Race, Poverty Issues Grow Among Environmentalists


As major environmental organizations grow larger and more detached from grass-roots issues, the battle against polluters increasingly is being waged by thousands of smaller and more racially diverse groups targeting threats in their neighborhoods.

These newer activist groups began proliferating about five years ago and are rapidly changing the character of the environmental movement in the United States. They have attracted more racial minorities to the environmental cause and have prodded such giants as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society to rethink their priorities.

Environmental scientist and writer Barry Commoner, who has assisted many of the new groups with technical advice, calls them "the cutting edge of environmentalism," spawned by what he sees as the indifference of the larger groups to toxic pollution in generally low-income neighborhoods.

"They're opposing the corporations," Commoner said of the community groups. "You see them everywhere."

Unlike such mainstream environmental organizations as the Environmental Defense Fund, whose professional staff is overwhelmingly well-educated whites, the smaller groups tend to reflect the makeup of communities that most often bear the brunt of pollution.

While the major environmental groups primarily lobby Congress and file lawsuits to ensure enforcement of environmental laws, the smaller groups confront neighborhood polluters directly through petition campaigns, rallies, sit-ins, letters to government agencies and negotiations with industry.

One such group, the Gulf Coast Tenant Leadership Development Project, recently joined other social justice groups in a letter condemning the "whiteness" of the mainstream environmental movement. The New Orleans-based group started as an advocate for housing for poor people and later began fighting polluters in members' communities. The letter asked the largest environmental organizations to begin addressing pollution problems prevalent in minority communities. In response, the Sierra Club and other organizations invited members of the community-based groups to meet with their members and pledged to step up minority recruitment and projects.

"So the Trust for Public Land (a large environmental group) buys 5,000 acres of land in Lake Tahoe," said Gerry Stover, a black environmental activist hired to recruit minorities for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

"How many kids from the inner city, from Watts, are going to have the opportunity to enjoy that piece of property? The reality is that land is not going to be seen by anybody but rich white people."

More than image is at stake for the large environmental lobbying groups. Unless they become more racially diverse, they could lose foundation money and grants they depend on. Many of the grants eventually may be sought by the smaller groups, whose racial composition could give them a competitive edge.

Equally important may be the credibility of the mainstream groups at international environmental conferences, where they are asking Third World nations to make substantial economic sacrifices to head off global warming and the thinning of the protective ozone layer.

Above all, there are environmental reasons for bridging the gap between the major groups and the grass-roots movement.

"The environmental community has the goal of recycling 75% of the waste in this country," said David Hahn-Baker, a black environmentalist who is helping the Sierra Club shape programs oriented to minorities. "If you're not dealing with the (millions) of the people who are not white, it's going to be very difficult to reach that goal."

"Serious tensions" exist between the mainstream groups and some of the grass-roots organizations, Stover said, in part because the community-based groups tend to be "jealous" that the mainstream organizations get "all the attention and the money and they are not doing things that are all that tangible."

While the major groups count membership in the hundreds of thousands and tend to have comfortable offices, computers, polling operations and marketing experts, the grass-roots organizations typically have fewer than 100 members and operate out of homes or a neighborhood church.

Unlike the bigger groups, the community-based organizations usually focus on a single issue and much of their work often is done by a dozen or so members. The Ponca City Toxic Concerned Citizens, for instance, came together three years ago after residents in the low-income, racially mixed Oklahoma neighborhood discovered an orange, foaming sludge in their basements. It was traced to decades of oil refining and other oil operations in the neighborhood.

After camping out for three months on the lawn of the state Capitol, putting signs that read "Evacuate Me" on their front lawns, writing letters to government agencies and finally suing Conoco Inc., owner of the refinery that employs much of Ponca City, the 150-member citizens group won an impressive victory.

Without admitting guilt, Conoco, a subsidiary of the Du Pont Co., agreed this month to a $23-million out-of-court settlement providing for buying out 400 homes and compensation to another 500 families in the neighborhood, which often stinks from refinery emissions.

"We just persevered and we managed to get something done," said organizer Anna Sue Rafferty, 59, a housewife married to a retired postal worker.

Grass-roots groups that started in much the same way as the Ponca City citizens formed an umbrella group in 1984 to pool resources and help other struggling organizations. Called the National Toxics Campaign Fund, the Boston-based organization works with 1,200 of the nation's estimated 5,000 small environmental groups.

The fund has a laboratory where local groups can send soil and water samples to be analyzed for contamination. It also dispatches organizers to assist neighborhood groups and offers written materials that help activists "walk-through" the nuts and bolts of organizing a community, inspecting a polluting facility and grabbing the attention of the news media.

Typically, the grass-roots groups have more women members than men, and women outnumber men on the national board of directors. "They are mothers fighting for their kids' safety and their kids' lives," said Gary Cohen, executive director of the fund.

Three of the fund's 15 organizers are racial minorities, as are four of its 17 board members. "We are actively seeking minority organizers," Cohen said. "The communities we are working with are minority communities, so it's really important to hire minorities."

George T. Frampton Jr, president of the Wilderness Society, concedes that some of the big environmental groups "have not been much help" to smaller groups fighting toxics problems. He said one of his highest priorities is to recruit more minority staff. Of the Wilderness Society's 130 professional employees, he said, only five are minorities.

The Sierra Club insists that racial minorities be included in the club's public opinion polls and "focus groups," which advise the club on various issues, said Michael Fischer, the Sierra Club's executive director.

But Fischer said minorities rarely apply for professional Sierra Club positions, even though the club uses a recruiter and advertises its job openings in ethnic publications. As a panelist at a recent conference sponsored by the Chevron Corp., Fischer noted with chagrin the large number of racial minorities among the oil company's environmental managers.

"I was sitting up there on the dais and said to myself, 'Gee, we ought to get together Chevron's human resources people,' " he said.

Hahn-Baker, one of the few black professionals in the mainstream movement, joined because of his love for the outdoors. He serves in a professional position for the National Wildlife Federation as well as a consultant to other groups.

He says mainstream groups can become more relevant to low-income communities in many ways. The Sierra Club, for instance, could use its expertise on pesticides to look at the potential health effects of constant spraying for roaches and other pests in low-income housing projects, he suggested.

But Stover said environmental groups must be more flexible when recruiting minorities. Professionals for the large groups generally receive below-market salaries and are expected to have had volunteer experience in the movement prior to hiring, the black recruiter said. Shrinking the applicant pool even further, he said, is the tendency of minorities who want to work for nonprofit groups to join ones directly helping their communities.

Stover, who formerly worked for the Trust for Public Land, noted that only 2% of the lawyers, economists, scientists, lobbyists, press secretaries, field representatives and other professionals in the leading environmental groups are minorities. He said he began aggressively recruiting minorities because he got tired of being the only black person at environmental meetings.

Even with the current tensions, most major environmental groups applaud the grass-roots movement and may end up recruiting from it. Once the large groups start putting minorities on their boards of directors, Stover said, the strains will disappear.

Already, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a highly influential national environmental group, has begun providing technical assistance to such groups as the Gulf Coast Tenant Leadership Project. Just this week, the Defense Council joined in the filing of a lawsuit in Los Angeles to prevent siting of a toxic waste incinerator in the minority neighborhood of Vernon.

Moving in the same direction, the Environmental Defense Fund took pains to point out in a recent report that blacks are disproportionately affected by lead exposure, which can cause learning disabilities.

"There is tremendous momentum within the environmental movement to bring the two communities closer together, to help each other," Stover said.

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