Earth Day 2021: Year for Environmental Justice

by | Apr 21, 2021 | Culture, Environment, Justice

Segregated community artwork

This week I had the opportunity to teach a Caring for Our Earth lesson with 6th grade students from Peres Elementary in Richmond, California. As a class, we explored our unique reasons why we care for the Earth. Students replied in various ways: 

“It’s my home”
“When I hear the wind and sit outdoors, I feel relaxed”
“I like swimming”
“It gives us oxygen”
“My grandmother’s large flower garden”

To begin, we listened to the poem “Earthrise” by Amanda Gorman from 2019. 

After the poem ended, we discussed the poem’s message, students shared that we need to care for the Earth and that it is up to us. One student recalled the line “we refuse to lose”, she appreciated how the poem encourages us to continue to fight for our home. Many students felt that the poem was positive and activated us to care for the Earth. 

What struck me the most was one student calling out the following line:

“For it is the obscure, the oppressed, the poor,
Who when the disaster
Is declared done,
Still suffer more than anyone.”

I paused, this statement echoed the events from the previous years shining light to how environmental justice must be addressed when we discuss healing our Earth. 

In the past year, as the pandemic severely impacted BIPOC and low-income communities, with Black, Indigenous, and Latino Americans dying at a 2.7 times greater rate from COVID-19 than their White counterparts. However, this is not new, communities of color have suffered from pollution in their backyards. 57% of people of color living in counties with some degree of failing air quality has led to higher rates of asthma. COVID-19 brought health inequities to the center of conversation as well as the inaccessibility to natural space as many people went outside for mental and physical wellbeing during the pandemic. A report, led by the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress, found that communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived areas, meaning less or no access to parks, paths, and green spaces. Without access to nature, there becomes a large disparity in health. To support a healthy planet, we need to also support healthy communities.  

In 2021, Earth Day is more than supporting the protection of our environment of pristine natural lands, it needs to include the protection of people. It has been 50 years since the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, however, our communities are still struggling for access. When we think about caring for the Earth, we must also think about caring for Earth’s people. Who will be impacted by climate change, who is suffering from our mounds of trash, chemicals in our water, and pollutants in our air? 

As Earth Day 2021 approaches, I reflect on how I am seeing the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice in my community and its impact on people. Weeks without power due to wind events, snow storms, and fire, vulnerable communities without shelter. Summer highs with temperatures above 100 degrees with thick grey smoke in the air yet our farmers continue to provide food for our tables, freezing winter events leaving folks without water or power for days on end.. I urge us to begin to plan, build infrastructure to provide resiliency for when disasters happen.

This year on Earth Day, I come into it with new eyes with environmental justice at the forefront. The Biden administration will have a Virtual Leaders Summit on Climate for 2-days beginning on April 22nd to discuss solutions for the climate crisis. Additionally, the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council will begin to address deep-rooted environmental injustices and ensure that historically marginalized and polluted, overburdened communities are heard and prioritized. The Senior Director for Environmental Justice, at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Dr. Cecilia Martinez said “This is a historic moment that environmental justice communities have been working toward for decades. President Biden and Vice President Harris are, for the first time ever, bringing the voices, perspectives, and expertise of environmental justice communities into a formal advisory role at the White House”. 

April 22nd, Earth Day, I plan to lay under a shady tree and have gratitude for all that Earth provides: oxygen to breath, food on the table, a refreshing creek for a swim, peaceful moments outdoors. But I will also reflect on my privilege that provides access to the outdoors, clean water and air. Then, it is time to continue to work towards a healthier environment for all people, for a future where we care for the people in our communities as well as the natural world around us. 

“What can we do?
Open your eyes.
Know that the future of
this wise planet
Lies right in sight:
Right in all of us. Trust
this earth uprising.”

Photo credit: Artwork by Sergio Maciel and Provoke Culture

Margaret Cooper

Margaret Cooper

Margaret is a UC Davis alumna with a degree in Environmental Science and Management and Spanish minor. She is driven by youth empowerment, environmental education, and outdoor accessibility to address climate change in her community. She loves being part of the Turning Green community to build confident future leaders and advocates for environmental sustainability.