Racial Justice Organizing Is Environmental Justice Organizing

We were in the middle of finalizing a new training curriculum when COVID-19 hit.

Ironically, the training was about hosting community dialogues, an exercise in building community through listening and conversation in an intimate, shared setting—a practice that shelter-in-place and social distancing have made challenging. In the midst of a global pandemic and uprisings for racial justice, this kind of relational work is almost hard to imagine… but in fact, the need for building connections, and thus building collective power, has never been greater.

When I was the Ready For 100 Campaign Coordinator in Cleveland, Ohio, I brought Sierra Club volunteers in the area—many of whom are white and live in suburbs—together with Cleveland residents on the East Side of the city, where I live, and where Black neighborhoods have long been ignored. Worse, those Black neighborhoods have also been dealing with many of the region’s environmental injustices firsthand (including the Lake Shore coal plant, which was only demolished in 2017). 

Hosting community dialogues was an important step. We needed to listen, learn, discuss, and work as a team to determine our campaign focus. This tool was also instrumental in creating a better understanding of what it means to achieve an equitable and just transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy across different groups. When Cleveland set a goal to move entirely to clean energy in 2018, it was a vision informed from every corner of our community. Participants of a community dialogue on clean energy in Cleveland, OHMembers of St. Paul Church and residents of the Garden Valley neighborhood met on the East Side of Cleveland for a Community Dialogue in 2017, where they shared their different experiences and perspectives on environmental actions they think the city should take. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Travis

In practice, community dialogues, inspired by Everyday Democracy, are an organizing tool for engaging a group of people in discussion about their values and experiences, their community’s challenges and opportunities, and their priorities on a given issue. When done right, this kind of foundational relationship-building can shape solutions that are grounded in collective needs. 

In my more than 40 years of community organizing, I’ve seen leaders crash when they didn’t listen to the people they served and I’ve seen “solutions” burn when they weren’t influenced by the people they affected. Here’s the thing: People know what they need. They just need to be heard.

Organizing is about shifting power. It is required internally and externally to bring about change. In Frederick Douglass’s words, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The movements for racial, economic, and environmental justice have many demands—and true justice will only be possible when we listen to every voice, joining together and speaking as one. For me, this happens in the work of seeing others eye-to-eye, and listening to actually hear and understand. This needs to happen as much across Cleveland as it does within the environmental movement.

Jocelyn Travis at a press conference in Cleveland, OHJocelyn Travis at a 2018 press conference in support of establishing a 100 percent clean energy goal in Cleveland. Photo by Chad Stephens

There’s no question that today’s most urgent issues are interrelated. Here are a few I’m thinking about: State-sanctioned violence against Black communities like my own that has been institutionalized, rearing its ugly head in forms ranging from police brutality to historic redlining to food insecurity. The terrible health and economic outcomes in predominantly Black neighborhoods. There are too many examples to name, like the East Side of Cleveland or Cancer Alley in Louisiana, as a result of polluting industries and the climate crisis that they helped create. Black people are being hospitalized for COVID-19 at five times the rate of white people. And now, Cleveland is experiencing a heatwave that especially hurts households with high energy burdens that cannot, for example, afford air conditioning or more expensive energy bills (it’s worth noting that redlined neighborhoods also tend to be hotter). The common thread linking all these issues is racism in its nearly limitless forms. The challenge we face with each is uprooting the status quo.

People know what they need. They just need to be heard.

With Ready For 100, I worked across the city to fight for energy efficiency, local solar and wind power, and clean energy jobs that would improve the lives of everyday Clevelanders—including and especially the Black community. Environmental justice was a critical part of racial justice for me then, and in my role now. As an organizing manager, I now work with a network of organizers moving the needle on all kinds of environmental issues that harm communities. It’s satisfying to support the work of organizers who are fighting fracking, closing coal and gas plants, and advocating for clean transportation to move towards a clean energy future. 

But justice for all people and our planet won’t materialize externally if it doesn’t happen internally within green groups like ours. In addition to my work with community organizers, I work with Black staff and volunteers as part of the Black Action Team and with BIPOC staff at Sierra Club. We want to ensure the organization supports staff of color, many of whom have lived experiences that speak to the necessary transformations we’re working for in the world. Dialogue among our leadership and colleagues is a starting point, and it’s required; the values and relationships that comprise an organization with an 128-year-old history are at risk of being compromised if there isn’t shared understanding about what we’re working towards, and who we’re working for, from the top to the bottom. 

The work of shifting power to include the people and interests who have long been at the margins, and who are most affected by the successes or failures in our work, requires more than statements and commitments: It requires self-transformation. Dialogue can create openings for honesty about how we model the change we want for the world within our organization, from staff leadership to chapters, including volunteers and members. It means listening to the experiences of staff and members who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and seeing our work to take down environmental and climate injustices as deeply tied to dismantling white supremacy.

Jocelyn Travis was interviewed at Garden Valley Neighborhood House in 2018, where she outlined the benefits rooftop solar could provide to the community center. Video by ideastream/WOSU

Victories are more transformational and long-lasting when they are guided by those who are most impacted. In Cleveland, after holding community dialogues in opposite corners of the city—at St. Paul’s Church on the West Side, with predominantly white, middle-class residents, and at Garden Valley Neighborhood House, a community center and food bank primarily serving low-income Black residents on the East Side—we decided that, in addition to getting a 100 percent clean energy commitment from the city, the benefits of renewable energy should help people right now. We partnered with RE-volv, which will help retrofit Garden Valley Neighborhood House and install rooftop solar, reducing energy bills and allowing the center to continue providing critical services to a high-need neighborhood. We can achieve these victories by first listening and learning, then joining together with clarity of vision.

Several dialogue sessions were being held throughout the Sierra Club before the pandemic. The facilitator training and curriculum is available here for anyone interested in hosting dialogues within your campaign or community. Dialogue is necessary to move toward justice and liberation. Intentional listening and conversations are a first step of identifying ways to move forward together.