In cities across the United States, minority communities often bear the brunt of urban life's toxic burdens and host a disproportionate number of hazardous waste generating facilities. Over the past decade, a new grassroots movement, known as environmental justice, has begun to address these environmental inequalities. For environmental justice activists, their "rights" include access to toxin free air and water as well as to all of the urban resources to which they have historically been denied or had limited access.
This paper uses two cases to illustrate how minority activists are appropriating the discourses of the mainstream environmental movement and re-defining them as social justice issues. The first case stems from field research conducted between 1998 and 1999 with African American environmental justice activists in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia. These activists described their neighborhood as a "toxic donut" because at least nine factories, junkyards and other polluting industries surrounded it. In 1990, Hyde Park's neighborhood association, begun as a civil rights organization, added the struggle to remediate neighborhood contamination to their list of concerns. The second case is based on field research conducted in 1995 with Latino and Hasidic activists in Brooklyn, New York. For three decades, these two ethnic groups had engaged in fierce battles over the allocation of resources such as schools, housing and police protection. However, in the early 1990s, the groups joined forces to protest poor environmental quality in their neighborhood.
The paper demonstrates how in each case, activists quickly folded other social justice issues into environmental discourse. At times, activists expanded the meaning of "the environment" to include all of the resources to which they were denied access. In certain situations, the environment also symbolized common ground and became a basis for inter-racial and interethnic political cooperation. The ambiguous environmental narratives that activists constructed then became contexts for multiple organizing strategies as well as cross-cultural alliances.
The findings in this paper suggest that environmental discourse presented an alternative avenue for political opposition to problems of housing, schools, etc. Including the environment on their agendas for social change enabled activists to construct expansive organizing narratives. These narratives then allowed them to develop and sustain new strategies and alliances that strengthened their social justice struggles.
Ms. Checker is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at New York University where her major professor is Owen M. Lynch. The data for Ms. Checker's paper were collected during a field research project involving a group of African American environmental justice activists in Georgia who were protesting the contamination of their community. She has a long-standing interest in this area, having completed earlier a master's thesis on an environmental justice group in Brooklyn.
Ms. Checker received her undergraduate degree (cum laude) from the University of Pennsylvania with majors in English literature and urban folklore. She matriculated at New York University after working for four years in Northern California with several non-profit groups.
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