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The Environmental Justice Ecosystem

Aaron Mair, president of the Sierra Club, stated the following in an interview with Sojourners magazine. He was discussing the broader social justice ecosystem within which environmental justice issues prevail, while specifically referencing the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

When we talk about Dr. King and his assassination in Memphis, the critical point was that he was there at a [sanitation workers] strike, recognizing that men and women had a right to be respected as labor, to provide for their families. Few people know that that particular sanitation department in Memphis worked around one of the nation’s oldest and largest Superfund sites because they were dumping toxins and pesticides. These men were not only fighting for a living wage, but they were fighting for decent, humane conditions. King’s death was at the pinnacle of a labor rights and environmental rights struggle.

Of course, King's work and "dream" are generally invoked in relation to racial inequality, but Mair points out that environmental justice and labor issues were integral to the injustice complex that King identified and decried.

Not long ago I was at a community meeting addressing the problem of maintaining or utilizing better our city's vacant lots (the City of Pittsburgh has 27,000 of them!). Most of the African American residents in attendance were more deeply concerned about transparency in decision-making and equity in the distribution of resources than discussing possible uses of all those overgrown lots marring our city's neighborhoods  ... Recently, a friend intimated to me the belief that many African Americans hear the word "connectivity" evoked when planners propose hiking trails in a city neighborhood as code for "redevelopment" and its sibling, "gentrification."

These are just two simple expressions that, to me, reveal both legacies of inequality and the importance of considering broader social justice ecosystems when working to establish or improve urban spaces. This is especially so within under resourced communities where green space is sparse but injustice flourishes.

To me, Mair's words ring true. He adds,

Labor, environment, civil rights—all these rights are tied together and allow us to live in a clean, sustainable, and healthy environment with decent, living wages and decent education. King recognized that. Society tries to distill him down to “I Have a Dream.” The man wasn’t dreaming. He said: I have rights. He didn’t die for a dream. He died trying to get us our basic equal rights and protection under the law.


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