National Sierra Club President Aaron Mair spoke in Rochester Thursday on the importance of diversity in the climate movement, without which he said would lead to an ineffective climate movement. He spent the evening showing a clear connection between the environment and race, discussing his work in Albany, NY shutting down a state-run incinerator and agency, or people of color’s ability to make the change they want to see.
“At the end of the day, the key point is at what stage things get settled,” he said, referencing the fight for voting rights. “This is an important piece because a lot of folks when I start to take them on a journey…they say ‘that’s not environmentalism.’ Why protecting voting rights is critical to saving the environment, ‘well that’s civil rights. That’s not environmentalism.’ When I talk about the human condition and the human condition being a function of the environment ‘well, that’s not environment’…’So you mean I have a civil right to environment?’ Yes you do.”
For Mair these are connected, he said, spending the next two hours demonstrating the connection bewteen someone’s status in society and they’re connection to the environment. He also spent some time discussing the Sierra Club’s origins as an elite group only for the wealthy and white who could travel to larger parks, and what this means as environmentalism traditionally a white, and elite movement needs to be adapted to not only make effective change but to make effective change for all Americans.
And the location of the speech was no coincidence. New Bethel CME is a traditional black church, located on Scio street and extremely accessible to the city’s communities of color. The Rochester Regional Sierra Club chose the church because of it’s historic connection and as a symbol to people of color they’d like to include these voices in their agenda and membership.
“To be effective in this climate movement we have got to expand our horizons. We’ve got to understand our role especially as white people in the conditions of our society that have persisted for 350 years of oppression of other peoples. And so this illustrates our inability to confront the monstrosity of slavery with the kind of effort it’s going to take. Not little band aid things. A requirement for our country to be great again,” said Peter Debes, who said local groups are anxious to diversify their message and ranks to ensure true solidarity.
Mair also took the time to show the concrete symptoms of this disenfranchisement and what happens when the conversation happens around minorities and doesn’t include them.
Minorities who are more likely to be impoverished, disenfranchised and not included in major conversations surrounding their environment are more likely to suffer from diseases and handicaps brought on by the environment and more likely to be chosen as the site for negative amenities like the incinerator Mair fought to close. However, Mair’s message of environmental involvement is especially crucial in Rochester. Already minorities are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases and other environmentally-connected diseases and also struggle with environmental hazards. In Flint, it was the switching to lead pipes that poisoned the water of thousands of households. They still don’t have clean water and for Mair, while most of the outrage came from advocacy groups, these issues should also be considered by environmental organizations as their fight too. Another example is the water protectors at Standing Rock. While a number of environmental movements have aligned with the group, it’s mostly seen as an Indigenous Peoples’ issue, not the need to protect the Missouri Water and understand that native Americans should have continued access to clean water as other Americans do and to celebrate the water as their sacred traditions instruct them to.
Mair also led the fight against a NYS ANSWERS incinerator in Albany. For over a decade, state officials told the city’s majority black residents their health wasn’t at risk. However, one day the soot and emissions blackened the snow and less than a month later it was shut down. It was responsible for the incinerating of garbage from eight nearby counties, all of which were wealthier than the area he lived in. The incinerator was meant for dry paper, but it was often used for wet garbage, blowing dangerous fumes into the air and causing such a stink that on summer days residents had to close their windows. And it was also the state-designated place for disposing of pharmaceuticals. Mair recounted how chemotherapy agents blown in the air reacted with the nearby populace’s skin.
He said both of his daughter came down with asthma, along with ten other area children, and that’s when he knew he had to fight.
So he went to the Sierra Club but they asked if he went to the NAACP, alluding that somehow despite his issue being environmental the color of his skin changed this. He left to fight on a smaller level and without the state chapter’s help, working with some individual members instead. And when the plant was finally shut down, he joined the Sierra Club because of those members’ help.
Why didn’t the people fight back? An incinerator is undesirable in most communities.
“We see a lot of minority communities become dumping grounds and it’s a function of their political power,” Mair explained.
For one, Mair explained, these communities are often picked because of their lack of active citizenship. It’s less likely they’ll fight this agenda let alone show up for community discussions on how it should be put into place and accounted for. But even more importantly, they often don’t fight because it seems to actually be beneficial for the community. It’s often couched in the language of jobs and to demonstrate the lull of employment, Mair crossed racial divides and referenced coal miners in West Virginia who not only risk Black Lung and other deadly diseases to work, but actually vote against the interests of the environment and their own health to bring coal back.
“(These issues) have to happen somewhere, they don’t happen in the air,” he said in a phone interview with OM on Monday, saying that the structures in our country’s legal and political system allow for impoverished people and minorities to continually draw the short stick in environmental issues and many other civil rights issues. And combined with environmentalist movements being historically not only white, but also elite, it’s hard to crack that green ceiling, and get more people of color doing this work, bringing their issues to the table themselves. Additionally, getting white environmentalists to understand the plight of these communities is slow-going though not impossible, elevating the need for agency in these communities.
“I don’t mean modeling agency when I say that,” said Mair, laughing and clarifying that it’s really a reference to our own ability to fight for betterment within a system that already exists. he stated that there are two ways to get rid of an environmental harm: lobby and fight for better legislation which is a reactive approach or be more educated and involved from the first step and elect politicians who already hold your values. That may mean electing officials who share your belief in energy reduction, or cleaning the Great Lakes, but it means above all being educated on their stances on this.
“It’s a powerful and necessary talk,” said Sue Gallagher, a local activist. She said she’s been an environmentalist for decades but doesn’t really belong to any organizations. “I think a lot of people recognize the issues in these communities but we don’t know how to do what’s right. Whether it’s because we don’t live there, we don’t know what the people want or sometimes it’s just not on our radar. I think a lot of the people here tonight are here because they want to cross that divide.”
“You just don’t think of those things as being connected, well I didn’t,” said Betty Washington, an attendee. “And I think my favorite part was the jobs bit because he’s right. When you can only get a job or sell drugs, the community is going to take any work it can but hopefully more of us understand this idea that our environment should work for us too.”