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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Environmental Justice Pioneer

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Richard Moore of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, one of the founding leaders of the environmental justice movement. Moore reflects on the evolution of the environmental justice movement and looks ahead towards future challenges.


CURWOOD: Almost 30 years ago, Chicago community organizer Richard Moore began helping his neighbors fight a smelly sewage plant located smack in the middle of a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Over the years, as he helped build a community organization, Moore began connecting with other social justice organizers in identifying new links between race, poverty, and the environment. Today, Moore's Southwest Organizing Network for Environmental and Economic Justice is one of the leading environmental justice groups in North America, linking more than 70 community groups in 6 southwestern states and Mexico. And Moore was among the organizers of the landmark first People of Color Environmental Summit in Washington, DC, in 1991. I recently discussed his work and the environmental justice movement with Richard Moore. He told me that it grew out of a recognition that environmental threats to communities of color were not just happenstance.

MOORE: It had become very clear to us that these were community issues, that these were poverty issues, and that there was intentional things that were happening. It wasn't just this community in Albuquerque, it was a pattern within this country. So we began to move that forward, then, and in a much more detailed way, map out plans for environmental and economic justice.

CURWOOD: What are some of your victories over the last few years?

MOORE: We've seen a tank farm, the tanks that store gasoline and so on, that was located in an African American-Latino community in Austin, Texas. People had tremendous headaches from smelling gasoline all the time and so on. This incredible impact on the children. In a one-year, year-and-a-half campaign, that community, from the support of the Southwest Network, has been able to win that. Now there's a phase-out within all those tanks. We've had situations in Albuquerque, where for the first time one of our affiliate organizations has signed a contract between a military installation and a community-based organization for full participation in the investigation there in regards to the contamination that we think has been caused by a military facility. And it could go on and on; I mean, from one end of San Diego, California, to the other end of Brownsville, Texas, with the kind of successes that the community's had. I think that's really, then, helped us to kind of formulate our plans and where we go from here.

CURWOOD: And where do you go from here?

MOORE: For one example, we're specifically looking at the impact of high tech industry. Wherever you find a high tech, the building looks beautiful on the outside, the grass is green, adobe brown, the whole thing. But on the inside, it's safe for the chip but it's not necessarily safe - women are having miscarriages at incredible numbers and so on. Now we've begun to do a campaign in the southwest, particularly targeting high tech facilities. We're looking at border justice. We've integrated, now, Mexican NGOs, non-governmental organizations, into the process of the network, and we're developing a joint cross-border campaign to work together up and down the border. We have a youth campaign, we have very large numbers of youth coming together now to develop their own agenda. We also have another campaign that's come out of all this sovereignty, dumping on native lands as we call it. It was a call by our indigenous brothers and sisters in the network to assist in educating people in terms of what sovereignty means. Because without really understanding the question of sovereignty, then it's hard to understand why native nations are being targeted for everything that everybody else don't want in their communities right now.

CURWOOD: Could you look back at a moment or a couple of moments in your work as an environmental justice activist and tell me something that you did or participated in that you feel especially proud of or good about?

MOORE: Well, it's actually I think difficult to name the one, the one thing. And there's many of them. But I think one of them is the first People of Color Summit. I think that when we came to Washington, that many people, and they stated that "you won't last three weeks," that from egos to ethnic differences to all the kind of things that we were attempting to try to bring together, that it wasn't even supposed to have a long-lasting period of two or three weeks. It's been three years now.

CURWOOD: As you look down the road, what do you see ahead that gives you the most concern? And what gives you the most hope?

MOORE: Well, I think the concern is that people understand that we're real serious, that the US Government and government agencies understand. That we're living under life and death situations. It's not rhetoric, it's not language that we're trying to use, it's whatever it's - people are dying, unfortunately, both in the workplace and in many of our communities. I think that the concern, that we're specifically interested in developing partnerships but they have to be true and equal partnerships. And that's why we say over and over again, and use the examples about working with instead of working for. What this movement is standing on, in terms of environmental democracy. And I'm not sure whether this government's going to get it or not, if this Administration's going to get it or not. And honestly, we have not seen that at this particular moment, within this Administration; still today we haven't seen it. So the concern is that. Actually, I think one of the things that we'll see that's a challenge for the environmental justice movement is to continue to build our movement, and at the same time, honestly, it's to keep all of ourselves accountable. And I say that because things are going to get more difficult for us now. Now we see the government getting ready to drop millions of dollars in our communities, in research, in health-related fields, in cleanup to some extent. Many, many kind of things. And the temptations and the divisions that we've seen that money many times can bring about, that we start fighting over five cents and nickel or dime and this kind of thing. I think the challenge for us is, as environmental justice activists, is to continue to look at the principles of environmental justice and to use this as a measuring stick. And to begin to take those challenges on. And lastly, for the moment, I think that it's the inclusion of women in this process. It's not just again rhetoric; I mean we need to make sure that organizations and the leadership of organizations, that women are involved in all levels of those leadership roles. It's women that actually are in the forefront of this movement, and it's women that should be in the forefront of the leadership of this movement. So we have many challenges ahead for us.

CURWOOD: And the hope?

MOORE: Hope is that we'll be here in another 2 or 3 years to do the same thing we did today.

CURWOOD: Richard Moore is a leader of the Southwest Organizing Network in Albuquerque.



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