Making Connections

By Cindy Ellis

“Intersectional environmentalism” is a new phrase that recently has gotten some attention.  

  What is it?  Intersectionality is the belief that oppressions are interlinked and cannot be solved alone.  So, intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.  Some add “environmental justice” to the mix and remind it is the intersection of both social justice and environmentalism, where the inequity in environmental degradation is also considered.

New ideas deserve examination, and current events encourage that.

To begin, here are some comments to consider by Teresa Baker, a hiker instrumental in movements such as “African American National Parks Event” and “Hike Like a Girl”: 

“People ask me why I turn the conversation about the outdoors into a conversation about race. Why can’t a nature essay just be a nature essay? The answer is simple. There are boundaries on communities of color, boundaries that we’re now working diligently to erase. It’s hard to convince someone they belong in a place that they’ve historically been excluded from. That’s why I talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion with such ferocity and consistency—not to divide a country more than it already is, but to bridge a gap that’s been in place for far too long.

My hope is that one day we can do away with this diversity movement. But until then, let’s work together to be inclusive in empowering the next generation of environmentalists. Let’s do it so our kids can connect with their land, learn their purpose, and redefine their own ‘wild spaces’.”

It is not difficult to use her notion of boundaries for our own place and our struggles.  Our history is replete with examples of our efforts to eliminate exclusions for communities and our Mission Statement lays that out:

“The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy promotes, encourages and works for the conservation – including both preservation and wise management – and an appreciation of the natural resources of West Virginia and the Nation.  We focus primarily on the Highlands Region of West Virginia, but our work is for the cultural, social, educational, physical health, spiritual and economic benefit of present and future generations of residents and visitors alike.”

We don’t specify that we want clean water, air, and conserved public lands with access for ALL, but our actions show that we do.  We have repeatedly worked against harms in a wide variety of settings and with a broad circle of allies.

My own volunteering with WVHC, in the recent past, did introduce me to a wide circle of new faces.  Those new friends, in turn, shared new ideas and more new faces.  I learned of Dr. Robert Bullard, “The Father of Environmental Justice”, whose work has extended to Institute, WV, and of the Rev. Dr. William Barber, founder of Moral Mondays and opponent of the Atlantic Coast pipeline.

Through our ally group, the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance, I learned of The Virginia Environmental Justice Alliance.  Its coordinator, Queen Zakia Shabazz, said, “Climate and energy policy must directly benefit the communities who have borne the greatest environmental and economic impact of our energy choices. Policies must reduce pollution, help our communities better handle all climate-related disasters and provide equitable access to benefits from public investments in low-carbon goods and services. We can no longer allow executives at powerful utility monopolies to be the only ones in the room when making decisions that impact all of us.”

And here is more food for thought by Natalie Isaacs, founder of One Million Women: “Fighting for climate justice doesn’t mean just protecting nature and the environment. It also means fighting for racial justice and social justice. The wellbeing of the planet and the people on it are interconnected. We cannot strive to repair climate damage without addressing racial injustices and actively working to deconstruct the current ‘way of doing things’ the ‘systems’ that are at work around the world.”

When I think of intersectionality and justice, I recall our own actions.  I think of our group work and that by members.  I recall those who labored long in writing, research, and lobbying.  For lobbying, I know we treasure the work of the West Virginia Environmental Council and the women and men who, though vastly outnumbered, work for the under-represented.   

Our 40 Year History book notes that a WVHC president urged, “…where possible try to come up with a plan favored by those living and working in the area…”

I also remember the actions by our group and individual members which have included arrests, planting symbolic corn with indigenous representatives, marches [including 2 commemorating Blair Mountain [in one, 84-year-old Ken Hechler was roughed up] and protests [the one at Marsh Fork Elementary had a SWAT team on the roof].  Folks who align with WVHC seem to root for underdogs.

Those examples can suffice for a beginning.  The pandemic we find ourselves in can be a very good time to reflect on history and the future…and on actions and words.