Linking Struggles to Build the Movement – Report-back from the NCEJN Summit

The 15th Annual NCEJN Summit was held this past weekend at the Historic Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers. 136 people gathered, from 32 cities and towns in North Carolina, and 9 other states, representing 37 community organizations, 4 colleges/universities and 4 law clinics/firms, to share knowledge, strategize and honor the ongoing struggle against environmental injustices. Throughout the Summit we were reminded that struggles that may seem isolated or unrelated are often intimately connected to each other, and these connections offer an opportunity to join forces in building and growing a movement.
 
The theme for this year’s summit was “Dismantling Environmental Racism in a ‘Color Blind’ Society.” The term ‘color blind racism’ describes how racism in the United States has shifted since the Civil Rights era – rather than explicit and extremist forms of racism (‘Whites Only’), we are often faced with a subtle and more insidious form of racism that pretends to be ‘blind’ to ‘color’. That is, white privilege today is made even stronger by mainstream society’s insistence that race does not matter, in effect turning a blind eye to the very real ways that racism infiltrates all aspects of society.
 
In our ‘color blind’ society, racism is minimized by explaining racist violence, exposure to toxics, and health disparities as products of individual behavior or something that’s just ‘natural’.  The Summit truly challenged this destructive blindness. In each session, and with each speaker, from our invigorating keynote address by Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper to the training by Cynthia Brown on Building the Movement, we were reminded that racism is alive and well. Drawing connections between local and seemingly disconnected struggles, grassroots organizers, community members and allies called for us all to refuse to turn a blind eye to environmental racism. Connections were drawn between the military complex, power generation companies, fast-food chains, and livestock production. Each of these vast industries generates profit by dumping their waste by-products on poor communities of color, even as they depend on the bodies and labor of these communities to keep their industries running.
 
The fight against environmental racism is a long haul with no easy answers, yet grassroots communities have developed multiple strategies for resilience and resistance. Some use civil rights legislation to incorporate disproportionate burden into regulation policies. At the Government Listening Panel, representatives of multiple agencies were charged by Summit participants to do what they know is right – to visit communities that are impacted by their decisions, to engage in dialogue without hiding behind race-neutral policy language, and to proactively address racial injustices. Many communities have found innovative ways to collect their own evidence to prove pollution and health impacts, even when authorities deny their claims. It may be time for the movement to once again engage in direct action.
 
Youth at the Summit made connections between food justice issues and the economics of how hazards are unequally distributed; the youngest Summit participants used blocks to design cities that are more just. Making connections across struggles, the NCEJN acts as a ‘rhizome’, in the words of Planning Committee member Willie Wright, with shoots and roots that overlap to strengthen resistance against environmental racism. In closing, the participants formed a circle, and each person repeated after NCEJN organizer Naeema Muhammad: “I am a link in the chain, and the chain will not break here.” Let us build our chain of resistance so it will not be broken.
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