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Panel discusses environmental justice for Oakland communities

(Emily Burian) Three local black environmental justice organizations came to talk at Mills during Black History Month.
(Emily Burian) Three local black environmental justice organizations came to talk at Mills during Black History Month.

Mills students, faculty and community members gathered in the student union to attend a panel on environmental justice on Feb. 3 and learned about three local Black organizations that are changing and empowering the community.

This panel was held as a part of a series of Mills Black History month events, co-sponsored by the ethnic studies department, biology department, sustainability department, the Black Students Collective (BSC), and ASMC. Four activists from three local Black environmental organizations spoke: Katrina Lashea for GirlTrek, Kemba Shakur and Kevin Jefferson for Urban Releaf and Zoë Polk for Outdoor Afro.

An eager and attentive audience listened as Nina Thiebert, Mills student and leader within Outdoor Afro, facilitated the panel and asked questions concerning the organization’s beginnings, the challenges they saw in the Black community with their organization, how environmental racism impacts their work and what the goals were.

Outdoor Afro is an organization that aims to connect African-American people to outdoor experiences. Polk spoke first on Outdoor Afro’s beginnings, and what they want for the future of the organization.

“First, we want to celebrate and inspire Black connections to nature and second, disrupt the false perception that Black people don’t have a relationship with nature,” Polk said.

Jefferson is the project manager for Urban Releaf, an urban forestry non-profit that plants trees in Oakland and Richmond. Jefferson explained how environmental work is often whitewashed, leaving people of color uncredited for the work they do.

“When talking about the environment, white male comes up, but most of the people doing great work are people of color,” Jefferson said.

Shakur, founder and director of Urban Releaf, also serves on the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee for the California Air Resources Board and described the institutional challenges her organization faced.

“After 19 years of working within the city of Oakland dealing with issues of institutional racism, cronyism, I can go on and on about the challenges about being a Black environmental organization in America,” Shakur said. “There are a lot of answers to the issues and we try to work with everyone for the solutions, and when I say everyone I mean politicians, apologists, schools, other organizations, but at the end of the day you still deal with the exploitation of these communities; it’s painful, it’s stressful, it’s unfair.”

Lashea, an Oakland organizer with GirlTrek, explained the significance of the organization to Black women in the community.

“They saw the women coming of age and dying prematurely or getting chronic illnesses. The same thing inspired me, I was really taken aback and saddened by the own chronic illness in my family,” Lashea said.

(Emily Burian) The three organizations came to talk on February third.
(Emily Burian)

The panel discussed how each organization encounters  environmental racism, which is the environmental policies, practices and actions that negatively impact communities of color. Polk explained that Outdoor Afro encourages members and volunteers to not use single-use plastic water bottles, but to invest in reusable water bottles. However, due to environmental racism there are discrepancies across the nation in water quality, the most recent national coverage being on Flint, Michigan’s water crisis.

“How am I going to say that to those in Detroit? I can’t speak to their water quality,” Polk said.

When asked about the challenges of connecting their organizations with the Black community, Polk addressed the misconception of self-care being a recreational activity.

“Making that connection, it’s not recreation. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” Polk said, quoting Audre Lorde.

At the end, the panel was asked about the goals of their organizations. Jefferson spoke with excitement about Urban Releaf’s future plans.

“One million trees planted in Oakland,” Jefferson said. “The current tree canopy level in Oakland is 12 percent to 13 percent and the average tree canopy level is 40 percent. To get to that level, 1 million trees would have to be planted.”

Students can get involved with these organizations by signing up for GirlTrek online, volunteering with Outdoor Afro and Urban Releaf for the many local and accessible opportunities they have, supporting local leaders and disrupting narratives about whiteness in environmental work.