Environmental Justice Leadership - The Power of Bridging Divides

Updated: Jun 7

A duo of environmental justice leaders tells us about their community-driven work; how it’s changed during the pandemic; who inspires them; their “lightbulb moment”; and their visions of transformation and resilience.



The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.


[Anna:] Let's start with where we are, in the reality of the pandemic. What have you been thinking about? And how has this time, this inability to be in person safely, affected your work?


[Paloma:] Are there any tools or strategies that you've used to adapt?


[Carl Anthony:] This dynamic has been the continuation of the same, where disproportionate impact is on People of Color. The situation presents us with a new way to tell the story.


Our communities have been separated out mostly by racism, but also by many other things like age. Now we're seeing all of these ways of being much more pronounced by the pandemic.


Frankly, for myself, I'm 81 years old, and I've been working at a slowed-down speed. And I've had to stay at home even more than I was before. It's been an interruption of the pattern that we've been working on for the last 21 years together.


[Paloma Pavel:] It’s slowed us down, and given us a chance to really reimagine the society that we need to rebuild. We have been working much more with colleagues in different parts of the world. We have had the grace to work with interns who are environmental justice majors. We now have interns from all over the United States.


It has been extraordinary to really see the transformative possibilities that working across boundaries of age and generations are more possible now, as a result of the COVID at home working situation. We've been working with interns on the East Coast, so we've been having meetings every day at 6am.


I've been getting up at five, and doing sort of a morning meditation practice, connecting to the Earth and asking Gaia what is it that I can do to best serve the day in this triple pandemic that I think of as: race, COVID, and the environment.


At an earlier time in my life, I was actually in silence in a monastery, and not going out. What can we learn, from these chosen communities of confinement, about what makes life worth living?


One of the things that I've adopted is what they call a book of hours, where you actually mark different times of the day that are related to the Earth’s cycles, going through the day with the sun and the patterns of light and air, and at sunset, turning towards the sunset and doing a closing prayer; what has this day held, and having a spirit of gratitude.


[Carl Anthony:] I have to add that in the last five years, I've been coping with blindness. Life is always now dark. Yet, we find the connection that we have made and a commitment that we've made to build a conversation with people across social and cultural, age and gender differences we're trying to break out of.


And Paloma, when you talk about your daily pattern, we have to remember that many of the people in our community have been confined because they have found the walls of a prison surrounding them.


[Paloma Pavel:] The prison system; also, detention centers— places where people are being detained at the borders or where families are being separated from their kids is a whole other confinement issue; and in hospitals, where people are on ventilators, unable to see their families; and people in nursing homes who are also being quarantined right now.


There is immense suffering that's happening, and also we are in connection with people in confinement in new ways that we haven't thought about before.


[Anna:] What has the experience been like working with the environmental justice interns?


[Paloma Pavel:] We've just had a day of celebrating them. For me, it's very moving to see the passion and commitment of emerging leaders, bringing the scientific understanding of environmental issues together with the heart and the justice, and also the innovation of seeing that we have to invent new ways, and that they're ready for that.


One of the first projects we worked on this fall was with the NOMA, National Organization of Minority Architects, and NAACP, on a national design competition.


[Carl Anthony:] It's been a miraculous thing that we had people submit their proposals as contributions. One of the proposals that received most attention was a monument to 4,000 slaves in Virginia.


[Paloma Pavel:] The monument includes an outdoor space for honoring the slaves who had built the university, physically, but also creating a space for public gathering, and programs that include and bridge racial divides.


We heard from many neighborhood participants: until that place was created, they didn't feel welcome, or even safe being present at the university. It was super exciting to see a transformative architectural place.


One of the other ones I really loved was a mobile design truck, providing design services— practical tools for reinventing and rebuilding— delivered right into vulnerable communities.


[Carl Anthony:] Many of these communities have never had the opportunity to think about how to design surroundings that would reinforce their access to all of the tools of civilization.


[Paloma Pavel:] We love and admire the work of leader Jackie Patterson, who directs the climate and environmental justice initiatives nationally for the NAACP.


We were excited to join with Jackie Patterson in bringing a NAACP sea-level-rise training to the Bay Area— a two-day training and certification with vulnerable communities and elected officials and agencies, throughout the Bay Area, to build a regional response to sea level rise.


[Carl Anthony:] [For] people who live along the edges of the bay, the groundwater is expanding at a faster rate than other areas, and it's also taking along with it toxic pollution of many industries that were built 100 years ago along the Bay, still polluting today.


[Paloma Pavel:] As the sea level rises, and the groundwater rises, these pollutants and gases are being released. We know from many years of work on these frontline issues, that when people are not at the table, they are on the menu. The work that we're doing is getting communities like Carl's describing— communities that are impacted by a decision— at the table with the groups that are making those decisions. It's not enough to just say no, but to be at the table and making new decisions that are better for everyone.


Communities are getting tracking tools now: we can measure our water, we can measure our air, we know when the particulate matter is getting worse. We don't have to rely on corporations and polluters telling us. We see that this is a direction for the future, not only for vulnerable communities to have these tools, but also for students and teachers to begin incorporating hands-on project based learning with the next generation of science standards in the schools.


Environmental justice, and the tools for environmental justice, are things that young people can learn in grade school. Here in Richmond, middle school young people have actually learned how to make the tools for doing those air samples that are legally admissible in court.


We see a shift and an opportunity under COVID, that as we come out, we insist on more project based learning that's addressing the imminent dangers, and opportunities in our communities for youth to learn about living systems, by being involved in the science and in the measurement of these activities.


[Carl Anthony:] Our environment includes not only the sort of ecological consequences, but also the economic consequences. Efforts to stop pollution of our atmosphere by overreliance on fossil fuels to create renewable systems of energy is also an economic development for our neighborhoods, which have been so long excluded.


Most of the interns that we shared our work with are in their 20s, they're just turning adulthood against a backdrop of transformation, and they have to look forward at what kind of a community are we going to build and leave to the next generation.


It's really a powerful moment of transformation that we are participating in and hope to contribute to the evolution of our communities in the future.


[Paloma Pavel:] What motivates me right now is seeing the power and the energy and the creativity that gets unleashed as people begin working together.


I feel that there's this pull in front of me from the future generations, and this push behind me from the previous generations. And it's almost like wind lifting me and moving me through the day, saying, this must be done, and this must be done now.


[Carl Anthony:] The sense of urgency is also a gift: young people taking up the sense of urgency that comes in part from their training, and part that comes from the call across the planet, which only the young people coming up, seem to hear.


[Anna:] I'd love to hear more about what got you involved in this work in the first place. For example, the first environmental justice summit. What that experience was like, and what led you to that moment?


[Carl Anthony:] In 1991, we had the good fortune of having started a national environmental movement that was just beginning to flourish in the San Francisco Bay Area. We took a big delegation from San Francisco Bay to Washington, DC to participate in that summit.


There we met people from all over the country of different social backgrounds and educational backgrounds, who were beginning to see their connection through the disproportionate impacts on communities of color, particularly the toxic wastes that were being concentrated in communities of color. From that summit, I hope we, over the last 30 or 40 years, have gotten greater insight into the real nature of our environment, which includes all the work of many communities throughout the country.


Paloma, your whole experience has been very different than mine, but I think it's at least just as important and exciting as the experience that I had going to the summit.


[Paloma Pavel:] Well, thank you, Carl. Part of my origin story goes to being born in Southern California. The border is something that has really shaped my consciousness. My father is a humanitarian doctor who worked at a free clinic in Tijuana. As a young girl, I would go with him; it was one of my ways of actually being able to be with him because he was working a lot of the time. He was very dedicated.


We would go across the border, and I would sometimes stay at the orphanage, the way in which young people sort of make connections and get to know each other. At the end of the day, we would leave and I would realize that I wanted to stay, and I could stay. But if I wanted to bring one of my friends from the orphanage home with me, I couldn't.


There was a privilege that I had of going across the border that they did not have. I also noticed that if you were at a doctor's office in San Diego, you would have access to fancy equipment, to clean instruments. If we were at a clinic across the border, sometimes there would be a tin roof, bare floors, inadequate equipment.


This sense of health access, and this border access, and the disparities of race and class, and language barriers, were a really big divide in my community, but it was also a divide in my heart.


For the rest of my life, I've been working on bridging various divides in all of our communities. The infrastructure that we have made in every neighborhood and city in America has built who we are to one another, through redlining and how we create various neighborhoods: where do the freeways go? Where do the railroad tracks go? That whole expression, “on the wrong side of the tracks." A big, lifelong passion for me has been how to bridge that divide that I began seeing at a young age.


[Carl Anthony:] I also want to reflect on what you're saying. When I was 20, 21— this is back in 1960, '61— my moment of enlightenment, my moment in which the light bulb went on, was when these students came up to New York, where I just enrolled in Columbia University.


You would read a story about them on the front page of the New York Times— some sit-in or some action they were taking, and the same people that you just talked to the night before were now on the front pages of the New York Times. You were saying "Holy Mackerel!"— these people that we're talking with and arguing with are taking these miraculous actions in the South.


I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was maybe 10 to 15 miles from the Mason-Dixon line, the Mason-Dixon line separating the North from the South. We who grew up in the North as Black people thought of ourselves as somewhat superior to the ones who grew up in the South. Here are these young people from the South who have been transforming a whole nation, while we were startled by that mission that they had undertaken. Then seeing that evolve over the last 60 or more years, to the moment that we're living in today, where that kind of transformation is going on.


The young people who’re now moving into the driver's seat have all the force of this history behind them, which will become more and more visible as we go forward.


[Paloma Pavel:] Part of how Gaia is rising up to protect herself at this time is by infusing you and Paloma with the necessity, and the inspiration and the fun, of doing this work together. This is Gaia working on behalf of all life through you.


[Music Interlude]


[Paloma Pavel:] Carl, people would love to hear about your book.


[Carl Anthony:] Well, the most recent publication of mine is called The Earth, the City and the Hidden Narrative of Race. In this book, we trace the origins of the human family from the origins in Africa, to the present day in the United States. It talks about the struggles against slavery and the migration of people from the South, then, and now, some of our present work and put it into a larger context. You can find it on our website.


[Paloma Pavel:] Carl's book, The Earth, the City and the Hidden Narrative of Race and our new book Climate Justice are available; we encourage people to buy in your locally owned bookstores whenever possible. And, you can contact us directly. We'd love to sign a book and send it to you. Climate Justice is also available on our website in the Creative Commons, because it is being used a lot in schools as a case study of how frontline communities have been doing climate justice work in California.


[Carl Anthony:] I'd also like to mention, we have a whole series of documents of struggles for green collar jobs in the Bay Area. The whole idea of green collar jobs was to face the reality that all of the sectors in our economy are being affected by the global environmental crisis. Workers who are contributing to our society should be getting a living wage and should be having much more impact as we look to building our new economy.


[Paloma Pavel:] The words of Desmond Tutu summarize my message for those of you who are listening here today: We are living in an historic moment. We are each called to take part in this great transformation. Our survival as a species is currently threatened by global warming, by a global pandemic, by economic meltdown and an ever increasing gap between rich and poor and racial polarization. And yet these threats offer an opportunity for us to awaken as an interconnected and beloved community.


[Music Interlude]


[Anna:] A huge thank you to Dr. Paloma Pavel and Carl Anthony for being on our podcast. If you want to learn more about Carl and Paloma Pavel and environmental justice, go check out their websites, breakthroughcommunities.info and earthhousecenter.org.


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