The Power of Building the Next Generation of Green Elected Officials

Feb 16, 2021 | BM4F Spotlights, Uncategorized, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 0 comments

Michael Bland | Democrats for Education Reform
National Director of Leaders of Color

For too long and way too often, Black voices—and in particular, Black leadership—have been entirely left out of conversations about environmental justice. Taken at face value, this seems like just another example of America’s normative par for the course, but when examined deeper, the deafening silence tells an even more insidious tale of deeply entrenched systemic environmental racism. Because, while it’s often considered an elitist concern (read: white), the truth is, environmental issues—and particularly, the most egregious, such as pollution, poisoned water, dilapidated and harmful infrastructure—disproportionally burden Black lives, and thus, disproportionately endanger Black health.

Yet, for as long as there has been attention given to environmental concerns, we’ve only ever seen, splashed across our television screens, newspaper pages, and long-bolstered in all of our media, a prototype of the environmental advocate—that so-called “tree-hugger”—that is white. Even the oft-derided stereotypes of environmental warriors, from the long-haired hippie with a crocheted vest, to the postmodern rise of the “crunchy granola moms,” these accepted personifications of the fight for environmental justice have been white…Black advocates aren’t even thought of enough to be included in the negatives!

But there are no better champions for change than those living, every day, the truth of the realities in need of amendment—and to locate those most familiar with the damages wrought by climate change, we need look no further than our Black communities, who oftentimes reside in areas in close proximity to polluters, and bear the brunt of harmful climatic shifts.

Years of systemic racism have brought us to this point; segregation caused forced property value depletion in communities of color, enticing pollutant-producing companies to cheaply purchase land and build. Much less governmental funding has historically been given to Black communities to fight infrastructure failures such as contaminated water, asbestos-laced construction, and lead-painted walls. Exacerbated wealth disparities have made it much easier for white families to purchase homes further away from sites like highways, shipping centers, and other grounds rife with pollution. And political power has continued to favor white America, making it traditionally difficult for any Black leader to find a space at the table that creates change.

But difficult doesn’t mean impossible—and if there’s anything I’ve learned from my position as the National Director of Leaders of Color, it’s that Black voices are more than ready to be heard in every conversation; and to underestimate our power and our ability to bring about change is a grievous mistake.

Leaders of Color Memphis Cohort 2, 2020

In my role, I work every day with aspiring leaders, and connect them with the tools they need to successfully bring about the progress we know is needed across the country. These folks undergo 70-plus hours of training that focuses on cultivating leadership abilities, building policy knowledge, and honing campaigning skills—all with an equity lens. It was also thanks to my position with Leaders of Color (LOC) that I was able to meet Marquita Bradshaw, an LOC trainee from Memphis, who, post-graduation, went on to become the first Black woman to win a major party U.S. Senate nomination in Tennessee, and the only Black woman to win a major party nomination for U.S. Senate in 2020.

Marquita is someone I deeply admire—she is a brilliant woman, a powerful leader, someone whose convictions align fully with their advocacy work, and, in my opinion, an ideal candidate. In 2020, Marquita ran as a first-time candidate against an opponent who not only had the support of the white-backed political machine, but also raised almost 100 times more campaign dollars than she did.

Marquita also did something incredibly important: she ran on a platform primarily centered on environmental justice.

It wasn’t only Marquita’s compassion and integrity that propelled her campaign forward against all preconceived odds, it was also this choice to focus her agenda on a topic and conversation that matters deeply to her and her constituents—a conversation that she and those very same constituents are too often left out of. Marquita knows change is needed, so she decided to create a space to act.

While Marquita unfortunately didn’t go on to secure the Senate seat in Tennessee, she didn’t give up the fight. Instead, she started Sowing Justice: a non-profit dedicated to utilizing environmental justice principles and organizing tools to increase civic engagement and create healthy and safe communities across Tennessee. Marquita also assures me she will be back on the campaign trail in the future, because she knows we can’t stop now.

The stakes are too high, and our voices are too necessary to the fight to simply ignore what we can do together.

In looking at three of America’s largest non-profits whose missions focus on promoting environmental protection, conservation, and battling climate change—Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, and the National Wildlife Federation—only 20% of their collective executive leadership is represented by people who present as non-white. Things become even less inclusive with regard to governmental agencies designed to fight environmental threats, and Congressional leadership is lagging entirely behind the line of progress.

In fact, the disparity between the lungs giving power to the voices actually heeded in environmental conversations, and the lungs being filled daily with pollutants, carcinogens, and other detrimental debris, cannot be overstated.

That is why we must follow Marquita’s example and create a pathway for a new generation of Black leadership who understands firsthand the necessity of pushing forward legislation that centers battling climate change and environmental justice as its crux.

There is no better time than the present to begin to undo centuries of systemic oppression and climatic damage, and there is no one more capable and correct for spearheading such necessary work as young Black leaders.

We are familiar with the issues in a way that lends itself to natural articulation of the many nuances of the myriad environmental concerns plaguing our communities and our country. And we are able to effect truly momentous change—just look at what happened in Georgia: Black youth voters showed up and flipped the Senate.

I implore each and every one of you with your heart in the fight against climate change to consider bringing your passion and your experience to a new level. Run for office; manage a campaign; change the world…because it’s not an overstatement to say that it certainly needs us.

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