Despite living in one of the country’s most environmentally progressive states, California environmental justice activists have spent decades fighting for clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and safe, healthy communities in which to live and work. Evolution of a Movement tells their story – from the often-raucous protests of the 1980s and 1990s to activists’ growing presence inside the halls of the state capitol in the 2000s and 2010s. Perkins offers a new lens for understanding environmental justice activism in California, tracing how shifting political contexts combined with activists’ own efforts to institutionalize their work within nonprofits and state structures.
Drawing on case studies and 125 interviews with activists from Sacramento to the California-Mexico border, Perkins explores the successes and failures of the environmental justice movement in California. She shows why some activists have moved away from the disruptive “outsider” political tactics common in the movement’s early days to embrace traditional political channels of policy advocacy, electoral politics and working from within the state’s political system to enact change. But while some see these changes as a sign of the growing sophistication of the environmental justice movement, others critique their potential to blunt grassroots power. At a time when environmental justice scholars and activists face pressing questions about the best route for enacting meaningful change, this book provides insight into the strengths and limitations of social movement institutionalization.
The book is available for pre-order now, and could be assigned for mid-semester or end-of-semester reading in the spring of 2022. See the beautiful cover below!
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
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.
This spring I was honored to host Nora McDowell as the inaugural speaker at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s first “Dinner and Discussion” series, which is part of their Women’s Environmental Leadership programming.
I met Nora through my research on California environmental justice activism, and in particular through a project to document the 1990s-era fight against the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley, on the traditional lands of the Mojave people. Nora grew up in Needles, California and currently lives on the Fort Mojave reservation in Mojave Valley, Arizona. She was elected as chairperson of the Fort Mojave Tribe at age 24, a position she held from 1985 to 2007. During that time she helped lead a decade-long campaign to block the construction of a nuclear waste landfill in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley nearby. Additionally, she was part of forming the Ten Tribes partnership to represent Colorado River tribal water rights to the Colorado River Water Users Authority. She also started the water and sewer company as well as the electrical company owned and operated by the Fort Mojave Tribe.
Now, Nora is the Project Manager of the Topock remediation project at the AhaMakav Cultural Society of the Fort Mojave Tribe. Topock is the name of the place that is the passageway to the spirit world for the Mojave people. PG&E built a natural gas compression station there in 1950, which leaked chromium six into the groundwater for over 40 years. Nora focuses much of her time on the cleanup of this site, and in particular trying to minimize the impact on the remediation process on Mojave landforms and artifacts. She also serves in an advisory capacity in a number of other settings, including on the Tribal Advisory Committee to the California EPA. She also serves on the Colorado River Basin-wide tribal advisory board, which advises a consortium of federal agencies, tribes and NGOs active on the Colorado River. She is also on the Fort Mojave telecommunications board and is a founding board member of WEWIN – Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations.
The Anacostia Museum hosted the evening in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. It was an intimate event. I asked Nora questions about her leadership experiences in front of 40 or so attendees, and then we all discussed the themes she raised and shared a meal together. You can find the audio recording below, as well as photos taken by Susana Raab. Audio, photographs and captions are provided by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.