When Green Goes Black

Leading Women Defined conference highlights the need for a green movement in the Black community.

Posted: 03/16/2011 03:03 PM EDT
Lisa Jackson, EPA

“Going green” for many conjures up images of small hybrid cars, wind turbine-powered towns, and “granola”- looking men donning hemp sandals on the beach. But as panelist Kari Fulton pointed out at the “On the Rise: The Future of Activism” seminar at the Leading Women Defined conference, Black people have been going green since we built the steps of the White House.

Many African-Americans have misconceptions about the environmental movement because the face of the effort often doesn’t look like their own. Corporations have perhaps helped to proliferate the stereotypes by marketing “eco-friendly” products and campaigns for merchandise that is more costly and harder to find in low-income and minority communities. Fulton, who is the national campus coordinator for the Environmental Justice & Climate Change Initiative, passionately spoke about the issue at the session.

“Sometimes what’s best for the community isn’t always best for business. Solutions to creating the future that we want to see might not be the sexiest option [for corporations].”

Fulton pointed out that going green isn’t just about climate change, it’s about environmental justice, and for her, environmental justice and the civil-rights movement go hand in hand. Minority and low-income neighborhoods are often the sites for garbage dumps, incinerators and chemical plants that produce toxic emissions. Abandoned factories filled with asbestos and lead paint are also a concern. Fulton believes that getting this message out and using real-life examples will help spur Black people to become more involved in the movement.

One of the worst sites for this eco-injustice is right in the backyard of our own president’s hometown. On the South Side of Chicago lies the Altgeld Gardens housing project , a low-income Black community that’s surrounded on all sides by a coke oven, two landfills and a water reclamation facility. According to an EPA study in 2009, 77,632,218 pounds of toxic chemicals are released in Chicago, and 90 percent of the 53 toxic facilities in the city are near Altgeld Gardens.

Although African-Americans are becoming more interested in today’s green movement, many don’t realize that slaves are original arbiters of the trend; they utilized parts of the animals that were thrown away by their masters, and they planted their own vegetables and saved scraps for compost, among many other things. And of course, we’ve always heard our grandmothers tell us not to use so much paper, or to turn off the lights at night. Although these things aren’t labeled as “green” in the mainstream, they are.

Asked if she had one wish that could be granted for her causes, Fulton said it would be “for everyone to understand how important the EPA and Lisa Jackson’s work is” as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Image: Photo by Brad Barket/PictureGroup