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Earth Day: The fight for our rights

On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward. Earth Day is credited as being the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.


Maintaining stewardship of the planet

By Cynthia Gibson
OW Contributor

On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward. Earth Day is credited as being the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.
Like many things in America, the benefits of the environmental movement have a high correlation to zip codes, income and skin color. Fifty-four years after the first Earth Day, the right to an unpolluted environment, clean water, green open space and nature remains unequally accessible to all.
The right to an unpolluted environment
“The launching of Earth Day was not consistent with having justice, fairness, and equity for those communities that were left out and left behind,” Dr. Robert Bullard said. “When the first Earth Day was held in 1970 across the country, that event didn’t even look like America. There were many communities and organizations and people of color and poor people who were not planning those events and pushing out what Earth Day was all about.”
Bullard is a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. He directs the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice and is known as the “Father of Environmental Justice,” for his over four decades on the front lines on the fight for climate equity.
According to Bullard, environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental housing, transportation, energy, food, water and all the laws and regulations that govern quality of life and that everyone has the right to live in a healthy physical environment.
Bullard said he “accidentally” became involved with the issue of environmental justice. In 1978, a company was trying to locate a landfill near a middle-class Black neighborhood in Houston, Texas and his wife filed a lawsuit. She needed someone to mark a map with the locations of all the landfills. Bullard’s research revealed that even though Blacks comprised only 25% of the population at the time, 100% landfills were located in Black neighborhoods. He was able to document that the same pattern was happening all across the South.
In the first book on the subject of environmental racism and environmental justice, “Dumping in Dixie, Race, Class and Environmental Quality,” Bullard detailed the systemic racism that created unequal and “invisible” communities that received the worst of the worst.
“I discovered it was not just a southern thing. Environmental racism was a national and international phenomenon,” Bullard said. “The United States of America is segregated and so is pollution.”
Bullard thinks the biggest challenge is to get communities that are on the front line of environmental hazards and environmental harm and issues around climate in the rooms when decisions are being made so communities facing the greatest threats can speak for themselves. Too often, policy and decision makers and elected officials don’t look like the communities that they represent. Environmental justice is a framework for leveling the playing field.
A lot has changed since Bullard started this battle. For one thing, money is now directly going towards creating equitable environments.
“It’s a new day. We will not leave one nickel on the table when we talk about this money that needs to go to the right communities, having money follow the need for communities that have been left out and left behind for too long,” Bullard said. “That’s what we have to do. That’s our job. That’s our challenge.”

The right to clean water
Formed during the pandemic, Groundswell for Water is a grassroots organizing campaign aimed at ensuring that marginalized communities have a voice in California’s policy debate as it pertains to the current and future water crisis. 
“I think what really stuck with a number of community leaders and clergy was that so many people didn’t have something as basic as clean water,” Groundswell Spokesman Ed Sanders said.
The Groundswell team looks at disadvantaged communities throughout the state that are either in failing water systems or in systems that are at risk of failing. They monitor federal and state policies that have to change in order to address how the state collects, stores, and conveys water.
Climate change and population growth have increased the immediacy and the urgency of the state’s need to plan for the future use of water. While conservation is a key tool, Groundswell officials think there are other strategies that the state should consider and employ to help manage the water for the state in the future.
In January, Groundswell organized about 400 people throughout the state to rally in Sacramento on the steps of the Capitol to signify that there is an organization and a group of communities that are looking at the issue of the lack of access to clean water their voice should be heard.
Sanders says the greatest challenge is not falling into the status quo and failing to act.
“This is an issue that will remain in the forefront. As communities really begin to understand where their water comes from, the impact on other communities and how decisions need to be made, we hope they stay engaged,” Sanders said. “We are going to continue to organize. Sharing information is at the heart of what we do, and we’ll continue to do that.”

The right to green open space and nature
The Baldwin Hills and Urban Watershed Conservancy started out as an experiment in 2001 to try to change oil fields into park lands. Twenty-three years later, the oil fields remain, but the park land has increased substantially.
“The state hadn’t had a role in trying to expand access to open space in quite some time and they were looking at Baldwin Hills to make their mark,” Baldwin Hills and Urban Watershed Conservancy Executive Officer David McNeill said. “Their plan was to create a park bigger than Central Park in New York.
After five years, there wasn’t enough money to do all the things the state wanted, but there was enough funding available to do some things, so the operation of the conservancy continued.
There are 10 conservancies in California, including the California Coastal Conservancy. Baldwin Hills has one of the most daunting tasks of any of the conservancies, due to the ongoing oil drilling operation in the neighborhood. “The oil drillers have rights going back to the 1920s and they are not about to be displaced. Going forward with a real park under these circumstances has to be the most difficult urban park challenge in America," executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Joe Edmiston said.
“It’s always been a fight. There’s the fight against the power plants, the fight against the oil company. and against developers to build housing. There is always a fight because the Baldwin Hills are the last open space in the watershed,” McNeill said. “What happens to them is something that should be dictated by the people, but the people’s needs change as time goes on.”
McNeill said one of the aspects of working at the Conservancy is working with young people.
“I love seeing the kids that I saw 10 or 15 years ago that are now working in the environmental field. . . for me, it’s all about seeing the next leader, the next green person.’
On Earth Day, April 20th; 8:30AM-11:30AM, LA County Parks, L.A. County Trails and California State Parks will be teaming up with volunteers at Kenneth Hahn Park to help improve the trails damaged by the winter rains. For more information visit: