The Environmental Movement Changed Forever: An Interview with Charles Lee
In his introduction to the proceedings for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, Charles Lee wrote, “the environmental movement in the United States changed forever on October 21-24, 1991.” This year marks the 30th anniversary of that historic “defining moment of the emerging movement for environmental justice.” Lee, the summit’s organizer, reflects on the “arc of history” that spans from then to now.
What were the key things that made the summit such a transformative event?
At its core, the summit empowered people of color by demonstrating leadership on environmental issues that such communities were already providing. It projected the power and breadth of the Environmental Justice (EJ) issue by assembling for the first time some 1,100 activists from all parts of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as from Canada, Central America, and the Marshall Islands. It confronted the systemic racism of the mainstream environmental movement reflected by its polices and lack of diversity. It codified the Principles of Environmental Justice, and coalesced a grassroots EJ movement. All this laid the foundations for the current ascendance of EJ to the very top of the nation’s policy agenda some 30 years later.
How would you summarize the impact and significance of the summit over the past 30 years?
EJ truly exemplifies Dr. King’s famous quote about the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice. The EJ arc of history collectively represented by all the communities involved is an incredible story. However, there are countless smaller arcs of EJ history represented by numerous struggles, many of which have led to significant changes. This includes local struggles leading to pollution reductions in fence-line communities and organizing efforts resulting in new legislation. They represent hundreds, if not thousands, of communities whose stories teach us much and deserve to be lifted up.
What are your thoughts for commemorating this historic event?
We should commemorate the summit by encouraging all organizations concerned about EJ to celebrate it as part of their ongoing work with blogs, roundtables, and other activities. As resources for people throughout the country, the United Church of Christ has created a web resource page that makes available both a digital version of the published proceedings and a video of the summit. During this year, there will be a number of opportunities for organizations and faith communities to facilitate the telling of stories that point to the many arcs of EJ history. At the same time, there is the opportunity to showcase the environmental leadership that people of color, low-income, and indigenous communities not only continue to demonstrate but is also critical to solving today’s existential climate crisis.