What comes to mind when you think of global warming? A polar bear, or maybe a melting glacier? If you’re Hispanic or African-American, you might think of a child with asthma worsened by a coal plant near your home. People of color often live closest to the large sources of carbon pollution that are hurting their personal health and the health of the planet. But how does climate change connect with voting, education, and other civil rights?
“When you do polling you actually see that people of color, poll the highest on the need to address climate change and address it quickly,” says Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. She notes that minorities and economically disadvantaged communities “are getting the double whammy of being physically impacted by the local pollution, but they’re also gonna be impacted first and worst by climate and... they have the least resources to deal with those impacts.”
So why aren’t communities of color more involved in climate action? “People move from a psychological point of survival,” says Rev. Gerald Durley, a pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church of Atlanta. “When you've got police brutality when you got rent, when you got poor education, when you've got unemployment those issues that are very bread-and-butter issues is not a matter of people are not concerned about the environment. They've got other pressing issues.”
Rev. Durley worked alongside Dr. King in the Civil Rights movement, and currently serves on the board of Interfaith Power & Light, a religious response to climate change. He is more troubled by the pursuit of profit than overt racism when companies expose communities of color to environmental harms. “I think they follow the dollar terms of replacing toxic waste dumps because of the land where they get the land at a certain amount and those kinds of laws that were passed,” says Durley. “And so when you put those two things together the profit motive a lot of time it overrides the racist thing.”
So why do environmental movements lack diversity, and why has it been so difficult for nonprofits to reach communities of color? “ Environmental justice organizations… come to communities of color and show up and say well we have things to tell you,” explains hip hop artist and activist Mystic. “[They] don't come to ask us how we’re organizing or what we want to do or what we want to see and what we want the future to be.”
As Bay Area co-ordinator with the Hip Hop Caucus, Mystic works on voter registration and engagement – often at a hyper-local level – to counter the frustration felt by people of color who feel disenfranchised. She also pursues this goal in her music. “Through your art you’re helping to facilitate the space where people come together and they’re exchanging and then you can use your platform to kind of facilitate a conversation,” she explains, adding that “you can’t have a revolution without art. You can’t have a change without art.”
Rev. Durley likens this to the faith community’s tradition of call-and-response. “You reach down because we’re interacting – ‘do you believe what I’m saying makes a lot of sense? I think somebody agrees with me. Am I right about it?” As such, he believes that the key to solving climate issues involves pulling in as many actors as possible. “The environmentalists, the conservationists cannot keep this in their own little bailiwick, in their own silo. This is big.”