A Multicultural First Earth Day?

“Cerulean” by one of my daughters, Stella — my family is a huge part of why I do this work.

“Cerulean” by one of my daughters, Stella — my family is a huge part of why I do this work.

Welcome to J.E.D.I. Heart and thank you for reading my first blog! I created this blog to help those of you working in the environmental, conservation, and climate movements navigate justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (J.E.D.I.) with love.  Since today is April 22nd, I figured I would provide an Earth Day themed piece.

Today’s Earth Day celebrations are multicultural, global, and diverse. People of all walks of life celebrate and take action to protect the planet we call home. When the topic of the first Earth Day is raised, often images of throngs of white people and white leaders come to mind because these are the images commonly shared. One less known fact is that the first Earth Day included a call for a broad-based, multicultural environmental movement and included a diverse speaker line-up. I recently reached out to Denis Hayes, the main organizer of the first Earth Day, to learn more. This is what I gleaned from Denis’s first-hand account and several key speeches that he shared (Thank you Denis!):

According to the intent of many of the organizers of the first Earth Day, the modern day environmental movement was meant to be a J.E.D.I. movement. On April 22, 1970, a diverse set of speakers from across the U.S., including many civil rights leaders, recognized the need for a broad-based, multicultural movement in order to succeed. At Harvard University, a young African American leader, George Wiley—the Director of National Welfare Rights Organization—delivered a speech entitled, “Ecology and the Poor”. Addressing environmental activists, he stated:

[I]f you are to develop strategies to… deal with all of the myriad problems of the environment, you are going to have to recognize that you must deal initially with the problem of racism in the United States of America.

Meanwhile in Chicago, another African American leader, Charles Hayes—Vice President of the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butcher Workmen of North America—declared:

Our program to protect and reclaim the physical environment must include feeding the hungry, healing the sick, building homes and schools, eradicating racism and discrimination, and finally make the national welfare program adequate to lift people forever out of the degradation of poverty…This is what the fight to preserve our environment really means—it is a fight to preserve and protect humanity. And all of us, black and white, rich and poor, young and old, must enlist this fight NOW! WE SHALL OVERCOME!

Lastly, Reverend Channing Phillips addressed a Washington, D.C. crowd,

But now that White America is being threatened, perhaps we can deal with black needs and white needs – human needs – in a united effort to remedy the value system that has brought us to this Earth Day.

Back then as today, many environmental leaders of color have an integrated, complex perspective of the intersectionality of environmental protection and other aspects of society, including racial equity. Protecting our air, land, and water cannot effectively be achieved in isolation. These crucial elements to our survival are interwoven into all aspects of how we live, work, and play just as all aspects of nature are interconnected.

Demonstrated through these speeches, a call to create a J.E.D.I. movement was evident. Unfortunately, a J.E.D.I. environmental movement did not result, and we have suffered the repercussions ever since. As commonly happens in the J.E.D.I. space, intent is never good enough to ensure a positive outcome. So what happened (or did not happen) after the first Earth Day? 

Denis pointed out that the first Earth Day was about two years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and while many Civil Rights leaders supported environmental protection and participated in the first Earth Day, the environment at the time did not rise above the plethora of priorities, like jobs, education, housing, and health care. Denis shared that “environmental racism was [treated as] ‘tomorrow’s issue.’”   

Maybe the environmental movement would have looked and operated differently if white activists co-created a strategy to intentionally live out this strong recognition and need for a multicultural movement. Charles Jordan and Donald Snow, in their 1992 article, “Diversification, Minorities, and the Mainstream Environmental Movement,” added further analysis as to why an integrated movement did not stick after the first Earth Day:

Yet soon after the bright green banners of Earth Day had been taken down, the white activists who had put the whole event together from coast to coast seemed to disperse quickly into organizations that then did little to develop thought and action around the interlinks joining poverty and racism with environmental harm.  Having heard from the communities of social justice, the white leaders of the budding environmental movement still re-created and perpetuated the same inadvertent, unspoken polices of exclusion that characterized their conservation forerunners.

According to Jordan and Snow, it sounds like white mainstream environmentalists fell back into “business as usual” mode, which is often code (at least in the mainstream environmental movement) for succumbing to the forces of institutional and systemic racism. Even by doing nothing and with no intent to do harm, following these systems and structures (often times blindly) results in division, exclusion, and negative impact for people of color. We all fall prey to these forces, which are the legacy of an American environmental movement founded in a time of overt racism (the late-1800s).

In summary, the interplay of well-meaning intent not leading to the preferred outcome, civil rights leaders forced to choose from competing priorities, white activists not sufficiently taking effective next steps post-Earth Day, and the forces of institutional and systemic racism led to no immediate progress on the J.E.D.I. front.  Although this outcome was a disappointment, I want to uplift a few things:

  1. The day in of itself was a multicultural event. Can you imagine attending the First Earth Day and listening to the amazingly diverse line up of speakers and leaders?  Simply reading some of the speeches inspired me. Being physically present would have been even more powerful and inspirational.

  2. Thank you to the Earth Day organizers, including Denis Hayes, for the behemoth effort to coordinate and set up a multicultural environmental event on a national stage- a rarity in those days for sure.

  3. Much love and gratitude to George Wiley, Charles Hayes, Reverend Channing Phillips and other leaders of color who showed up, dedicated their valuable time, courageously acknowledged the need for an integrated movement and shared the interconnectedness of their environmental values. I would like to point out that 1970 was not only two years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination but also six years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act.  Civil rights leaders could have, rightfully so, spent their valuable time elsewhere. I am inspired by the choices they made.

  4. Over a decade later, the civil rights movement gave birth to the powerful environmental justice movement, through which much progress has been made protecting communities of color from the ill effects of environmental degradation and pollution.

As I have experienced, J.E.D.I. work is often complex with numerous issues and perspectives at play. For example, I know there is more to the answer of “why didn’t the first Earth Day result in a multicultural environmental movement?” In these J.E.D.I. spaces, how do we uphold multiple truths, valuing each other’s voices, seeing each other, while also being okay with and balancing disappointment, frustration, celebration, joy, and the myriad of emotions that are felt when working across difference? This is the reality of the work. I have found learning from mistakes, replicating successes, and continual improvement as main ingredients for J.E.D.I. progress. This growth mindset will serve us all well as we analyze our distant and near past and co-create a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive environmental movement together.   

(Thank you for reading my first blog!  Please share below any comments or additional perspectives, especially regarding the multiculturalism and speakers of color at the first Earth Day and/or your experience growing your J.E.D.I. capacity.)  

Marcelo Bonta19 Comments