And that’s why the climate movement has not been able to get traction like you’d think it would, given the facts that are there. The people on the ground who could actually form the face of climate change, be the poster child of global warming—they’re almost relegated to the fringes. And that is a mistake.” In the United States as well as globally, Bullard said, “we know the faces, we know what they look like. We know the frontline communities, the frontline nations. But to what extent do we have leadership that’s reflective of communities that are hardest hit? Very little has changed over the last twenty years when it comes to who’s out there.”
This criticism of mainstream climate and environmental groups, and the foundations who fund them, has been leveled countless times—and it has stuck for a reason. Until very recently—witness the widely noted diversity of the massive September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, organized by a broad coalition that included environmental-justice and labor organizations—frontline communities, and especially communities of color, have been conspicuously underrepresented in the climate movement.
And yet, I observed, even with such inherent tensions, climate justice ought to be the most unifying concept on the planet—if only for the simple reason that people everywhere tend to care about their children and grandchildren. I had asked Bullard earlier about the idea of intergenerational justice—based on the fact that, along with those in the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world, today’s young people and future generations will bear vastly disproportionate impacts of climate change. Isn’t climate justice really environmental justice writ large—on a global scale—yet with this added generational dimension?
“Exactly,” Bullard said. “And for me, that’s the glue and the organizing catalyst that can bring people together across racial and class lines.”
In that case, I wondered aloud, if the central purpose of the climate movement is to prevent runaway, civilization-destroying global warming—in other words, to create the necessary political and economic conditions for a last-ditch, all-out effort to keep enough fossil fuels in the ground—then isn’t that work already about racial, economic, social, and generational justice? Because the consequences, I said, if we don’t do everything possible to keep fossil fuels in the ground—
“Then we’re not going to have any justice,” Bullard interjected.
“In terms of the moral imperative,” he added, “looking at the severe impacts—the impact on food security, on cross-border conflicts, war, climate refugees—when you look at the human rights piece, in terms of threats to humanity, if we drew it out and looked at it, I think more people would be appalled at these little baby steps that we’re taking. This is an emergency, and it calls for emergency action—not baby steps, but emergency action.”
Nevertheless, Bullard also explained why that all-consuming focus on greenhouse emissions is insufficient by itself—and is at the heart of the tension between environmental justice and the climate movement.
“You have to understand that in order to have a movement, people have to identify with—and own—the movement,” he said. “Just saying climate change is a big problem is not enough to get people to say, ‘We’re gonna work to try to keep coal and oil in the ground.’ There has to be something to trigger people to say, ‘This is my own movement.’”
Bullard believes that the climate-justice framework can “bring more people to the table.” Take the example of coal plants, he said. “Moving away from coal, in terms of CO2 and greenhouse gases—the environmental-justice analysis is that it’s not just the greenhouse gases we’re talking about; in terms of health, it’s also these nasty copollutants that are doing damage right now. Not the future—right now.” So to bring those people to the table, he continued, “you have to say: How do you build a movement around that and reach people where they are?”
In 2013, Bullard and his colleagues at TSU and other historically black colleges and universities—including Beverly Wright at Dillard and the Deep South Center in New Orleans—launched an initiative they call the Climate Education Community University Partnership (CECUP). “We’re linking our schools with these vulnerable communities,” Bullard told me, “trying to get to a population that has historically been left out. We’re going to try to get our people involved.”
Bullard noted that these colleges and universities have always had a special mission—Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta), where Bullard began his graduate work in the sociology department created by W. E. B. Du Bois, was founded by the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865 to educate former slaves. Likewise today, he argues, “we should not run away from anything to do with justice and equity and opportunity.” When you look at the most vulnerable communities, the “adaptation hot spots,” he added, these are the same communities the schools were founded to serve, and often the very places in which they are located. “We’re not going to wait for somebody to ride in on a white horse and say, ‘We’re going to save these communities!’” Bullard said. “We have to take leadership.”
The initiative invests in a new generation of young scholars and leaders who can work at the intersection of greenhouse emissions, climate adaptation, and the classic environmental-justice issues of pollution, health, and racial and class disparities. “Our folks on the ground can make the connections between these dirty diesel buses, that dirty coal plant, and their kids having to go to the emergency room because of an asthma attack, with no health insurance,” Bullard said. “We see it as human rights issues, environmental issues, health issues, issues of differential power.”
As I listened to Bullard, it was clear that anyone like me—with my privileged, big-picture view of the climate catastrophe—would do well to try seeing the concept of climate justice from the ground up, at street level, and through a racial-equity lens. Sitting down with five of Bullard’s graduate students at TSU—and joined by two of his colleagues, sociologist and associate dean Glenn Johnson and environmental toxicologist Denae King—I was treated to a generous portion of that ground-up perspective.
For Steven Washington, a twenty-nine-year-old native of Houston’s Third Ward and a second-year master’s student in urban planning and public policy, “climate change means asthma; it means health disparities.” Working in Pleasantville, a fence-line community along the Port of Houston, he was concerned about the city’s notorious air quality, graded F by the American Lung Association, and what it means for a population—especially the elderly—ill-equipped to deal with impacts of climate change such as heat waves. For Jenise Young, a thirty-three-year-old doctoral student in urban planning and environmental policy whose nine-year-old son suffers from severe asthma, climate change is also about “food deserts” like the one surrounding the TSU campus—a social inequity that climate change, as it increases food insecurity, only deepens. (The wealthier University of Houston campus next door inhabits something of an oasis in that desert.) Jamila Gomez, twenty-six, a second-year master’s student in urban planning and environmental policy, pointed to transportation inequities—the fact that students can’t get to internships in the city, that the elderly can’t get to grocery stores and doctors’ offices, that the bus service takes too long and Third Ward bus stops lack shade on Houston’s sweltering summer days.
I asked the TSU grad students if they saw the growing US climate-justice movement—especially the many college students and young people who want to foreground these issues—as a hopeful sign.
“My major concern is that this is a lifelong commitment,” Young replied. “That’s my issue with a lot of the climate-justice movement—that it’s the hot topic right now. Prior to that, it was Occupy Wall Street. Prior to that, it was the Obama campaign. But what happens when this is not a fad for you anymore? Because this is not a fad.”
Glenn Johnson, the coeditor of several books, including Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States (2011), chimed in: “It’s a life-and-death situation. There are others who come into the movement, they have a choice—they can go back to their respective communities. But for us, there’s no backing out of talking about the [Houston] ship channel. We are the front line; it’s 24/7. When we wake up, we smell that shit.”
“It’s not one problem,” said Denae King. “It’s multiple problems—poverty, food security, greenhouse emissions, all of these things happening at once. In the mind of a person living in a fence-line community, you have to address all of the problems.” Climate change is urgent, she added, “but still, I have to pay my bills today. I have to provide healthy food today.”
All of which is undeniably true. And it is equally true that the overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that the window in which to take meaningful action on climate change is closing fast. Unless we—the United States and the world—act now, today, to begin radically reducing greenhouse emissions and building resilience, our children and future generations face impacts that will dwarf even today’s worst environmental and economic injustices.
What you hear from climate-justice advocates working on the front lines—who understand this urgency perfectly well—is that precisely because of the emergency in which we find ourselves, the way to build the kind of powerful movement we need is to approach climate change as an intersectional issue.
After I left Houston that April, I spoke with Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. One of the first things she did upon arriving in 2009, Patterson told me, was to write a memo looking at climate justice and the NAACP’s traditional agenda. “It went area by area—health, education, civic engagement, criminal justice, economic development—and showed how environmental and climate justice directly intersect in myriad ways.”
In the communities where she organizes, Patterson told me, “we see the links. The same facilities that are driving climate change are also causing immediate health and economic impacts in these very communities. So they have an added advantage to see coal be put out of business. They’re the ones who have children stay home from school because of an asthma attack—or they’re burying their children because of an asthma attack that wasn’t caught in time. People are having lung disease who never smoked a day in their lives. And we talk about all of that in an intertwined way.”
Patterson grew up on Chicago’s South Side and graduated from Boston University before earning degrees in public health and social work from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. She feels a spiritual pull to climate-justice organizing and is actively engaged with churches. But her entry point to the work was her interest in how women are disproportionately affected by climate and environmental dangers: the spikes in sexual and domestic violence against women during and after disasters; the economic effects of women being primary caregivers for the sick and injured; the differential impacts of toxic exposures on women, from breast cancer to complicated pregnancies and birth defects. In 2007, she cofounded Women of Color United, and in 2009 partnered with the NAACP on the Women of Color for Climate Justice Road Tour. “Globally, it’s very much a part of the conversation,” she told me. “But here there’s an absence of gendered analysis around climate change.”
At the NAACP, Patterson’s work rests on the understanding that if we’re going to address climate seriously, then we’re in for a rapid energy transition—one that’s by no means guaranteed to be smooth or economically and socially just. In December 2013, the NAACP initiative released its “Just Energy Policies” report, looking state by state at the measures that can help bring about a just transition to clean energy. “In talking about such a major shift in such a major part of our economy, we’re being very explicit that we’re not just talking about renewable portfolio standards and energy efficiency standards and net metering policies,” she said. “We’re saying that each state needs to have ‘local hire’ provisions, at the state and local levels, and provisions for disadvantaged business enterprises—minority and women-owned businesses. We have to be very intentional about an economic-justice transition along with the energy transition.”
The day before I talked with her, Patterson said, she stood next to NAACP leaders at a press conference in Milwaukee, “and we were talking about starting a training and job-placement program for formerly incarcerated youth and youth-at-risk around solar installation and energy-efficiency retrofitting.” An energy-efficiency bill was recently introduced in the Missouri Legislature, she noted. “Before, we might not have seen the NAACP getting behind that legislation, because the energy conversation wasn’t seen as part of our civil rights agenda. Now, we’re in with both feet.”
. . .
As I listened to Jacqui Patterson, and to Bob Bullard and his colleagues in Houston, and to Hilton Kelley in Port Arthur, a question that kept running through my mind was simply this: Where is the left? Where has it been? Why is this not at the top of the progressive agenda, with a robust social movement merging environmental, economic, and racial justice under the banner of climate justice?
It’s an odd thing, if you think about it. For a long time, in many precincts of the left, and especially across a broad spectrum of what could be called the economic left, humanity’s accelerating trajectory toward the climate cliff has been little more popular as a topic than it is on the right. In fact, possibly less so. Plenty on the right love to talk about climate change, if only to deny its reality, downplay its urgency, and take shots at Al Gore. On the left—to say nothing of the ever coolheaded center—denial takes different forms.
It’s unclear what explains this reticence about the existential threat facing humanity, beginning with the poorest, including in the United States. But a lot of people I know in the climate movement think that the left, and the economic left in particular—pretty much the entire spectrum from mainstream liberals to anarchist Occupiers—has not yet taken on board the real implications of our galloping climate catastrophe. Not really. Not the full, stark set of facts. It’s as though the implications of climate science, when you really begin to grasp them—for example, that the depth and speed of the necessary emissions cuts are incompatible with economic growth as traditionally defined—are simply too radical. Even for radicals. (There are exceptions, of course, but peruse back issues of leading journals on the left and you find that climate, for the most part, gets a passing mention—and when it is discussed, it’s too often siloed, safely contained under an “environmental” rubric, as if to check that box for certain funders. When the labor correspondent starts writing about climate justice, then we know we’re getting somewhere.)
The truth is, anyone committed to the hard work of bringing deep structural change to our economic, social, and political systems—the kind of change that requires a long-term strategy of organizing and movement building—is now faced with scientific facts so immediate and so dire as to render a life’s work seemingly futile. The question is how to escape that paralyzing sense of futility—and how to accelerate the sort of grassroots democratic mobilization that’s desperately needed if we’re to salvage any hope of a just society.
At the same time, as I kept hearing in Houston, mainstream climate advocates who want to broaden the climate movement have too often been tone-deaf, if not completely absent, on issues of economic justice and inequality. How, then, to reconcile these two tendencies—the economic left’s avoidance of climate, and the climate movement’s avoidance of economic and social justice? How to merge these fights with the kind of good faith and urgency required to build a real climate-justice movement?
I don’t know anyone who has all the answers, but I do know some people who are asking the right kinds of questions and looking in the right kinds of places. Naomi Klein, in 2014’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, and James Gustave “Gus” Speth, in his 2012 book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, have made the case that climate change could serve to unite the left in a movement of movements with economic justice and human rights at the core. And as I’ve engaged deeply in the climate movement, I’ve come to know people who are dedicated to that very challenge, starting the necessary conversations and actually working to connect climate with economic- and social-justice organizing across the country. As it happens, quite a few of them came out of the Occupy uprising. Many are involved with networks such as the New Economy Coalition, where Speth is among the core advisors, and the Climate Justice Alliance. (You’ll read more about both of these below.) And what they’re pointing to, it appears to me, is a promising convergence of climate justice and grassroots economic democracy, rooted in local communities and networked nationally. They may, in fact, be showing us what a new kind of movement—I think of it as climate democracy—can look like.
Every bit as important, they’re acting with the kind of urgency and commitment that our unfolding catastrophe demands. They know there can be no climate justice without economic justice, but they also know there won’t be any economic justice—or any justice at all, as Bob Bullard said to me—without facing up to our climate reality, simultaneously slashing emissions, making the fastest possible transition to clean energy, and working to build resilience in the communities where it’s needed most. They know that the climate part of “climate justice” cannot be an afterthought, some optional add-on to please “environmentalists.” Because the game is far from over, and no matter what happens in terms of national climate policy in the next few years—and the prospects are not pretty—current and future generations have to live through what’s coming.
It was a weekend in late October 2013, and my friend Rachel Plattus was speaking to a roomful of college students and recent grads at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, where they’d gathered along with some eight thousand other young activists at Power Shift, the biannual national convergence of the student climate movement. Rachel, who was then twenty-six years old, was the director of youth and student organizing for the New Economy Coalition, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a national network of more than a hundred organizations, large and small, with a shared commitment to (in the words of its mission statement) “a just transition to a new economy that enables both thriving communities and ecological health.”
By Rachel’s side was her good friend Farhad Ebrahimi, thirty-five years old, who served on the NEC board and who founded the Boston-based Chorus Foundation, which supports grassroots climate and environmental-justice organizing in communities around the country. I’ve come to be friends with Rachel and Farhad through the Boston-area climate movement, and I was tagging along there at Power Shift with them and their NEC colleagues. At first it was strange, I had to admit, to see Rachel and Farhad in front of a room at a high-tech convention center—during the previous year I’d been more apt to see them in church basements and community-organizing spaces leading nonviolent direct-action trainings, or on the streets engaged in protests against tar-sands pipelines and coal-fired power plants.
“I met Farhad at Occupy Boston,” Rachel told the hundred or so young people who’d come to hear about the intersection of climate and economic justice (a strong showing, given the dozens of concurrent breakout sessions offered at Power Shift). “We spent a lot of time there a couple years ago, and it was a transformative experience for a lot of us.”
Two important things came out of her Occupy experience, Rachel explained. First, she and several friends who had been “radicalized on climate issues,” including Farhad, decided to form an organizing collective “to do resistance work around climate justice.” At the same time, she began thinking seriously about the central question raised by Occupy but never really answered: “If you’re so angry at this system, if all the people here have been wronged by the system, what are you proposing that we do instead?” While she and her friends wanted to keep organizing resistance, she said, “I found myself looking for a way to have an answer to ‘What do you want instead?’” So, first, she dove into the worker-ownership movement in Boston and tried to start a worker co-op with some friends.
But also around this time, in late 2011 and early 2012, Rachel started talking with Bob Massie, a family friend, who had recently been hired to head the New Economics Institute (which merged with the New Economy Network in early 2013 to form NEC). A longtime social-justice and environmental activist (and, interestingly, an ordained Episcopal priest with a doctorate from Harvard Business School), Massie had served as executive director of Ceres, a large and influential network of environmental groups and institutional investors, and in 2003 he spearheaded the creation of its Investor Network on Climate Risk.
Once at NEC, Rachel began to realize that the kind of work going on in the “new economy” movement—with things like cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, community-development financial institutions, community land trusts, Transition Town initiatives, local agriculture and community-owned renewable energy, as well as efforts to reconceive corporations and redefine economic growth—is a way of challenging the dominant, extractive, and unsustainable model of corporate capitalism as we know it. Not simply rejecting that model or system but, as she emphasized to her Power Shift audience, “creating new economic institutions that are democratic and participatory, decentralized to appropriate scale so that decisions are made at the most local level that makes sense and, rather than only prioritizing one thing—the maximization of profit—prioritizing people, place, and planet.”
“New-economy innovations are occurring all over the country, bubbling up,” Massie told me. “What they lack is mutual awareness, mutual support, and mutual connectivity.” There’s potential for real transformation, he believes, in providing those connections. “As people become aware of each other, their frame of reference about what’s happening, and what could happen, changes. They realize all these problems are linked—but all these solutions may also be linked.” He pointed to what happened earlier that year in Boulder, Colorado, where voters overwhelmingly approved a grassroots energy initiative to move the city from a big, corporate, coal-dominated utility, Xcel Energy, to a publicly owned municipal utility that would expand renewables at the same or lower rates.
That’s Boulder, of course, which is a long way socially and economically from Port Arthur and the Third Ward. Back in Cambridge, Rachel and I spent a long morning at the NEC’s start-up offices in Kendall Square, near MIT, talking about these real-world challenges. I asked her how she connects the new-economy work—which has genuine promise, at least in pockets around the country—with her work organizing resistance to the fossil-fuel industry, often in solidarity with frontline communities. First, she pointed out, “in a civil society that is essentially owned by multinational corporations, driven to maximize profit over all else, to engage in building these parallel economic institutions is to engage in civil resistance.”
But even more, she suggested, in the merging of climate justice and economic democracy, it’s the democracy part that may ultimately matter most. Rachel understands that the kind of deep, systemic change envisioned by the new-economy movement (perhaps best articulated in the work of Gar Alperovitz, the political economist and cofounder of the Democracy Collaborative) is no doubt a long-term, evolutionary process, on a timescale out of sync with our climate emergency. But she argues that grassroots economic democracy, actually organizing to create those alternative institutions, can also help build a base of political power in the near term, at the local level, which is not only where all politics has to start but all resilience as well—something we’re going to need plenty of in the years ahead.
Rachel told me that she knows a lot of people who are focused primarily on the economic-democracy piece—and yet, she added, “almost all of them recognize the level at which that also plays into climate issues, how we build resilient communities.” She pointed not only to something like the community-owned energy initiative in Boulder, but to projects like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in the Roxbury/North Dorchester area of Boston, which has brought a racially diverse, low-income community together around fair and affordable housing, community economic development, food justice, education, and youth empowerment. Also in Roxbury, Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), a well-established environmental-justice group with a strong emphasis on youth organizing and leadership development, has helped build coalitions across the city and region. Initiatives like these, Rachel said, are “building relationships, making sure the community is there, people interacting with each other in the kinds of ways we need people to be interacting with each other.”
“Occupy did that, too,” she said. “Being part of participatory democracy, in all its forms, does that: it gives people the skills and capacities they need” to help build a social movement.
That all sounded right to me. Indeed, Rachel was pointing to age-old verities of social movement building. And yet, I asked, where’s the climate in that picture? What happens to communities like Roxbury and Dorchester—and West Port Arthur and Houston’s Third Ward—where people are already struggling, if we don’t urgently build the kind of grassroots power we need to shift the politics of climate, explicitly, and deal head-on with the emergency?
Rachel nodded. She knew exactly what I was getting at. After all, she had devoted many hours during the previous year to organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline—because of its importance to the climate fight.
“We have to be willing to tell the truth about what the dangers of climate change are, and how we balance immediate economic survival with longer-term survival,” Rachel said. “We have to be willing to be honest about those things. But we also have to recognize when we’re building power toward addressing the climate crisis, even if people aren’t calling it the ‘climate justice’ movement.”
In Pittsburgh, Farhad stood in front of the room wearing a gray hoodie with the words “Kentuckians for the Commonwealth” printed across it. He was talking about what he’d learned since diving into climate work in 2006 and seeing even the most inadequate climate legislation die in Congress in 2010—the last time any such national legislation has had a chance of passing. Like so many others in the climate movement at the time, he began to realize what was missing: “any sense of building political power, any sense of a social movement, and the intersectionality of climate justice and other social-justice movements.” Through his young foundation, Chorus, he decided to start supporting grassroots organizing in frontline communities, those already bearing the brunt of the fossil-fuel industry—and one of the first places he went was Kentucky.
“We went to look at the extraction stuff going on, mountaintop removal,” Farhad said, “and we saw that the folks who were trying to fight the coal companies, stop them from blowing up their mountains, were also doing great work around energy efficiency and renewables—and when it was tied together with this resistance work, it was actually much more effective.”
He learned about Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide independent grassroots group that’s been working for more than thirty years on democratic reform and economic and environmental justice (one Wendell Berry of Henry County, KY is among its strong supporters). KFTC does far more than work on coal and environmental health issues, central as those are in eastern Kentucky, where the group has its strongest base. Confronting climate change is the first plank of the KFTC platform, but much of its work is on local and regional economic development, tax-justice issues, mass incarceration and voting rights, as well as worker cooperatives, local agriculture, and community-owned and distributed renewables.
The folks at KFTC frame all of these as essential parts of a “just transition” from the old, extractive, exploitative economy to a new, more democratic clean-energy economy. The idea is that even as they build grassroots political power, they’re also creating real economic alternatives to fill the void left by the coal industry. As executive director Burt Lauderdale explained to me, KFTC has established its presence in state politics. In 2010, as part of its strategy to move rural electric cooperatives away from overdependence on coal, the group helped prevent the East Kentucky Power Cooperative from building a new coal-fired plant and reached an agreement with the utility to explore energy efficiency and clean-energy alternatives. In 2013, KFTC convened the Appalachia’s Bright Future conference, helping shape the agenda of a highly touted Eastern Kentucky “summit” that December, called by Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and Republican Congressman Hal Rogers, to jump-start an economic transition in a region reeling from the loss of coal-industry jobs.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is part of the emerging Climate Justice Alliance, a national collaborative network of more than thirty-five grassroots and supporting organizations committed to uniting hard-hit communities on the front lines of both climate disaster and fossil-fuel extraction and pollution—Indigenous, African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, and poor and working-class white communities. In 2013 it launched the Our Power Campaign, focusing on three “hot spots”: in the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation, led by the Black Mesa Water Coalition; in Detroit, led by the East Michigan Environmental Action Council; and in Richmond, California, led by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Communities for a Better Environment. Each of these groups is working to address the local impacts of fossil-fuel extraction and infrastructure—coal mines and power plants in Black Mesa, a coal plant and oil refinery in Detroit, and the massive Chevron refinery in Richmond. At the same time, and just as important, they’re applying principles of economic democracy to work toward more sustainable and resilient local economies in struggling communities.
Another member of the Climate Justice Alliance is the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, headed by Jacqui Patterson. As she made clear to me, the idea of a just transition is “integral” to their work. “We don’t talk about closing any coal plant without making sure that every worker has a different way to make their living. We consider tax revenues, the effect on the tax base of the communities where the plants are located, as well as other revenue streams impacted by that kind of transition.”
Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), grew up on the impoverished Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, where unemployment runs around 54 percent and approximately eighteen thousand homes lack electricity, despite the utility lines running over their heads. Black Mesa, sacred to the Navajo people, has two coal mines operated by multinational Peabody Energy, and is surrounded by five coal-fired power plants, creating air pollution that rivals big cities such as Denver while contaminating and depleting precious water. Gearon told me that their approach to climate is “holistic,” addressing not only emissions as they’ve fought to shut down coal plants and mines, and hold Peabody accountable for environmental damage, but also adaptation—especially as water becomes scarcer—and sustainable economic development. “We are not content with parts per million of CO2 reduced,” she said. “We also want to ensure that we protect health, water, and jobs as we reduce CO2.” BMWC’s major initiative—the industrial-scale Black Mesa Solar Project, envisioning a series of 20MW to 200MW solar photovoltaic installations—could be a model for how community sovereignty can be protected and enhanced through control of locally generated renewable energy. At the same time, BMWC is engaged in movement building beyond Black Mesa, engaging with the Climate Justice Alliance and establishing the Southwest Indigenous Leadership Institute in 2010, working with youth to develop a new generation of Indigenous leaders.
In the face of our climate reality, Farhad told me back in Boston, “economic transition is inevitable.” In Appalachia and Black Mesa, as coal goes away, it’s already happening. The question is, he said, “Will the transition be just or not?”
That question, I suggested, begged another one, equally important: Will the transition be fast enough?
Look, Farhad said, in any likely scenario, “what are we going to need, no matter what? Local political power and local resilience.” We won’t get where we need to be politically on climate change, at the national and international levels, “without real local base building.” And if we don’t get anywhere at the national and international levels—“well, then, we’re going to need the local work in place so that we can take care of each other as the old way of doing things slips away.”
In connecting resistance to resilience, Farhad said, “We’re trying to go from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’ But it’s gonna be a really fuckin’ rough ride. It’s gonna be a rough ride because of climate change, but it’s also gonna be a rough ride politically and economically.” Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Farhad pointed out, is important right now because of how it intervenes in Kentucky politics, organizes communities, and fights the big coal companies. “And when the climate changes and what grows there changes and how they can live there changes—they’re going to need that ability to act collectively to deal with all of that as well.”
When Rachel and I talked that day in Cambridge, I asked if she agreed that much of the economic left had yet to take on board the full magnitude and urgency of the climate catastrophe.
“I mean, the climate movement has barely taken it on board,” she replied. And yet, she said, how can she blame anyone? “Have any of us really taken it on board? It’s like, how do you walk around with a knife in your chest? How do we begin to deal with the despair in such a way that it becomes useful?”
“There are a lot of folks, even in the climate movement,” she said, “and certainly on the economic left, who haven’t made the decision to take on the reality of it—and to recognize that this fight, which for them was never really about survival, all of a sudden is.”
“It’s interesting,” Rachel said, “because there certainly are parts of the left, not the liberal elite, but parts of the left, for whom being engaged has always been about survival”—like those, she pointed out, who have fought their whole lives for racial justice. One of her heroes, she said, is the great black-freedom leader Ella Baker, who was instrumental in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, in 1960. But before that, Rachel points out, “she came up in the movement building parallel economic institutions, building co-ops. And then went on to start the Freedom Schools, a parallel institution, and the Freedom Democratic Party.”
“There is a deep, rich tradition of organizing for survival,” Rachel said. “In fact, it’s the only thing that’s ever worked.”
. . .
Beverly Wright knows about survival. A native of New Orleans, where she has deep roots—“I can trace my heritage back eight generations in this place,” she told me—her experience of Hurricane Katrina was personally devastating. “That terrible storm,” she writes in The Wrong Complexion for Protection, “washed away everything that I owned, everything that I had inherited, and every tangible bit of memorabilia that captured my life and family experiences.” What African Americans experienced in the aftermath, she writes, “was a disaster that overshadowed the deadly storm itself.” A decade later, the lack of policies to protect the city’s most vulnerable threatens “a permanent and systematic depopulation and displacement of the African American communities of New Orleans.”
The sordid history of Katrina—the government failure, the neglect and abandonment of the city’s black population—is well known and documented, including by Wright and Bullard in The Wrong Complexion for Protection. But long before that storm and its aftermath, Wright herself had helped document the deep structural and environmental racism afflicting African American communities along the Mississippi River in Louisiana—and had drawn the connections to climate and climate justice.
“I was there,” Wright told me, recalling the first climate-justice summit in The Hague, in 2000. “For me, defining climate justice and coming to terms with that whole concept was transformative. It evolved, for me, out of the environmental-justice movement—it was a kind of eureka moment when I realized these things were coming together.”
For Wright, that process began at home. New Orleans, she points out, is in what’s known as Cancer Alley. “But growing up,” she told me, “I had no idea that I was living in Cancer Alley.” It was only after returning from graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, where she received her PhD in sociology in 1977, and teaching at the University of New Orleans, that she began to realize the extent of the industrial poisoning of her environment. “I began to hear about the chemical corridor,” she said, “and that our cancer rate was extremely high, and people suspected it was related to the plants along the Mississippi River—which added up to about 136 petrochemical plants and six refineries on an 85-mile stretch of land.” The number grows to 145 plants, she said, when you include the Calcasieu Parish corridor running west to Lake Charles, Louisiana.
After working with Bob Bullard on Dumping in Dixie, Wright was asked to testify at a 1992 civil rights hearing in Baton Rouge involving affected communities along the Mississippi, and in preparation she decided to investigate personally. “So I got in my little van, and brought two students with me, and drove up and down the Mississippi River corridor,” she said. “What I saw was just appalling. I saw communities that were fence-line to these facilities. I got headaches.” Most disturbing, she told me, was the vacant land. “I would ask people, ‘What was this over here?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, that’s where the white people lived. The boss told us he was going to come back and buy us out, too, but he never did.’”
“In the South,” Wright explained, “black and white people, though segregated, often live very close to one another. But we would see no white people—just these facilities and black people, because the white people had been bought out.”
Wright took her observations to the EPA, she told me, and in 1994 the Deep South Center (which she had founded in 1992) received a grant to study the spatial distribution of facilities by income and race. It became an eight-year project. “The data was not easy to get,” she said. “You could get the income data but you couldn’t get the race data.” Ultimately, they produced the first GIS map of the Mississippi River chemical corridor. “We were able to show that African Americans live closer to these chemical plants—that eighty percent of them live within three miles of a TRI [Toxic Release Inventory] facility. We looked at the data twenty years later and it had gotten worse.”
In the 1990s, as Wright, Bullard, and colleagues began to look at the global impact of the fossil-fuel industry on communities of color, they saw the connection to climate change—the same industry that was destroying Indigenous peoples’ lands and poisoning black and brown people around the world was not only driving global warming but was blocking efforts to deal with it at the national and international level. At the 2000 summit in The Hague, they talked with representatives from Africa and Asia and island nations. “We began to see what communities would be most affected by climate change,” she said. “And even before Katrina, we began to see that because of where we live, we look a lot like these island states, in terms of sea-level rise.” And not only sea level, but the concentration of petrochemical infrastructure, and its vulnerability to intensifying storms, means that the frontline communities face a kind of “double jeopardy,” as Wright calls it. “The same petrochemical plants that are poisoning them are causing things that could wipe them off the face of the earth.”
When I asked Wright how Katrina helped shape her understanding of climate justice, she said it came down to two things: “Who is prepared, and then who actually recovers.” In their chapter on the Katrina recovery, she and Bullard write of the “second disaster” often experienced by the poor and people of color: “Prestorm vulnerabilities limited the participation of thousands of low-income communities of color along the Gulf Coast in the poststorm reconstruction, rebuilding, and recovery. In these communities, days of hurt and loss are likely to become years of grief, dislocation, and displacement.” In a tone of biting irony, Wright and Bullard go on to offer an all-too-real “Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans”—from “Selectively hand out FEMA grants” and “Redline black insurance policyholders” to “Promote a smaller, more upscale, and ‘whiter’ New Orleans,” “Delay rebuilding and construction of New Orleans schools,” and perhaps most damning of all, “Hold elections without appropriate Voting Rights Act safeguards.” On the latter, they note that in November 2005, three months after Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans voters were still displaced—and that African Americans made up two-thirds of the city’s population before the storm. Nearly three-quarters of polling places had been damaged or destroyed. Holding elections under these circumstances, they write, “is unprecedented in the history of the United States, but also raises racial justice and human rights questions.”
Wright still saw the antidemocratic effects of the Katrina disaster nearly a decade later. So many people had been displaced within the city, forced to move from low-income housing projects that were never rebuilt, that a crucial sense of community was being lost. “It’s like they’re living in a foreign country,” she said. “You’ve ripped up these families who’ve been in these neighborhoods, pushed them out to the east, which is another world. You don’t have the community cohesion, a feeling of belonging, and you’ve seen the voting levels go down. They no longer have Miss Johnson who would walk the community and say, ‘Today is voting time! Get out and vote!’”
I asked Wright if she sees that sense of community, now threatened, as an essential part of what makes for resilience. I mentioned that we often hear how resilient the people of New Orleans have been.
“This bothers me a lot,” she said. When people talk about the “resilience” of the African American community in New Orleans, she told me, “The question really is, ‘How did you survive this? What did you do? My God, that was just fabulous that you were able to survive that.’” But in the whiter, more affluent parts of the city, she said, “resilience has to do with how they’re preparing people for another event. What should we be telling people to do with their houses? How can we fix these streets so there’s less flooding? It’s about building an infrastructure so that a community can be resilient. But when they talk about us, it’s always, ‘How did you survive?’ It’s two different stories.”
A decade after Katrina, Wright told me, advocates and organizers like herself still didn’t have the kind of institutional support from funders that they needed. “We need researchers, a research policy center, so that we can go before the city council and demand the proper infrastructure. We need organizers on the ground, so we can organize these people once again to vote.” Nevertheless, she insisted that the situation could still be an opportunity for the African American community in New Orleans—“if we organize the way we should.”
In his spacious, sunlit office at Texas Southern University, with its view out over the modern campus buildings and the streets of the Third Ward, Bob Bullard talked about growing up in the small and deeply segregated town of Elba, Alabama. His parents—his mother a housewife, his father a laborer—believed in education, and he graduated from high school there in 1964, the year of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act, and went on to Alabama A&M, the historically black university in Huntsville. He graduated in 1968, and served in the marines for two years, but was spared from going to Vietnam. “I was lucky.”
Bullard was formed by the civil rights struggle. “I was a sophomore in 1965,” he said. “That was the year of Selma and the bridge. As students, you’re very conscious.” He told me he revered not only Martin Luther King Jr. but Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis. “There were a lot of them—and these people were very young. You identified with a struggle, and you saw it as your struggle.”
Bullard has written about Dr. King’s final campaign, in 1968, when King went to Memphis to march in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. It was a battle, he notes, where everything came together. “It was about worker rights,” he told me, “it was about civil rights, it was about health equity—because garbage workers were working in conditions that were totally inhumane.” And it was about environmental justice. “I tell my students, if you don’t think garbage is an environmental-justice issue, you let the garbage workers go on strike.”
“All these things intersected,” he said.
And today, with our pressing issues of inequality, he said, King’s emphasis in the end on poverty and economic justice appears prescient—and all the more relevant. “Who knows, if King had lived,” Bullard mused, “with the Poor People’s Campaign—and now we talk about growing inequality in our nation.”
If environmental justice emerged out of the civil rights struggle, then you could almost say that Bullard’s work, and the movement to which he’s dedicated his life, began there in Memphis—picking up where King’s work was cut short. “Clearly, the Memphis struggle was much more than a garbage strike,” Bullard writes in the autobiographical essay that opens The Wrong Complexion for Protection. “The ‘i am a man’ signs that black workers carried reflected the larger struggle for human dignity and human rights.”
. . .
Hilton Kelley drove me up Houston Avenue, through what he calls Old Port Arthur, parallel to the railroad tracks that separate the African American west side from downtown. “This was the booming area during the heyday of Port Arthur,” he told me. He pointed to a vacant lot on the near corner. “That was called Antoine’s Auditorium, it was on the Chitlin’s Circuit. Ray Charles performed there, Al Green, Aretha Franklin—all the greats. They knocked the building down about seven years ago.” As we drove alongside the tracks, Kelley pointed to at least three small grocery stores that had long since gone out of business.
It’s not the neighborhood Kelley remembers. In A Lethal Dose of Smoke and Mirrors, a memoir he published in 2014, Kelley writes about the decision to move back to his hometown. On a return visit from California in 2000, he was not only disturbed by the unusually high rates of cancer and other illnesses in the community. “Other things began to emerge,” he writes. “The vacant properties now stood out in the midst of dilapidated buildings, businesses that were once there were now gone, and playgrounds were almost non-existent.” When he was a kid in the sixties, “we had grocery stores, restaurants, small hotels, and even a pharmacy.” Growing up, he writes, “we had a YMCA, an Olympic size swimming pool . . . after school programs. But no more, all of that was gone.”
When he got back to California, he couldn’t rest, and he started making lists of things that people should be doing, but weren’t, to revive his Port Arthur community. One day, he writes, he finally looked in the mirror and said to himself: “You keep thinking and talking about what nobody is doing in Port Arthur, but what are you doing? You’re from Port Arthur, why don’t you do something?”
We crossed the tracks and drove past a housing project built in the 1970s. A few blocks away, Kelley showed me Saint John’s Missionary Baptist Church, where the Reverend Elijah “EJ” James had allowed him to hold some of his first organizing meetings. But he’s been asked not to distribute fliers outside some of the churches, Kelley said. He affected an old man’s voice: “We can appreciate what you’re doing, son. But don’t pass that out around here.” He added, “Some of them work at the plants.”
“There are still folks who won’t speak up because they’re tied to those industries by their pensions or because they work there, or their parents or their kids work there.” But he explains to them: “Just keep in mind, the toxic air that you’re breathing when you go out there to work, when you come home you’re still breathing it. But not only are you breathing it, your baby is breathing it. Think about those little lungs, they’re more susceptible to the poisons.”
We stopped to see his old high school, now a middle school, and I noticed the flag was flying at half-staff and wondered why. We both thought for a moment.
“Oh, it must be for MLK,” Kelley said.
Of course. I had completely forgotten—it was April 4.
“I remember when Martin Luther King was shot,” he said. “You could hear the neighbors crying. So I ran down the street to tell my mother, who was down at the Laundromat, and she was already in tears. She’d already heard about it. I was seven years old. It was a sad day.”
We drove down Fourteenth Street, past the small houses—some in good repair with well-kept front yards, many others in poor condition, some at the point of collapse. A few blocks farther, where the road ends, was Carver Terrace, the housing project where Kelley grew up, alongside the Valero refinery fence. Carver Terrace was empty now, slated for demolition, its residents given housing vouchers with the option to relocate to a new project in another part of town—one at least not directly in harm’s way. The last family had moved out about three weeks earlier, Kelley told me.
We got out and stood among the rows of long, plain-brick, two-story buildings. “If you’d come here six months ago,” Kelley said, “you would’ve seen kids running across the street and playing ball right here.”
I asked him how it felt to see it like this now.
“Oh, man, it’s like The Twilight Zone,” he said. “I’m getting used to it, but I ride by here every day, just remembering. My grandmother, my great-grandmother, used to live out here. My friends, a lot of my family, a lot of them stayed here—I came back twenty years later, and they were still out here.”
“We used to stay here with my mother,” Kelley said, pointing to one of the units. “When she first broke away from the projects, we were little kids, four or five years old. She always wanted to get away from here, she wanted to be independent, stand on her own. She had that pride. But we had to come back, and we moved into this place here. The one where I was born is down here.” He showed me another long row of brick buildings. “Row 1202, the third one, 1202E. That’s where I was born, right behind those brick walls.”
“It’s bittersweet,” he said, “to see this place quiet and deserted like it is. But it’s necessary, because it’s time for people to get out of harm’s way. And they’re going to turn this area into a green belt.”
Perhaps fifty yards from where we were standing, and even closer to a playground with colorful new play structures, exposed pipes emerged from the berm along the refinery fence. Signs read: “Warning: Light Hydrocarbon Pipeline.”
Kelley drove me by the new health clinic and the community center, both built as a result of CIDA’s relentless pressure. He told me that he never thought he’d be doing this work for as long as he has. “But here I am,” he said, “fourteen years down the road, still chopping away at it. New issues keep cropping up. But trust me, I’m no ways tired.”
“What I’ve discovered,” he said, “is that we are a necessary entity in this community. I’m here to stay.”
He told me about a new performing arts and education center he wanted to open in a small building near Kelley’s Kitchen that he’d recently purchased and was renovating. The property downtown is dirt cheap, he said, and he dreamed of creating a place where people from the community, especially young people, could gather—and bring some new activity to the downtown area.
Young people have always been a priority for Kelley and for CIDA, providing after school activities and tutoring, “keeping kids off the streets.” Recently, he said, young women from a Port Arthur alumni group had invited him to speak to their organization. “They honored me with a little certificate, said how proud they were of the work I’m doing, and wanted to encourage me to keep going, because I’m one of the loudest advocate voices out there, and they appreciate what I’m doing. That really made me feel good, for young folks to show their appreciation that way, and to know they’re paying attention. That’s huge.”
It was a beautiful day, and Kelley drove with the windows down. A middle-aged woman on the street called out to him.
“How’s it going?” Kelley said, genuine warmth in his voice.
“Pretty good,” she called back. “How you doin’?”
“I’m hangin’ on in there, enjoyin’ this day.”
“This is a great community to grow up in,” Kelley told me. “I ran and played up and down these streets. I love the smell in the air right now, the plants growing, the springtime. We’ve got a pretty good day today—don’t have any high emissions levels. I’m lovin’ it. You can smell the flowers.”
. . .
The next morning, I went back on my own and drove around downtown and the west side of Port Arthur. It was overcast now. The gray light altered the mood of the day before, and I was overcome by a need to see the ocean, across Sabine Lake and the coastal marshes on the Louisiana side.
So I drove out of Port Arthur on Highway 82, passing still more petrochemical plants along the way, and stopped after half an hour at a row of beach houses built high on sturdy pilings. I stood on the strip of sand, and the Gulf of Mexico lapped at my feet. The wind on my face came fresh and welcome—but on the horizon, all up and down the coast, were the platforms. There was no escape. I got back in the car, turned the ignition. No escape.
Heading back into Port Arthur, crossing the wide channel at the mouth of the lake, I drove over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge. As I crested its steep ascent, Port Arthur came into view, the Valero and Motiva refineries spread out in front of me. The dystopian petrochemical landscape stretched into the distance—and I caught my breath at the sight of it as I descended.
(Portions of this chapter appeared in earlier, shorter form in The Nation magazine.)
Excerpt: Chapter 3. Organizing for Survival
Excerpt: from Chapter 6. Too Late for What?
Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press). Copyright 2015 by Wen Stephenson. All rights reserved.