By Shanice Clarke
In early November, Black people in the environmental justice movement organized together to co-create solutions for liberation in Detroit, MI for the Black 2 Just Transition Training & Assembly. Within environmental justice movements, Black people often experience erasure and invisibility, while being disproportionately impacted by issues like gentrification, air pollution, and access to food.
A series of speakers, freedom fighters, activists, creatives, and organizers shared resources, built community, and connected our common histories. Each day began with grounding, centered ancestral healing, and held multiple opportunities for intergenerational engagement. Detroit, Michigan is a microcosm for issues that impact many communities across the United States, and there are many parallels to the issues Black communities face in the Portland area. A legacy of red-lining has pushed Black communities to the outskirts of Detroit, leaving Mid-town a gentrified area with higher income families. Due to illegal taxing, foreclosures are at an all time high. For example, a tax that disproportionately targeted many Black churches in the region was proposed that increased water bills by 200%, on average.
OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon was founded to address issues of air pollution that impact communities of color. During the Welcome to Detroit panel, guests shared how the waste incinerator in Detroit consumes and burns waste from all over the surrounding county. An automotive manufacturing plant sits near communities of color there produces air pollution and dumps waste into the Huron River. This pollution, a result of waste from many different communities, is a reason why 1 in 5 kids have asthma in Detroit.
The Black 2 Just Transition Training & Assembly focused on Black liberation, with a strong foundation built by working in coalition with others. At the Growing Our Movement Panel, the realities of how Black people’s work in the EJ movement becomes invisible or co-opted were discussed. Liberating Black people from the restraints of environmental racism calls for the need to consider intersectional identities of Black people in direct, creative ways.
There are some myths surrounding the Flint Water Crisis, one being that Flint is the only city experiencing poisoned water. Have you ever thought to yourself, how does Michigan sit on one of the greatest bodies of water in America, but experience such a significant water crisis?
- Flint has a water crisis, but Detroit’s water is actually worse.
- Impacts of the water crisis are also interconnected with other community issues. Schools have not had safe drinking water in Detroit for some time, which has led to over 100 public school closures.
- It would cost roughly $500M to completely fix the infrastructure of schools to have access to safe drinking water. City officials fail to prioritize this issue, and rather used taxpayer funds to build a new and improved $400M hockey stadium
- Michigan residents truly have safe drinking water and sit close to Lake Michigan, but contamination only impacts communities within Detroit and Flint
During the assembly, California experienced a large fire which caused us to reflect more on how timely this work is. Inmates from California prisons were subject to fight these fires without pay, health insurance, or access to upward mobility. This presents a huge environmental concern, especially considering that Black people are overrepresented in the prison system.
The assembly closed with an abundant amount of networking, idea sharing, and proposals on how to move forward. Using the Just Transition Framework, how do we ensure that Black communities who experience high levels of environmental racism are also centered in our work?
Shanice B. Clarke is an orgnaizer with OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, and helps lead efforts for transit-dependent people in the Portland area. She also is a cohort member of Freedom To Thrive’s wellness-focused organizer leadership program, We Rise. Shanice earned a B.S. in Human Services, and M.A. in Higher Education & Student Affairs Leadership from the University of Northern Colorado. She is also a scholar-practitioner at Portland State University, managing a retention unit within Diversity and Multicultural Student Services.