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Part 1: Environmental Groups Slow to Seek Out Minorities

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite in 1903 [Library of Congress]

Part 1 of a series

The environmental movement started more than a century ago.  Theodore Roosevelt was known as the conservation president, and there’s a famous 1903 photo of him with the Sierra Club’s founder.

“That photo represented the environmental movement of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and this is the two of them in Yosemite National Park,” says Aaron Mair, past president of the Sierra Club – and its first black  president.  He sees Roosevelt and Muir as environmental pioneers who fought to protect the wilderness as powerful industries were devouring America’s natural resources.

But the photo of two white men also symbolized an unspoken truth about the movement. Mair says early environmentalists focused on preserving land – land for people who could afford to travel to distant places like Yosemite. 

“When the U.S. environmental movement went out to protect any place and space, it’s often from perspective of middle class, predominantly white consumers,” he says.

Aaron Mair [Provided]

For Ph.D. student Janae Davis, that trend lasted for decades.

“People of color in particular were not able to join this particular environmental movement," she says. "They were alienated from the environmental movement.

“Even culturally, people of color have grown up with a different relationship with the environment.”

Davis’ research at Clark University focuses on environmental protection as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion.  Those issues slowly evolved since Roosevelt and Muir stood in Yosemite. And they gradually reshaped the movement. 

Janae Davis [Provided]

By the 1980s, a new term  emerged – environmental justice. It was a term focused on fair treatment of all people in terms of environmental laws and policies.

The term  grew out of protests in Warren County, N.C.  The year was 1982, and the county’s primarily African-American community was protesting the dumping of contaminated soil in their town. 

The protest failed to stop the dumping and more than 500 people were arrested. But the environmental justice movement began nationally.

A few years later – in 1987 - the United Church of Christ  released a report showing that hazardous waste sites were more likely to be located in minority neighborhoods.

Around the same time, Mair became an activist. His family moved to a new neighborhood in Albany, N.Y., and started experiencing problems.

He calls that his "on-ramp” to environmental justice. “My daughters were injured with environmental asthma as a result of exposure. From that I did some analysis and connected the dots.”

The dots led to an incinerator spewing pollution into his neighborhood; it was later shut down thanks to Mair and a mobilized community effort. From that local battle, he advanced through the ranks at the Sierra Club, eventually becoming president, a tenure that ended earlier this year.

Mair says the mainstream movement has been slow to embrace issues of environmental justice – like affordable, safe drinking water and air pollution.

Dr. Paul Mohai, a professor at the University of Michigan, agrees. He has  studied environmental justice, public opinion of the environment, and policy.

Paul Mohai [Elizabeth Miller/ideasteam]

“I think that environmental justice activists and leaders still feel a lot of frustration about not getting as much attention and priority from the mainstream movement as they would like to see,” Mohai says.

Mohai says not all mainstream organizations are willing to focus on these sorts of issues. “When something like the environmental justice movement comes along, it may actually be hard for those that have been involved in organizations like that to not only notice – but be persuaded that it’s really relevant to what they’re already doing.”

But sometimes a tragedy can jar people into thinking differently. That happened in 2014 in Flint, Mich.

Coming in Part 2: Flint water crisis is pivotal moment for environmentalists