As you may or may not know, I have been doing some exciting work with Ma’at Youth Academy in Richmond, CA.
MYA, as we call it, empowers youth through environmental education, and right now, we’re working on a “Youth Vision and Framework” for the City’s General Plan. Our students have met with the Mayor, attended a Leadership Institute sponsored by Urban Habitat, and are eager to share their opinions about development with city leaders. Most of all, they constantly inspire me with their resilience. Many of them go to more funerals in a year than I’ve been to in the last ten, yet they never lose their passion for social justice. I wondered last week if it was the violence my students face that makes them yearn for a better world, when one of them was quoted in the Contra Costa Times.
The connection between environmental and social justice is nothing new to me, but I must admit, it was Omar Freilla who really brought the message home for me. He put into simple terms something I had known in my heart all my life: no matter how much we like to think so, there is no “away.” There is no away we can throw trash to. There is no away we can hide our slums in, no away we can send our poor, huddled masses of our unemployed, our undervalued, our under-appreciated. We cannot send them east or south or west or north and pretend they are not there.
Freilla talked about the low-income areas of the U.S. that bear the brunt of the high-income ones: New York’s South Bronx, San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point, Houston’s Fifth Ward, the City of Richmond. Cities where there isn’t enough money, or influence, or concern to warrant environmental justice, and, as a result, social injustice emerges, mostly affecting people of color. In Richmond, for example, many low-income families supplement their diet with fish caught in Richmond’s Inner Harbor. Mercury in the fish, a topic that was eventually covered in an article by Mother Jones magazine, leads to health problems that can be passed on to unborn children. This is a problem you don’t have in the more affluent Marina District in San Francisco.
Other parts of the world fight the same fight.
I shake my head sometimes at “poverty solutions” that suggest something like a “Robin Hood Tax” where the rich give money back to the poor, presumably to remedy their poverty. They ignore the systemic nature of our world. Perhaps the have-nots MUST have not in order for the rich to have, and the disparity between them will continue to grow despite any subsidy attempt because of their inter-dependence on one another. Perhaps the poor are poor BECAUSE the rich are rich.
My sister asked me once, how will it affect affluent neighborhoods when the price of oil goes up? The problem, I told her, is the logic of people focused solely on a financial bottom line. These people believe, in their heart of hearts, that as long as they have enough money, they will be unaffected by changes in their environment. Even worse, they believe that as long as their children have money, they, too, will be unaffected.
The reality is, we are all in this together. Although we have evolved into a society with a pyramidal structure, with the very rich at the top and the very poor at the bottom, we must remember that it is the bottom of the pyramid that supports the top.
When divisions between the haves and the have-nots expand, when maids cannot afford to drive to work, when teachers and nurses cannot afford to live near schools and hospitals, the structure of our society is going to change whether we’re comfortable with it or not. When our food chain has been irrevocably infiltrated by GMO crops that disrupt our own DNA, when our air and water are so toxic that we can’t even drink rain, perhaps then the billionaires of the world will realize you can’t eat, drink, or breathe money.