The Weight of History

In 1991, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton stood before an audience gathered at the First National People of Color Leadership Summit. The Summit had sought to redefine environmentalism from the perspective and lived experience of those typically not represented in largely white environmental organizations. It sought to bring together those most affected by environmental exploitation and destruction while also seeking to further the kind of grassroots action necessary to fundamentally transform society. Norton saw the prophetic insight and power of what was unfolding. As she reached the climatic conclusion of her remarks, she declared that the country would one day hear those gathered, and she vowed that members of Congress would hear them as well. All these many years later—30 to be exact—the weight of history is upon us. Congress must finally listen and act by passing the Environmental Justice for All Act.

The Act resulted from two and half years of consultation and collaboration with members of communities that have suffered from environmental racism and inequality. Key aspects of the bill include:

● Strengthening of legal recourse when federal programs, policies, or practices have discriminatory effects.

● Requirement that federal agencies consider the cumulative impacts on human health when deciding whether to issue permit decisions under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

● Imposition of fees upon oil, gas, and coal companies which would be used by a newly created Federal Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund to support workers and communities as industries transition away from fossil fuels.

● Annual provision of $75 million for research and programs to improve public health and reduce health disparities in communities that have suffered from environmental injustice.

The time has come to pass the Environmental Justice for All Act. Congregations can help make this happen. First, if you need inspiration, encourage members of your church to watch a documentary that one can’t find on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, but one can find on! It is a documentary that captures the proceedings of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, an event hosted by the United Church of Christ. Summits are not always the stuff of inspiration, but this one is.

After watching this film and grasping the force of history upon this moment, then encourage people to email and call their respective members of Congress to see that this Act is finally passed. Together, we can do what needs to be done to begin fulfilling the vision of those who have shown us the way.

Rev. Brooks Berndt, PhD

Minister for Environmental Justice, United Church of Christ

Categories: Column Getting to the Root of It

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