THE CHANGING FACE OF ENVIRONMENTALISM
(originally appeared in The Urbanite)
Glenn Ross stands at the precipice of a hill just behind the Kennedy Krieger offices on Biddle Street and looks out at the fourteen-acre landfill below. It is an enormous pile of concrete and building waste that dips then rises like a mountain before us, stretching on the length of several football fields. Ross points to the tips of some telephone poles just barely visible over the enormous mound. “That shows you how high it really is,” he says, shaking his head in amazement.
Sometimes Ross follows the trucks as they haul the debris from construction sites throughout the city to this cemetery of the Baltimore skyline. Ross is 56, old enough to recall when a portion of the site was still a graveyard of a different sort, back when his family moved just down the block some fifty years ago. “There used to be headstones right here,” he says. “I remember when they bulldozed it. They planted this area with African ferns and sunflowers to remediate it. Of course we didn’t know it back then, but the African ferns absorbed the arsenic in the ground, and the sunflowers were there to absorb the lead. We used to pick those sunflowers and take them home and eat them. There was no warning, no sign. Nothing. Then a couple years later the city sent in all these guys in hazmat suits to harvest the stuff.”
We make the long drive around Edison Highway, and take in the view from the ground up. The huge pile blots out the tall hill where we just stood. For the past five years, Ross has worked for the Civic Works B’More Green initiative, which uses federal Superfund money to train young people for entry-level positions in environmental technology and to help with career placement, tackling the twin inner-city problems of environmental degradation and endemic unemployment. Today Ross himself plays the role of an environmental inspector. He combs the base of the landfill, and finds sewer drains clogged by the ubiquitous industrial dust that clings to the gutters like a thick grey paste. “Improper drainage,” he says. “All this is going to seep into the ground and end up in the harbor.”
The giant landfill is perhaps the most telling of our stops on a trip that has taken us past power transformers, barren industrial wastelands, and tracks of trash-strewn empty lots where houses once stood but now only rodents call home.
This is environmental activist Glenn Ross’ “Toxic Tour,” a half-day journey through East Baltimore that showcases the environmental challenges faced by his community. He gave his first “Toxic Tour” a year ago, at the behest of Johns Hopkins students studying urban environmental problems, and he continues to take visitors on his bleak journey—believing in the transformative power of witnessing the devastation firsthand.
A huge African-American man with two gold crucifixes around his neck, Ross doesn’t quite fit the stereotypes conjured by the word “environmentalist.” It is a label that even he would only recently have embraced. Ross spent the last twenty years building a reputation as one of the city’s most prolific and recognizable neighborhood activists, but he never made the connection between environmentalism and the issues that consumed him—sanitation, public health, decent housing. Environmentalism, for Ross, had always been about problems far removed from his inner-city world. “When I used to hear the word environment,” he says, “I used to think of mountains and bears.” But the story of how Glenn Ross found the environmental movement, or rather how the environmental movement found Ross and people like him, may be the story of environmentalism’s future in America.
Two threads run through the history of American environmentalism. There is an older “conservationist” thread that traces its roots to John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, the “mountains and bears” kind of environmentalism Glenn Ross speaks of. Then there is a more modern manifestation, an activist-driven movement strongly influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and even Henry David Thoreau, who in the 1850s married his belief in naturalism with the struggle against slavery.
In 2004, these sometimes-complementary, sometimes -contradictory historic threads clashed, and then began to come together in interesting ways. In October of that year, two prominent environmental strategists, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, wrote an essay entitled “The Death of Environmentalism,” which they presented at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. The authors argued that environmentalism was becoming irrelevant and had failed to connect with the larger progressive movement, and that the big environmental organizations were like “generals fighting the last battle,” more concerned with tiny conquests than with winning the larger war. The days when environmentalists could claim big victories—the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the 1977 Clean Water Act—they insisted, were over. The essay spurred a lot of collective soul-searching. It also started a bit of a firestorm —with some of the most pointed criticism coming out of more-activist environmentalists who had been forging new ground in communities of color.
“That was a report written by white men who only talked to white men, and that’s why they came to the conclusions they did,” says one of the essay’s fiercest critics, Dr. Michel Gelobter, president of Redefining Progress and a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gelobter is a relative rarity in the environmental movement, an African-American man heading one of the nation’s most influential environmental think tanks. He says one can’t understand environmentalism without understanding the larger context that race plays in American society.
“Take urban sprawl,” says Gelobter, turning to the long process of white flight in American cities. “You can’t understand water pollution and you can’t understand transportation problems, without understanding sprawl. And you can’t understand sprawl without understanding the centrality of race.” But not only is race an essential piece of the history and shape of the American environmental movement, says Gelobter, but it may also be the key to understanding where it is headed.
For activists like Gelobter, the modern phase of American environmentalism really began back in 1982 in Warren, North Carolina, when a group of civil rights activists joined environmentalists in staging sit-ins to try to stop the placement of a landfill in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. They were angry that yet another environmentally hazardous facility was being sited in a poor minority neighborhood. The protests led to a study that found that three out of every four environmentally hazardous facilities were sited in low-income minority neighborhoods (a phenomenon we now call environmental racism). The sit-ins also spurred a drive for environmental equity in the poor communities long overlooked. The environmental justice movement had been born.
For Gelobter, environmental justice isn’t just an ancillary to mainstream environmentalism. When he looks at the future of environmentalism in America, he sees a future that is increasingly black and, particularly in the West, brown. “Just look at California,” he says, from his office in Oakland. “White people are in a minority here. And we’ve enacted some of the most progressive legislation in the country.”
But for many black environmentalists with roots in the cities, getting the more mainstream environmental groups to listen to their story and to join in their battles is a struggle. Morning Sunday Hettleman, former environmental editor for The Afro-American Newspaper and current host of The Environmental Report, heard weekly on WEAA (88.9 FM), recalls her first visit to an Earth Day planning meeting, in Baltimore in 1990. “I was sitting in this meeting—I was the only black person there—and I asked, What are you doing to let the larger African-American community know what you are doing?” she says. “And they said, Why don’t you do that? And they gave me a roll of stamps and some envelopes.” In 1995, Hettleman started Black Earth Day, sometimes called Urban Earth Day, to advance environmentalism in the African-American community. It is now a national, week-long event, held each October.
Today, Hettleman sees tremendous potential for spreading the environmental message to the inner cities: The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans brought home that the face of any future environmental catastrophe in America would most likely be a black face, a poor face, the “kind of people who live paycheck-to-paycheck.”
It is a message that the more mainstream environmental groups may not always have heard. But there are signs that slowly, glacially, groups like the Sierra Club seem to be trying to listen. The Sierra Club is the most prominent of America’s environmental organizations, and one that has traditionally straddled the fine line between conservation and activism. But the conflicts between the two wings began to erupt in the mid-1990s, when the group endured a divisive debate over immigration, with some “zero-growth” members calling for the organization to take a conservative position on immigration, arguing that America’s growing population was straining the environment. The ugly public battle that ensued made elements of the organization look xenophobic and even racist.
Ironically, that struggle may have helped push the group and many mainstream environmentalists to reach out to the broader progressive movement. “It galvanized those of us who have a historic heart for justice,” says Melanie Griffin, director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Partnerships Program. “And it made us realize that diversity and environmental justice are important issues.”
Part of the difficulty mainstream environmentalists have in reaching out to low-income minorities is that both the traditional deficiencies cited by Griffin—a lack of people of color as members and a lack of focus on environmental issues associated with the inner cities—compound each other to make changing the status quo even more difficult. Without a diverse membership base, mainstream groups can’t really understand the unique problems of the inner city. And without understanding those problems, they can’t really diversify their movement. Those twin problems have greatly contributed to the historic divide, and have made change difficult.
But groups like the Sierra Club seem to be moving in the right direction, or are at least trying to. Griffin’s role is to forge alliances outside the Sierra Club’s traditional membership base, which she describes as “mostly white and suburban.” The organization has built partnerships with inner-city churches and activist organizations that haven’t traditionally had an environmental focus. Still, she acknowledges that change has been slow. “As a group that was established in 1892 in the mountains, it has been an ongoing challenge for us,” she says, “but we’re finding that there is a lot more common ground than we might have assumed. We’re seeing so much more increased interest from local groups in communities of color and from the larger white [environmental] groups. Within the Sierra Club there is now a huge demand to understand what environmental justice is, to understand white privilege. We’ve gone from kind of clueless to kind of hungry.”
If there is an emerging environmentalism specific to inner-city African-American communities, it is an environmentalism of problems not distant but near, rooted in issues of public health and public space and environmental discrimination. It is a kind of environmentalism written quite literally on the walls, in the living room of Glenn Ross’ home near the Johns Hopkins East Baltimore campus.
It is really less a living space than a large, cluttered office, with an endless array of binders and folders arranged beneath a banner that reads, “It’s Baltimore, Don’t Trash It,” and a huge street map of the city, which Ross uses to point out the region’s most egregious polluters. Beside the map hang some two dozen clipboards, all ideas for future projects. On another wall are newspaper clippings from the many battles Ross has fought as an activist, so many they cover the surface like wallpaper. Ross uses the press coverage to chronologically trace his own history. Gradually the topics take on a more environmental bent, and Ross becomes animated when he arrives at a group of articles from The Baltimore Sun about landlord abuses in Section 8 housing, in private homes rented with vouchers provided by HUD for low-income residents. “These houses were owned by city-agency heads,” he says of a story with a large photo of himself standing in a decrepit hallway with peeling paint. “And here’s a woman whose child had asthma, and her whole basement was full of lead and mold.”
Yet Ross never really considered his work “environmental” until he started working with the B’More Green project. Then about three years ago, Ross joined the Environmental Justice Partnership, a coalition of environmental health specialists and several East Baltimore activist groups. The EJP emerged out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as a way to link the researchers studying urban environmental issues—pollution, lead paint, disproportionately high rates of cancer, heart disease, asthma—and the communities right outside their doors that were grappling with those same problems. Ross was tasked with helping to build a network of East Baltimore community organizations dedicated to fighting just the kinds of urban environmental battles they had been fighting all along, though they had never really thought of those issues as environmental. The EJP has since allied with some of East Baltimore’s most important neighborhood activist groups, like The Door and the Rose Street Center, both of which have earned their reputations fighting gangs and drug abuse, problems more traditionally associated with the inner city.
The EJP also created some unlikely partnerships, like that between Ross and Johns Hopkins toxicologist Michael Trush, Ph.D. When Trush first came to Hopkins in 1983, he says there was a fundamental disconnect between the issues urban environmental scientists like him studied and the very human faces who were the victims of the problems he specialized in. Theirs was a theoretical work of the laboratory, not a practical work to be applied to their own community. This began to change at Hopkins and at similar research facilities through the country, after Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., became the first African American to head one of the institutes of the National Institutes of Health (the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), in 1991. Olden found the argument for environmental justice persuasive, and in 1996 the NIEHS mandated that the research university centers receiving NIEHS funding each create a community education and outreach program. At Hopkins, this meant working more closely with the residents and community groups in the low-income minority neighborhoods in their area.
Trush now works with the EJP as part of his role as deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Urban Environmental Health. He says his connection to activists like Glenn Ross (upon whom he lavishes praise) has brought new meaning to his work as a scientist. When asked about his proudest accomplishments, Trush eschews the typical recitation of studies and published papers. Instead, he cites his involvement in the paid relocation of residents in Wagners Point, where heavy industry had caused extreme health consequences for generations. “When I first started out, I never thought I’d be doing this kind of thing,” says Trush, who grew up among the coal mines in Western Pennsylvania. “But it has become a very rewarding aspect of my life.”
One might say the final step in Glenn Ross’ evolution into an environmental activist came in 2003, when he was asked by the Green Party to run on its ticket for City Council in the 2004 elections. (He did, and finished a distant second.) “I read their platform,” he says, “and I realized that I am not only black, but I’m also green.”
There is one critical lesson that Ross says environmentalists need to learn to continue to draw people like him into their fold. He says they need to learn how to “market” themselves, a word also used by the Sierra Club’s Griffin. Urban activists have always been working on environmental issues, they just didn’t know it. And the mainstream environmental movement was slow to reach out—or simply unmotivated. Now that they are trying to, they still need to learn to bridge the class and racial divides and to speak to the more immediate concerns of poor people in the inner city.
Ross recalls a recent conversation with an environmental activist who was trying to engage Baltimore’s black community on environmental issues. “He was telling me that when he comes into neighborhoods, it’s hard to get them to understand what he is saying,” says Ross. “I said, ‘You gotta break it down to urban: why you shouldn’t let the oil go down the sewer drain, why their kids are getting asthma.’ That’s the connect.”
Before Ross and I part ways, we take one final trip out to a park on Edison Highway in the Berea neighborhood. Ross points out a row of little white tubes he says are there to release the toxins from the ground. They are the only reminders that this park was once a landfill. “Barbara Mikulski, when she was a neighborhood activist, helped get that done,” he says. “In all my years in Baltimore, that fight against that landfill was the first time I ever saw the white community and the black community come together.”
It is a small park. But for Ross, a man who grew up in segregated Baltimore, it is really something much bigger: It is a symbol of environmentalism’s potential to diminish the class and racial divides we still live with. “People have to realize,” he says, “that we are all connected.”
Bill Mesler, a regular contributor to Urbanite, most recently participated in our March 2007 issue as a team member in The Urbanite Project. To learn more, visit www.urbaniteproject.com.
April 8, 2007