New publication on California environmental justice movement history

I had a new publication come out this week on a subject close to my heart, California environmental justice history. The article is titled “The multiple people of color origins of the US environmental justice movement: social movement spillover and regional racial projects in California.” It explores the origins of the national US environmental justice movement through California’s early activism. The article showcases the many, regionally specific strands of activism among racialized groups that informed the California environmental justice movement. It presents social movement geneologies of Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Latinx activists in California, with particular attention to the role of the farmworkers’ movement through the United Farmworkers of America (UFW).

Like many academic articles, this one was a long time in coming. The idea for it started when I was doing research on environmental justice activism in California’s San Joaquin Valley during my time as a master’s student at UC Davis (2006-2008). I saw how present the farmworkers’ movement was in environmental justice gatherings, at which people often sang UFW protest songs, carried UFW flags, referenced UFW leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and drew on the skills of the many people in the region who had been part of the farmworkers’ movement in its heyday. These experiences informed my master’s thesis and subsequent article on what leads women into environmental justice activism, “Women’s Pathways Into Activism: Rethinking the Women’s Environmental Justice Narrative in California’s San Joaquin Valley.” They also later led to an essay titled “The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture.” I expanded on these themes in the first chapter of my book manuscript after graduating with my PhD. However, I eventually cut the chapter from the book manuscript, as it was making a different argument than the rest of the book, which is on the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement (forthcoming with UC Press in February of 2021). Also, as the chapter kept getting longer and longer, it was clear it just wouldn’t fit. The discarded content found new life at the “Bridging the Gap: Race and the Environment” mini-conference preceding the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. The mini conference was organized by the Committee on Racial Equity within the ASA section on Environmental Sociology as part of broader efforts to address racism within the section. The article has now been published in “online first” format prior to the completion of a special issue stemming from the mini-conference. Thank you to everyone who helped put on the conference and who are now shepherding the special issue through to completion, especially my assigned guest-editor, Jennifer Carrera.

Thank you also to all the environmental justice activists who have let me interview them over the years. Getting to hear about your lives is one of the highlights of my job. This article names some environmental justice activists, but others remain anonymous. This is because some of the interview excerpts already exist in the public sphere with their names attached (anonymous interviews conducted by myself for which I subsequently got permission to use real names, or interview excerpts published by others), while others do not. California activists who are named include: Maricela Mares Alatorre, Robin Cannon, Pam Tau Lee, Marta Salinas, and Lupe Martinez. A paper this short can’t provide a comprehensive history of California environmental justice history and all of the activists who were part of it. Rather, I use a few individual activists’ experiences to present themes relevant to the broader movement. It’s a fascinating history – I’m thinking about making it the subject of my next book, where I can give it the fuller treatment that it deserves.

The article is behind a paywall, but free downloads are being provided by the publisher to the first 50 people who access it at this link.

The multiple people of color origins of the US environmental justice movement: social movement spillover and regional racial projects in California

Abstract

This paper contributes to scholarship on the origins of the US environmental justice movement (EJM) through exploration of the early EJM in California. The national EJM is often seen as having grown out of the intersection of environmentalism and the Black civil rights movement in the 1982 protests in Warren County, North Carolina. This paper adds weight to alternate narratives that depict the EJM as drawing on a variety of racialized social movement infrastructures that vary regionally. These infrastructures, as they were built in California, are analyzed as regional racial projects responding to histories of white supremacy that are connected through social movement spillover. This conceptual framework illuminates the place-based ways in which racial oppression and racial justice responses create social movement infrastructure that persists across multiple movement formations, both across contemporary groups and through time. The paper draws on data gathered from existing case studies and oral histories, in-depth interviews, participant observation, and archival documents to offer a capacious view of the EJM’s origins.

Gustavo Aguirre was first involved in the farmworkers’ movement through the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), and later joined the environmental justice movement. Here he shows a letter from UFW leader Cesar Chavez. The flags of the UFW and CRPE, an environmental justice organization, hang above his desk. Photo by Tracy Perkins, 2010.

New DC-based publications: part 1

Publications from the work I initiated in Washington DC during my time at Howard University have just started coming out, even though I’ve now moved to Arizona for a new job at Arizona State University.

When I moved to DC in the summer of 2015, I started to nose around to get a sense of what kind of environmental justice work was happening in the area. I met Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, Katrina Lashley at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Lesley Fields at Sierra Club, Mike Ewall at Energy Justice Network, Michael Dorsey, who was then at the National Academy of Science, Rhonda Hamilton from Syphax Gardens near DC’s Buzzard Point, Fred Tutman of Patuxent Riverkeeper, Kamita Grey in Brandywine, and more. It was a pleasure to meet a whole new host of people doing important work locally and nationally. Many meetings and a few protests later, some potential synergies became clear between my role as an educator, Katrina’s work preserving the stories of people along the Anacostia River with the Anacostia Museum, Rhonda’s activism on the redevelopment of Buzzard Point, and Empower DC’s efforts to support affordable housing and people’s health, both of which were threatened by the Buzzard Point redevelopment.

During my second year in DC, we built a plan around our overlapping interests in which the students in my Environmental Inequality class would conduct oral-history interviews with Rhonda’s neighbors to document their history in the near-Buzzard Point neighborhoods, interaction with the Anacostia River, and current experiences redevelopment. Buzzard Point was undergoing a transformation from an industrial site to a mixed residential and commercial space, and the nearby residents were experiencing the resulting impacts: dust from the construction, rats that relocated from the construction site into their homes, and potential displacement from their homes.

I was pleased with how the project worked out in terms of what the students got out of it. They were introduced to research skills: the first year of the project, students practiced and conducted oral history interviews, and during the second year the next batch of students coded the interviews for cross-cutting themes. We also went on field trips to the Anacostia River and to Southwest DC. Many reported that talking to people struggling with the real-world problems we were reading about in class added a new level of gravity to their understanding of environmental inequality. The archival objectives of the project have also been largely met. Transcripts of the first round of interviews we conducted with Rhonda’s neighbors in Syphax Gardens are held by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, while a second round with residents of broader Southwest DC conducted by graduate student Jesse DiValli (formerly Card) are available at the DC Public Library. However, as often happens, we can’t say that any particular improvement in the material lives of the people we interviewed came out of the work.

Still, we are hopeful that the project was valuable not only for the students and myself, but will also in some small way help raise the visibility of the challenges faced by residents impacted by the redevelopment of Buzzard Point.

Here is the first piece to come out of that work, a profile of the indomitable Rhonda Hamilton, long-time resident and elected representative of her neighborhood in the city’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission:

Rhonda Hamilton: Community Leader and Public Housing Advocate in Southwest D.C.

Rhonda Hamilton, talking with my students in Southwest Washington DC. September 9, 2017.

 

Two other prior blog posts about the class project:

Teaching students to contribute to Wikipedia

This week I crossed the threshold in which summer no longer seems to stretch out endlessly before me and I start to think about updating my fall classes. I’ll be teaching two, a graduate seminar on the Sociology of Environmental Health, and an upper-division undergraduate class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Last year was my first time teaching the latter class. I have a few tweaks in mind for the readings compared to last year’s syllabus, and I intend to once again center the class project around teaching students how to contribute new content to Wikipedia.

I was pleased with how the Wikipedia assignment worked out last year. The good people at Wiki Education helped me set it up before the class began by walking me through the various assignment modules they have available for instructors to adapt to their own purposes. Some are short assignments that teach students how to add images or citations to existing articles. I chose the most extensive model, in which students spend the entire semester learning how to, 1) evaluate existing Wikipedia content, 2) identify areas that need improvement, 3) read the existing scholarly literature on their chosen topic, 4) summarize that scholarship on Wikipedia, and, 5) respond to other Wikipedia contributors who may alter, delete, or add to their work. These are all transferable skills for traditional academic research, as well as for critical thinking, writing and collaborative work in general.

The assignment also gave us an opportunity to discuss the social construction and politics of knowledge. Wikipedia contributors skew heavily white and male, and this impacts the kinds of content available on the site (articles on military history and video games are apparently particularly well-developed). This leaves a number of topics wide open for student contribution. Accordingly, one of my students created an article on Black Land Loss in the United States. Others added content to existing articles: one student added a description of the Freedom Farm Cooperative that Fannie Lou Hamer organized as part of her civil rights work; another added content on the challenges faced by female farmworkers to the Agriculture in the United States article. Another researched labor conditions on organic farms to add to the article on Organic Food, though her content was ultimately never added to Wikipedia.

This assignment generated more student interest in assessing the credibility of what they read and supporting their own work with strong citations than I have seen in other assignments. Some of this is likely due to the fact that real people all around the world will read their work. Indeed, Wikipedia has become a massive online encyclopedia with global reach. The dashboard available to instructors tracks how many “views” there are of the articles that students create or edit. Less than one year later, the articles to which my students contributed have been viewed 661,000 times (actually, I suspect the number is higher – students sometimes added their contributions without remembering to sign in to their user profile first).

While the Wikipedia protocols for adding content and interacting with other users are a bit cumbersome to learn, I was impressed by how much support Wiki Education offers. Beyond the adaptable assignment modules and training videos they have created, they also assigned my class two staff helpers. The helpers were on hand throughout the semester to answer my questions and to interact directly with my students, they even provided direct feedback on their writing.

This semester I’ll make an effort to streamline my assignment somewhat, which ended up confusing myself and the students with a few too many due dates for editing and revising. Beyond that, I plan to stick with last year’s winning formula. If you teach with Wikipedia, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences. And if you teach Food and Agriculture, send your students over to my students’ work to continue to improve upon it.