Racial And Economic Justice Are Integral To The Fight For Our Climate

Standing with frontline communities in the fight for environmental justice is critical to protecting water, food, and our climate. Here’s why.

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Image above: Ventura County March. Photo by Hannah Benet

by Mark Schlosberg

Water shutoffs in economically challenged areas, power plants in communities of color already overburdened by environmental pollution, a proposed factory farm gas plant in a town already blighted by a superfund site. While climate change and environmental pollution impact everyone in the United States, not all of us are impacted the same way or to the same degree. Across the country, lower wealth communities and Black, Indigenous and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution, a lack of access to clean water, and the impacts of climate change. 

Food & Water Watch has been fighting against environmental injustices alongside community partners since our inception; the fight continues today. 

Environmental Justice Has Been Woven Into The Fabric of Our Early Work

Food & Water Watch’s earliest campaigns were efforts to stop water privatization and strengthen public water infrastructure across the United States and in the global south. We partnered with local groups by bringing national research and organizing resources to defeat water privatization, which disproportionately threatens lower-income communities, in dozens of cities including Milwaukee, Chicago, and Akron. We also worked with water justice movements internationally to move the United Nations to recognize the human right to water. 

In subsequent years, we continued to support community-led efforts to protect water and local environments from the threat of factory farms, fracking, pipelines, power plants, and other polluting fossil fuel infrastructure. 

We devoted significant resources to these campaigns and in support of our community partners because we believe in the core values of justice for all, economic fairness, and human dignity. But we also understand that to win bold, urgent, and meaningful changes at the federal level to protect our food, water, and climate we must also work to end historic and ongoing discrimination. We must uplift, support, and strengthen a diverse and robust movement for justice. 

To that end, we can sometimes provide legal support or research, like the work we did to expose how Flint residents paid the highest water rates in the country at the height of the water crisis there. And exposing the funders behind the Dakota Access Pipeline as the Indigenous community was organizing opposition at Standing Rock is another example of how our strategic, groundbreaking research made a difference. 

Our On-The-Ground Work With Coalitions And Partners is at The Heart of Our Mission  

Often we are on the ground, working with grassroots environmental justice groups to protect water access and stop dirty energy projects. In doing so, we prioritize building meaningful partnerships and developing smart, strategic campaigns that not only win real improvements in people’s lives but also strengthen our grassroots partners. This approach succeeded in many communities across the country. 

The stories below go deeper into the fights we’ve taken on with partners and coalitions all over the country.

Water Justice In Baltimore

In Baltimore, we’ve worked for more than a decade on issues related to water access and privatization. When Pastor Mark James was threatened with foreclosure on his community’s church, Food & Water Watch partnered with him and other local and state allies in the Baltimore Right to Water Coalition to pass legislation that would prevent foreclosures and tax sales for failure to pay water bills. For a city with significant poverty where thousands of people are burdened by unaffordable bills, this was a major victory. Pastor James’ Barnes Memorial Church faced imminent foreclosure, but Food & Water Watch assisted him in finding legal counsel, and together we worked to get the law changed. It was a successful and fruitful partnership that resolved the foreclosure action, but also led to statewide legislation impacting thousands of people. According to Pastor James, “the work that Food & Water Watch does really is a model to be studied…It’s a trend setter to watch how they operate and how they communicate and how they with little means can be so effective.”

The Fight Against Fracked Gas Plants In Oxnard, California

In Ventura County, California, Food & Water Watch has successfully partnered with local allies to stop a polluting fracked gas power plant in the largely Latinx and environmentally over-burdened community of Oxnard. Our partnership with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which began in 2015, resulted in not only the defeat of the power plant, but subsequent wins blocking proposed oil drilling and water privatization. As Lucia Marquez, Senior Policy Advocate with CAUSE said, “Working with Food & Water Watch is like working with community. There are two forms of power out there. There’s the power of money and there’s the power of community — the power of organizing…Food & Water watch brings…their state relationships with reporters and organizations and lawyers and resources… [they are] such a vital partner of ours and we’re so happy to be working on these campaigns together throughout the years and throughout our communities, because when we’ve worked together, we’ve had very real success…”

New Jersey Coalition Work Has Been Crucial In Stopping Fracked Gas

In New Jersey, we have worked to build strong coalitions to fight against power plants near Newark and Jersey City. Working closely with the Newark Water Coalition and others from 2019-2020 when we defeated the proposed New Jersey Transit fracked gas power plant in a largely Latinx community in Kearny, New Jersey, that was impacted by several other sources of industrial pollution. Not only was the campaign successful, but the Newark Water Coalition was stronger as a result of the campaign. According to Anthony Diaz, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, “the coalition fight against this power plant legitimized Newark Water Coalition on the statewide level, allowed us to have so many connections, and join a world that historically as an activist and organizer I was never part of.”

Factory Farm Fights In Maryland and Delaware

On the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes the Eastern Shore of Maryland and part of Delaware, communities are overburdened by the impacts of factory farms – the waste from over 300 million chickens that in some places is so bad that one in four children have asthma as a result. Food & Water Watch is partnering with groups to stop a massive factory farm gas facility in Delaware that would drive further expansion of factory farms and have significant local impacts in a lower income largely Latinx community that is already burdened by a superfund site. Maria Payan, co-founder of Sussex Health and Environmental Network is glad to have Food & Water Watch in the fight because “when Food & Water Watch is a partner, they are there to support the local fights in communities. Food & Water Watch doesn’t come, take something, and go on their own and do it.”

Building strong community partnerships to advance environmental justice doesn’t happen by accident. It flows from our organizational values, intentional interaction with partners, listening, supporting, and showing up. Working to build the power needed to win campaigns against powerful adversaries isn’t easy, but we know that to win at the local, state, or national level, we need to center justice, work to strengthen local organizations, and build powerful diverse coalitions. 

Local, Grassroots Work Is Integral To State And National Campaigns

These partnerships lead to winning campaigns, but they have also helped advance state and national efforts. Championing water access in Baltimore was critical to advancing state legislation and supports the call for national water legislation, which we are pursuing through the WATER Act. Fighting power plants in Ventura and New Jersey supports broader statewide efforts to get two key Democratic Governors to stop all new fossil fuel infrastructure and the national campaign to ban fracking everywhere. Working to stop a major factory farm gas facility in Delaware and factory farms on the Eastern Shore of Maryland help elevate the need to ban factory farms at the national level through the Farm System Reform Act and for President Biden to reject factory farm gas as part of our national energy program – especially important as his home state is Delaware. 

Ultimately, Food & Water Watch wants to help drive systemic changes that will lead to economic, environmental, and racial justice. That means building power so that we can hold elected officials accountable for the decisions they make and push them to advance the bold change we need.  

To win real improvements in people’s lives and build the kind of society we want, we must engage in districts where there are key members of Congress and places that will be important to move our elected officials. We’re not a large organization. That means we have to be strategic about where we engage to make the most progress in stopping destructive measures and passing the legislation that will create the country we want. 

At a time of great racial and economic inequality, we reaffirm our values and continue to strive to improve how Food & Water Watch works alongside and in support of our allies. One thing we are certain of is this: to win long term and meaningful solutions to our food, water, and climate challenges, we must continue to support communities that have borne the brunt of environmental pollution and continue to build meaningful and lasting partnerships, so we can be more powerful together and win the fundamental changes that are so badly needed. 

Send a note to your Congressperson asking them to support the Farm System Reform Act today!