Left out of the History books: Environmental Justice Heroes

By Ashlyn Whiteside

When you think of environmentalists, you might think of Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall, but you will probably be stumped trying to think of any that fight specifically for environmental justice like Winona LaDuke, Dolores Huerta and Robert Bullard. Unfortunately, this is because unless you are from an area that is impacted by environmental inequities, there are fewer outlets available to get the information. This is due to the subject of environmental racism being under-taught in schools and because the specific group of people affected is smaller and tends to go unnoticed on a larger scale. 

As Rider junior early education major Tara Towson said, “In the current social climate, the need to recognize our privilege, educate ourselves and listen to people of color’s stories and struggles is crucial to understanding how to correct systemic injustices.” 

Environmental justice, a movement stemming from the existence of environmental racism, focuses on the disproportionate effects of environmental hazards on people of color as a foundation to fuel the movement while striving to correct systemic inequities. Although the movement didn’t really have the public’s recognition until the 1980s, people of color and low income families have experienced disparities regarding environmental degradation for much longer. For example, in the 1960s Dolores Huerta worked alongside Cesar Chavez to create the first farmworker labor union, the United Farm Workers Association. 

What does this have to do with the environment? In the ‘60s there was an extremely high use of unregulated pesticides that not only damaged the soil for future crops, but also endangered the lives of the Latinx workers who mainly worked on large agricultural fields. Sounds like the definition of environmental racism, right? So, Huerta and Chavez worked to protect the laborers and the environment from the detrimental effects of large-scale farming including chemicals, disruption of wildlife habitats, disturbance of hydrologic cycle and more. 

Senior musical theater major Timmy Bradford said, “It’s really unfortunate that I spent all my years in middle and high school history and never heard the name Dolores Huerta once. It just goes to show why it’s so important for us to educate ourselves in order to inspire the younger generations.”

And Dolores isn’t the only one left out. Rosario Dawson, who you may know as an actress, has also inspired many with her activism through her co-founded organization, Voto Latino, which encourages Latinx populations greatly affected by climate exchange to vote. She paid a visit to Rider in October 2012 and spoke to an audience of over 400 students about her organization and the importance of voting.  Dawson also “volunteered with an organization that trains formerly incarcerated and gang-affiliated people to install solar panels and to silkscreen reusable grocery bags, which she and other activists distributed at stores in Los Angeles ahead of the statewide ban on single-use plastics,”according to a 2020 interview with Elle Magazine.

 Winona LaDuke is a politician, economist, environmentalist, author and Native American land rights activist who founded many organizations including the ​​White Earth Land Recovery Project, which set out to give jobs back to indigenous people by buying their land back. 

Robert Bullard is another important figure known as the “father of environmental justice” for his work campaigning against toxic waste being dumped in predominantly Black neighborhoods. His book “Dumping in Dixie” connects systemic racism and environmental disparities all culminating in the signing of the executive order on environmental justice. These activists are only the tip of the iceberg, but chances are this is your first time hearing about them and their important contributions.

Want to learn more about environmental justice heroes like Dolores Huerta and her 91 years of brave work and counting? 

Join us on either Nov. 9 and 10 in Sweigart room 115 (Rue Auditorium) at 7 p.m. for a screening and brief talkback on the film “Dolores.” Register at www.rider.edu/greenfilms

Additionally, there is a new engaged service-learning program “Rider B.E.S.T.” (Broncs’ Environmental Social Justice Team) is offered to educate students about environmental justice issues. Reach out to the Office of Sustainability or email service@rider.edu for program information. Since inequities across the world have recently found themselves at the forefront of conversations, use this as an opportunity to educate and get yourself and your friends inspired about environmental justice. Systemic change, no matter how big or small, starts with us. 

Rider University Eco-Rep

Ashlyn Whiteside

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