June Key Delta: Celebrating Black Environmentalism

Joseph Santos-Lyons

Editor's note: After contributing a pair of guest columns, Joseph has joined our roster of regular contributors. He's the coordinator of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and has been blogging at his personal blog, radicalhapa, since 2003. Welcome, Joseph!

As a parent, Earth Day is a chance to bring out the environmentalist in my kids. I love all the people caring for the earth, improving their individual habits, and drawing special attention to the interconnectedness of humankind and the world we live in. This is also a day that perpetuates the misconception that communities of color aren’t engaged in environmental issues. For the record, folks of color do care about the environment, and are critical spokespeople on climate change and the health impacts precisely because as a community we are disproportionately affected here in the US and globally.

I’m excited by the work of our communities in Oregon. One of the best examples is the June Key Delta Community Center in the Piedmont neighborhood where my grandparents and now my family lives. The center and demonstration garden was built with the vision from local African-American leaders on an old brownfield with a mission of environmental education and economic empowerment. Built on the site of an abandoned gas station across from the illustrious Peninsula Park Rose Gardens, the center is a model of the highest level of sustainable building, seeking the “living building” designation. With over $1 million invested under the leadership of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, this reclaimed space is now home to a vibrant grassroots multiracial community and is a remarkable story and powerful example of purpose and social action to mark Earth day.

Through Oregon’s growing health equity movement, we know that our environment has a significant impact on our well-being. And in a state where communities of color live twice as close to hazardous waste facilities as whites, are 21.5% of the population, and are more likely to be uninsured and face poor mental and physical health, Earth Day is also an opportunity to reflect on environmental justice.

Environmental justice or EJ is the principle that everyone has a right to a clean and safe place for all people where we live, work, learn, play and pray. EJ comes out of the experiences of people of color, and in Oregon the leading community based organization is OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. Their current work is focused on transit justice links the needs of low-income families and workers with our economic well-being and improve health outcomes.

Oregon has a rich EJ history, with one of the first EJ student groups, a nationally recognized Governor’s EJ Commission, and a range of grassroots organizing from the PCUN farmworkers to the multilingual community health workers of Village Gardens. There is also important environmental work on the rise to diversify the environmental movement, and address the sometimes hidden health issues of workers of color to highlight a few. We can be proud of the leadership coming out of Oregon, and that is something to share with our children. Who do you recognize on Earth Day? All in all, let us lift up and recognize the multiracial leadership of all communities and especially communities of color on this Earth Day.

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    There are similar efforts going on in East Portland/ County area with the work of United Neighbors/ Vencions Unidos, a bilingual group based out of Rockwood devoted to addressing food access issues in the area. Today they had an Earth Day event to celebrate the progression of their food efforts over the past year, including the establishment of a Rockwood food buying club and a community garden planned at an unused 2.5 acre lot at SE 162nd & Stark.

    Glad to see the inclusion of Center for Diversity and the Environment in your story--they are doing great work!

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