April 13, 2016

Environmental Justice Takes Center Stage On Earth Day

By Molly Johnson

Reports of water contaminated by lead, copper, and E. coli in Flint, Michigan dominated national headlines early this year, and became a focal point for outrage around the issue of environmental racism. Then in March, closer to home, reports surfaced of elevated levels of lead in the drinking water at public schools in Newark, New Jersey.

These stories are frightening and frustrating. Worse, they are not unique. Flint and Newark are not the only cities in the United States suffering the poisonous consequences of lead in the water supply, nor are they the only cities where historic, institutional racism has had dramatic, dangerous effects on people and the environment. A long-lived reality for many people of color and low-income communities around the globe has emerged as a central concern: Environmental racism is real, and environmental justice is the answer.

Michelle DePass, dean of The New School's Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy and director of The New School's Tishman Environment and Design Center (and also a former top administrator at the federal Environmental Protection Agency), has rightly said that "Earth Day 2016 ought to focus on the devastating effects of decades of environmental injustice -- and also on the grassroots community efforts to overcome them." 

A history of discrimination, disinvestment, and political marginalization are major reasons why people of color and low-income communities must grapple with the twin evils of environmental and human exploitation. In Michigan an independent panel attributed the State government’s delayed response to Flint residents’ complaints about their water supply to disregard for the concerns of poor and minority people. In Newark school district memos written in 2014 show that officials have known about the lead in the water for years.

But the struggle for environmental justice is not simply a story of suffering; it is also one of community organizing, activism, and hard-won triumphs. When, for example, residents of Flint couldn’t get answers from government, they tested their own water, protested, filed grievances, and organized hearings that led, finally, to attention and the first steps toward positive action.

Now more than ever, connections to human and civil rights, the intersection of social and environmental justice, and the disproportionate threats climate change poses to the poor and disadvantaged inform new perspectives on environmental issues which inspire movements that support people and the planet.

Though environmental justice advocates often face uphill battles, they do not stand alone. Solidarity and collaboration are hallmarks of the environmental justice movement and grassroots groups and frontline communities around the world are working together to fight for environmental justice. 

Local environmental justice activists also have forged global alliances to tackle the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. These groups led the People’s Climate March here in New York City in 2014, which sent a powerful message about the need for climate justice. They also took this message to COP21, the international climate conference held in Paris last November.

Speaking at The New School’s Parsons School of Design Paris campus during COP21, Ananda Tan, a leader of the It Take Roots Delegation of frontline activists, was asked by a student what artists and designers could possibly do to address issues of inequality in the climate talks. He responded that, “Art is core to our successful movements. Art is beautiful. Art helps make resistance irresistible.”

Since its inception in April 1970, Earth Day has been a celebration of resistance. The first Earth Day saw 20 million Americans take part in rallies, protests, and teach-ins to advocate for a healthy, sustainable environment. This upsurge in activism led Congress to pass the historic Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

This year during Earth Week, The New School will be saluting the passion, persistence, creativity, and collaboration of communities seeking justice. We will add our voices to the growing call for climate justice, and stand in solidarity with people and communities determined to achieve solutions to environmental crises on their own terms. We’ll be featuring the contributions and reflections of young people, journalists, filmmakers, performing artists, and designers whose work is the very heart of the struggle for resistance and resilience and whose creative expression truly makes resistance irresistible.


Molly Johnson is the Sustainability Associate at the Tishman Environment and Design Center (TEDC). TEDC is a university-wide center at The New School that fosters the integration of bold design, policy, and social justice approaches to environmental issues to advance just and sustainable outcomes in the context of diverse community participation.

Earth Week at The New School is April 18-26. The keynote event, Irresistible Resistance, is April 20.

Photo by: Alexander Bryden