Branch Out: Engaging Those Most Affected by Environmental Issues

Mira Cheng

Just this past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the TEDxBerkeley conference. Amongst the whirlwind of revolutionary ideas, I was struck by Adrianna Quintero’s call for inclusivity in the environmental movement. Quintero pointed out that contrary to some of our misconceptions, people all across the spectrums of race, party, and income support climate action. And of course people differ in their perspectives on solutions, approaches etc…but it would be silly to let those divisions define us when our main motivation is the same. The environmental movement should not have a face, a vetting process; the environmental movement should belong to everyone whose feet touch the Earth.

I am minoring in Global Poverty and Practice, and this topic has come up in class discussions a couple of times lately. The reoccurring theme that I hear is: the people most affected by climate change and other environmental issues, are the people with the least amount of say in the environmental movement. Some of the more privileged neighborhoods in the Oakland hills, where I grew up, are only now starting to experience the negative consequences of unclean air from forest fires. However, people living in the flatlands of Oakland have been battling with bad air quality for years. A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, showed that West Oakland residents experience diesel pollution levels three times higher than the average in the Bay Area. There are many more sobering statistics out there to highlight this reality, but the point is that for these people, the success of the environmental movement is not a goal, but rather a necessity. The underrepresentation of these voices in our discussions around environmental concerns impairs the overall ability of all of us to move forward. People are starting to recognize this problem, and to critique the environmental movement, which is a great step forward, but how do we transform great discussions into tangible action? I feel that this is where most critiques fail.

There is no one great solution, but there have to be ways that we can push forward. An organization that I am currently working with has been working on promoting inclusivity in sustainability initiatives through a unique collaborative, co-design model. The UC Berkeley-based, Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability—CARES team, is partnering with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation tribe to “co-design culturally-inspired, sustainable housing and renewable energy power systems that utilize sustainability best practices, renewable energy technology, and reflect the long-standing culture of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.” The partnership started in 2008 and has been evolving ever since. The innovative co-design process that the CARES team uses is meant to involve stakeholders with different knowledge, skills, resources and power. To read more about this concept, check out their paper titled, “Tribal Housing, Codesign, and Cultural Sovereignty.” I strongly believe that we need more of these all-inclusive frameworks in the environmental movement. It’s time to branch out purposefully and engage everyone, especially those most affected, in our decisions about our environment.

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