An East L.A. family has a metal recycling plant where their back yard used to be; in Niagara Falls, a school finds barrels of toxic waste erupting on the playground; a line of black communities stretching from several miles north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the Mississippi border is dubbed “Cancer Alley” because of the abundance of toxic waste dumps and chemical plants. Across the US, low-income and minority communities find themselves the unwitting neighbors of toxic waste dumps, chemical plants, and incinerators.
National statistics paint a grim picture of what many call “environmental racism,” the deliberate targeting of minority communities for hazardous facility sites: the US has performed nearly all of its nuclear weapons testing on Native American lands; when income is held constant, African-American children are two to three times more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than their Anglo counterparts; the portion of minorities living in communities with incinerators is 89 percent higher than the national average.
Coincidence? Not likely, says Grace Boggs, a longtime environmental and civil rights activist from Detroit, Michigan. “These companies move into low-income neighborhoods that are hungry for jobs. They say things like, ‘We need to put a medical waste incinerator here, and we can supply you with 80 jobs.' And they think of the people there as passive and unable to resist.”
Evidence points to the fact that communities are chosen for a waste-disposal facility or an industrial plant based on demographics. In her book, Love Canal: The Story Continues, Lois Gibbs, founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ), cites two reports that give some insight into the mentality behind this practice of siting polluting facilities near and in communities of color – one completed by Cerrell Associates, Inc. for the State of California Solid Waste Division and the other report prepared by Epley Associates, a public relations firm hired by Chem Nuclear Systems, Inc. Both outline criteria for “communities least likely to resist” the placement of toxic facilities. The criteria include: “Southern, Midwestern, or rural communities that demonstrate openness to the promise of economic benefits in exchange for allowing the facilities into their areas; residents who are, on the average, older than middle age, have a high school education or less, and who are not involved in social issues.” The Epley report used the term “shack” to describe living conditions in targeted communities that fit the criteria, and “black population” to describe the race of the residents.
The Mothers of East L.A.
The good news is that some minority communities are fighting these toxic intrusions and winning. One organization with a particularly impressive track record is the Madres de Este Los Angeles – Santa Isabel, or Mothers of East L.A. (MELASI).
In the late 1950s, many Latin-Americans who lived in Los Angeles were forced out of their homes to make way for the East L.A. freeway interchange. Juana Gutierrez, her husband Ricardo, and her children were uprooted during the highway construction and again in the 1960s to make way for the construction of Dodger Stadium. Despite the intrusions, Gutierrez kept to her role as mother, homemaker, and Neighborhood Watch Program organizer until 1984, when a California State assemblywoman told her that a proposed prison was to be built near her third home.
Then she became an activist.
Gutierrez knocked on doors around her neighborhood, asking people to help her block the prison. She called a May 24, 1984 meeting at her home and invited fellow Neighborhood Watch captains who were concerned about the deterioration a prison might bring to their neighborhood and fearful of the dangers a breakout could mean for their families. At that meeting, Madres de Este Los Angeles was formed.
MELASI eventually fulfilled its main goal – it defeated the prison and saw a bill passed that declared no state prisons could be built in Los Angeles County. However, no sooner was that mission accomplished than MELASI discovered that East L.A. was being targeted for a municipal waste incinerator and an oil pipeline. (The pipeline was being routed 20 extra miles through East L.A. so as to miss the affluent beach communities.) In the next few years, MELASI would successfully fight off both facilities, plus a chemical treatment plant, two more incinerators, a dump site, malathion spraying, and more.
Before MELASI was formed, corporations found it easy to get rid of their wastes in the Latino community by using smoke-and-mirrors tactics, says Elsa Lopez, MELASI project director: “These companies had always come into East L.A. and dumped their toxins. No one ever confronted them; they would have hearings, and no one from the communities would show up.” To further complicate matters, says Lopez, the corporations would often pay people to sit in on the hearings and support the company's agenda. “These people would ask questions about whatever toxic facility was coming into East L.A., and then say, ‘I'm from the community. I'm all for it.'”
Members say that MELASI got its name because the at-home mothers were the only ones available to be the voice of East L.A. residents at the hearings, which were held during the day when others were at work. MELASI appeals directly to mothers as part of their outreach strategy. “We ask them, ‘Are you ready to defend and protect your family?'” says Lopez. MELASI eventually summed up the power of the maternal protective instinct in their motto: “Not economically rich, but culturally wealthy. Not politically powerful, but socially conscious. Not mainstream educated, but armed with the knowledge, commitment, and determination that only a mother can possess.”
Celene Krauss, assistant professor of sociology at Kean College in New Jersey, says that it's not uncommon for mothers to take the lead in keeping toxic substances out of their communities. “By and large, it is women in their traditional roles as mothers who make the link between toxic wastes and their children's ill health. They discover the hazards of toxic contamination: multiple miscarriages, birth defects, cancer deaths, and so on.”
Armed with thorough research, alliances with other organizations, including the Audubon Society and Communities for a Better Environment, and a relentless attitude, MELASI members have educated themselves and minority communities throughout California on environmental issues, empowering the residents to join them as they work for environmental justice. They've lobbied city and state governments, held candlelight vigils, networked with other organizations and churches, gone door-to-door in neighborhoods, and mounted large media campaigns, all in the name of making East L.A. cleaner and safer. Their reputation as a group that wins its battles has grown to the point where their mere presence at a meeting can signify a battle won or lost to a corporation.
“When I first started working with MELASI,” remembers Lopez, “they sent me alone to a town meeting. I was behind a bunch of lawyers and corporate types, and they kept saying, ‘I don't see the president of MELASI, so they didn't get wind of what we're doing. We've got it made.' When I had a chance to speak, I said I was from MELASI and listed the concerns I had brought with me, and then I added a few more based on what I had heard the lawyers say. They looked so disappointed. I think I ruined their day.”
Although effective minority activist groups like MELASI have existed for years,it wasn't until 1991 that the Environmental Justice Movement truly came into its own. In October of that year, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was held in Washington, DC. Says Grace Boggs, “Three hundred African-American, Native American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander grassroots activists from all over the country gave a new definition to ‘the environment.' This definition went beyond land, air, and water to include all the conditions that affect our quality of life, including crime, unemployment, failing schools, dangerous working conditions, and pesticide-filled foods.”
The most significant outcome of the summit was the formulation of 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, which immediately took the fledgling movement beyond the “Not In My Back Yard” mentality.
After attending the second summit in 1994, Boggs and others founded Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), taking much of their inspiration from the 17 principles. “They're extraordinary and very visionary principles,” she says. “For example, Principle 12 affirms the need ‘to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources.'” Boggs and DWEJ members referred to Principle 12 when a company threatened to build an incinerator in their neighborhood, which was to burn wood from demolished houses – despite the fact that much of the wood was coated with lead-based paint. “People resisted the factory, even though it would create new jobs, and then the whole question of what kind of economic development we did want in our neighborhood entered in,” says Boggs.
DWEJ has a dual purpose that Boggs feels is the key to their success: “Our mission on the one hand is to challenge the threats to our daily lives. But we also want to rebuild Detroit safer, cleaner, and more self-reliant.” DWEJ and other environmental justice organizations around the country have introduced community gardening programs, neighborhood clean-ups, and youth programs that help young people get in touch with and learn to value their communities. “Inner city kids need to be related to the land and to their elders. All people have is the image of inner city kids smoking dope or something. They don't know this is a hunger among the kids,” says Boggs.
Two thousand miles to the west, the Mothers of East L.A. have discovered the same hunger among their youth. After they defeated the prison, MELASI made the natural progression to thinking about how to improve East L.A. as well as protect it.
“We were very surprised at how many young people wanted to participate,” says Elsa Lopez. Inner city youth help clean up graffiti and litter in the business district. By means of a scholarship fund, a community youth garden, a week-long camp at Mono Lake, and a tobacco prevention program, MELASI members educate young people about environmental issues and keep them connected to the community.
In addition, MELASI has developed a Water Conservation Program, which has been emulated in 17 US cities and in South Africa. Through this program, MELASI gives free ultra low-flush toilets, each one of which saves up to 5,000 gallons of water a year, to customers of local water utilities. MELASI gets a rebate from the utility for each toilet they help install, and the money is used to fund other projects.
As the environmental justice movement continues to grow, it is evolving into an international network of communities working not just for a higher standard of living, but for a whole new way of living. As the last of the 17 Principles states, “Environmental justice requires that we make personal choices to consume as little of Mother Earth's resources and to produce as little waste as possible, and that we make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our life-styles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.”
Interested? Contact MELASI at . Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice can be reached at