Environmental Justice

Do you have a right to clean environment?

You have a human right to clean air, clean water, pollution prevention, climate change, and to participate in the environmental decisions that affect your right.  A clean and healthy environment is right for all, not just the few.

Environmental justice is a movement to address issues — such as clean air, clean water, and a healthy and stable climate— that affect all people, especially low-income and minority communities.    

These communities are more likely to live in close proximity of industrial pollution, toxic wastes, and contaminated water, as evidence of “environmental racism.” Environmental advocates argue that discrimination against low-income and minority communities is not accidental, but results from decisions by for-profit institutions and government agencies that knowingly discriminate these groups.  In this narrative, if people were to document the causes and consequences of discrimination, and organize around the issues, it might create change.  

Some young people care about the environment and want to “turn off the lights,” “recycle their waste,” and “sweep the streets.”  They want to take personal responsibility, and do whatever they can as an individual, for the environment.  They are among the ones who take plastic bottles of safe water to the residents of Flint, as a way to deal with the water crisis.

Other young people work for environmental justice by identifying the structural causes of discrimination, and organizing around the for-profit institutions and government agencies who are responsible for it.  Community organizing for social justice is about using strategies and tactics — such as policy advocacy and protest demonstrations — that generate power to create needed change.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  • What is “environmental justice”? Why is this movement important, and for whom? 
  • What is “environmental racism”? Why do low-income and minorities of color live closer to environmental hazards? 
  • How are environmental issues related to inequalities in society, or prejudice and discrimination, or power and privilege?
  • What are the facts about “clean water,” “clean air,” and “climate change?” What are the causes and consequences?
  • What do some elected officials deny the facts?
  • Do you have a right to environmental justice?
  • What are some steps that you could take to take action on the issues?

FLINT WATER CRISIS CASE STUDY:

The Flint water crisis began when the city’s water source was changed and government officials failed to apply the chemicals needed to purify the water. As a result, lead from aging pipes contaminated the water supply, leading to extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin and exposing over 100,000 residents to contaminated water. The residents drank the water with high levels of lead, this will affect their health forever, and some might die earlier than otherwise would be the case.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission found that race and racism played roles in the water crisis, and that the decisions which caused the poisoning were a violation of the residents’ civil rights and perpetuated a pattern of discrimination and segregation which had affected them for years. They concluded that the situation in Flint would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you have a right to clean water?
  • What was the crisis?  What were the causes of the crisis?  What were the consequences?
  • How did young people from inside or outside the city, respond to the Flint water crisis?  Did they bring water bottles to the city, step forward and speak out, or mobilize for social action and community change?   What would you have done?
  • Why are low-income and minority communities exposed to more pollution than other groups?  What are the root causes of racism and poverty, and how does this affect efforts to create change?

RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS:

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS:

Download the Flint Water Crisis Case Study.  

The academy aims to prepare a new generation of civil rights leaders. For more information contact Barry Checkoway (barrych@umich.edu). #youthcivilrights