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Environmental Racism and Local Leadership


The goal of this blog post is to speak briefly about issues preventing communities from interacting more closely with the environment and discuss leaders who are working to get their communities outdoors and supply them with fresh produce.

Outdoor activities, environmental studies, and leadership in the environmental field is limited to specific groups of people due to many causes, one of those being racism. Structural racism has created divides in urbanized communities such that there are large unequal distributions of wealth and resources in specific socio-cultural groups. These community divides have created gaps in natural biodiversity, created urban areas that are hotter than others, and have created pollution wells which make these communities more susceptible to health problems. These communities may live in food deserts, where there are more fast-food chains and less markets with fresh fruits and vegetables. These compounding effects have led to the creation of the term environmental racism. So, this structural racism has encouraged people in these communities to participate less than others in environmental activities and to not spend time in nature.

So while environmental racism has contributed to a lack of diversity of race, ethnicity, and thought in the environmental field, there are many local groups lead by diverse leaders in the environmental field that encourage less represented communities to get outside and explore nature to change this for the better! For example, the national group Outdoor Afro celebrate and inspire Black leadership in nature and connect communities to experiences in nature. They have more than 80 leaders in 42 cities around the United States.

Similarly, there are individuals who have become local leaders working to better the available food and grocery options in their communities. One such case is Ron Finley, a local gardener in South Central Los Angeles. Since 2010, Ron has nurtured a garden in his community, protesting the South-Central LA food desert cultivated by decades of racism and ecoterrorism. Following a citation for planting vegetables in a dirt patch next to the street, Ron started a petition, demanded that he be allowed to grow food in his community, and won. Ron’s hard work has now allowed community members to transform their food desert into a food sanctuary, learn how to regenerate their land into a creative business model, interact with nature, and most importantly, teach the community about resilience. Another leader in the South-Central LA community, Olympia Auset, launched a campaign in 2019 to purchase and reopen one of the oldest and only health-food stores in the community. Olympia’s goal is to bring organic produce to a stagnant location and offer affordable vegan meals from local artisans like Bab’s Vegan Café, Beanfield’s, Field Roast, and shelve products from Dr. Bronner’s. Olympia, like many families in this community, traveled at minimum 30 minutes by car to buy fresh produce, but reaching a grocery store could take up to two hours by bus. It is through leaders like Ron and Olympia who know their communities that create change at the source of the problem. Issues like transportation, income equality, homelessness, food scarcity, and water quality span more than the South-Central LA community.

Environmental racism is not unique to the United States; it permeates many societies. Histories of colonization, cultural oppression, and purposeful environmental destruction should be overcome to allow for everyone to be actively included in environmental and outdoor activities. These issues reach all corners of the globe, but what is difficult to comprehend is how to solve these inequities in one of the richest, most unequal countries in the world. 


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