Celebrating Earth Day 2017: Where Environmental Justice *INCLUDES* Racial Justice!

May 4th, 2017 - filed under: Furthermore » Inspiration

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Most people don’t know it, but Earth Day was actually born right here in Santa Barbara (true fact!), so this city takes the celebration very seriously. It’s a whole weekend-long affair, spanning two full days, filling two entire city blocks, with speakers and workshops and demos and vendors, a “green car show”, lots of amazing music, an eco-friendly beer garden, and upwards of 30,000 attendees.


I have a long and somewhat complicated history with Santa Barbara’s Earth Day. It did not start well. But after I wrote that blog, I was invited to sit down with the Earth Day team, to share my thoughts, and talk about how to make the next year’s Earth Day even better.

Which . . . blew me away. All these important people wanted to listen to me — some random vegan from the Internet!

So that was the first time I met the Earth Day team. And since then, I’ve worked with them on various projects, big and small. And I know them to be some of the best organizers and activists I have ever met. You know — the kind of people who read a rather scathing review by a blogger, and instead of getting defensive, they listen, and they reach out, and they strive to grow.


This year at Earth Day: Santa Barbara Unified School District rolled out an entirely vegan menu in one of their traveling school lunch trucks. These awesome, TOTALLY VEGAN menu items will be available in *all* SB public schools, coming soon!

So when I joined SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) a few months back, and I began to work with the Environmental Justice wing of the organization, I knew that I had to reach out to the executive director of the Community Environmental Council (they’re the ones who throw Earth Day), right away.

She had a lot of ideas for our budding Environmental Justice group, and pretty quickly, we decided that we would have a booth at Earth Day. We wanted to cast a spotlight on the intersection of environmentalism and racial justice, which are two seemingly disparate issues that actually overlap in many, complicated ways.

It certainly wasn’t going to make us the most popular booth at Earth Day, but our mesage highlighting Environmental Racism would definitely be one of the most important.


Environmental Racism describes a sociopolitical phenomenon whereby communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollutants, and denied access to clean air, clean water, and natural open spaces.

Let’s face it: the mainstream environmental movement tends to be very white-dominated. And, much like mainstream feminism, the movement often prioritizes certain issues *at the exclusion* of issues that specifically effect people of color. And we need to change that.

Environmentalism intersects with racism. Environmental justice INCLUDES racial justice.

So that was the focus of the booth. And here’s what’s really neat: the Environmental Justice group consists of maybe like, 8 people total. But really, there are 3 or 4 of us who make up the core team. And I just want to make it really clear — this entire thing was accomplished by basically a tiny handful of people. A few busy people with full time jobs, and families, and lots of other things going on. And I’m not saying that to brag or something. I’m saying it because I think it’s really important to remember.

Projects like this can seem huge. They can seem so huge that they’re downright daunting. And if projects like this seem impossible, it’s hard to motivate ourselves to even begin to attempt them. So I really want to emphasize that we pulled this whole thing off with just like, a tiny handful of humans, sending emails, and doing little bits of leg work, and fitting in 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there. Just one small piece at a time. And that’s how this whole big thing came together.

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This is Cora — a student at Santa Barbara Community College. One of our core members in the Environmental Justice group also happens to be a professor of Environmental History at SBCC. So, she told all her students that they could do an extra credit project on Environmental Racism! Some of those [amazing] projects became the material that we shared with folks at Earth Day. And Cora is one of those students, who put together a really comprehensive piece on the Flint Water Crisis, providing the historical context of institutionalized racism all the way back to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and then red lining, and on through the years from there. I mean, we all know about Flint’s current crisis . . . but do we all understand that this environmental nightmare is historically, intentionally rooted in racism?

Probably not.

So that’s the kind of message we were trying to share at Earth Day this year. From Flint, to the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, to Standing Rock . . . all the way to the vastly disproportionate number of smog-spouting smokestacks in our neighboring city of Oxnard, CA (which, unsurprisingly, is an 85% community of color). The effects of environmental devastation do not impact all peoples equally, and all those terrible things that environmentalists warn “are coming soon” are actually already happening in marginalized communities.

Environmental justice INCLUDES racial justice.

And surprisingly, so many people were willing to engage with us. Sure, plenty of them just kept right on walking, but so many stopped and talked to us. We had great conversations, and we had hard conversations too. So many hard conversations. And we got a bunch of new sign-ups for SURJ, and we also got tons and tons of signatures on a petition we’re working on to try and get the city of SB to divest from the banks involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Overall, I’d say the weekend was an absolute success. More than protests or petitions, this was real, boots on the ground, community outreach work. It felt meaningful, like a perfect little stone dropped in the middle of a lake. Building a little ripple, watching it grow.

A little stone made from a tiny handful of people. Just a tiny handful.

Just like you and a few of your friends.

Think about it.

A few notes in case anyone has questions:

Initially, we had planned to simply obtain the booth, and then offer it to Black Lives Matter SB, or PODER, or another local group that is led by people of color. However, when we reached out, the general consensus was along the lines of — “Thank you for the thought, but that sounds like a lot of physical and emotional labor. We would love it if you were there bringing attention to this topic, instead of us having to do it.” So with their blessings, we proceeded.

The local nonprofit Loa Tree very generously offered to sponsor our booth for us. This meant that, in accordance with the SURJ charter, we raised a donation in a matching amount to give to a people of color-led organization. We donated to our local Black Lives Matter chapter, to help fund their current efforts around the Use Of Force policies in the Santa Barbara Police Department.

  • Sarah C.

    Super fantastic work. And, as a professional historian, I will also point out that the *history* part of this is incredibly relevant, even central, to this issue (among many others). It’s in stuff like this that history, science, public interest, and activism all intersect and I love it.

  • M. Shilale

    So you were one of the people who initially inspired me to try out veganism 4 years ago and for 4 years not only I’ve been vegan but my husband as well! And now after 4 years away from college, this summer I’m jumping into a Bachelor’s in Biology program. Again, I have you to blame. I just needed to say thank you for existing on the internet and sharing your life.

  • Lindsey P

    This was just the article I needed to read today. Thanks for getting the word out and putting in the hard work. From Flint to the Dakota Access Pipeline stories, I think (hope?) people are starting to make the connection. Living in the south, it seems that so many folks think that being able to share the same bathroom and water fountain is the same thing as “equal rights.” As someone who just recently learned about “redlining,” I think there’s a lack of education around the issue of racism in my part of the country. Maybe addressing it from the angle of environmentalism will open some doors to discussion with people who never thought about it as an issue of discrimination. Kudos to you and everyone at SURJ for your efforts.

  • http://suburbansnowwhite.com Katrina

    That is the coolest!!!

  • http://suburbansnowwhite.com Katrina

    This is so timely for me, as I’ve been wanting to create something in my fourth grade classroom about solving problems, both very tiny problems and huge ones. I feel like kids can have an enormous impact on getting others to listen — they have more power, I believe, than even adults do. But they don’t realize it. Anyhow, you’ve given my a lot to mull over as I come up with how to design and present this to my students. Thank you!

  • M. Shilale

    Hey thanks a lot I’m scared but excited!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Thanks Sarah, and I agree with the importance of the history. These situations don’t just arise out of nowhere! It’s so important to remember that. ♥

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    Awesome! Whatever you end up doing with those kiddos, I hope you’ll let me know. They are lucky to have you Katrina!

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    I think environmentalism is such a great inroad to these deeper social issues. And I’m glad to hear that this article helped you when you read it! Living in the south, you are really in a position every day to face these issues head on in so many ways, in a way a California girl like me never will. Kudos to *you*, for being on the front line, and helping to chip away little by little.

  • http://bonzaiaphrodite.com/ Sayward Rebhal

    What?! This is amazing, thank you so much for sharing this with me! I am so happy to have had a small part in inspiring you, and CONGRATS on going back to school! That is so exciting. Cheers to an awesome new adventure!

  • Sigrid Wright

    I was so glad to see you and SURJ at the festival! I know it was a big lift and really appreciate you putting the time in to make it happen. Here’s to continued productive conversations…….

  • Eric Cardenas

    Awesome. Congrats, Sayward. It was fun (and funny) to read back into the history of how we all got started. Per our most recent engagement, LoaTree is glad we could help, even if in small part. And thank you for you dedicated participation and continued work – to you and your team! FYI, LoaTree is not a nonprofit, for what it’s worth. ;) Onward and up!