Ep 22 – A discussion about Environmental Justice with Tina Johnson

Tina Johnson is the director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and is Principal of Johnson Strategy & Development Consultants, which works with a broad international network including groups from Europe and the U.S, top NGOs, governments, international foundations, and businesses. She specializes in U.S. and international Climate Change Policy, diplomacy, international climate change strategic development and advocacy. Tina’s work investigates domestic and international policies and issues around climate justice, sustainability, economics, energy, and climate change.

Below, we share a condensed summary of the discussion. Please listen to the full podcast for more detail and direct quotes. 

Don Shelby: How do you square the circle on climate chnage policy and environmental justice? 

Tina Johnson: “I don’t think it’s something you have to square, because I do believe environmental justice encompasses climate policy. When we talk about environmental justice, we’re talking about where we work, live, play, and the natural environment around us, and so it’s about the environment as a whole. Climate policy, economic policy, all of these policies interact in a way, at least they should, with how these environments can either flourish or be destroyed, so environmental justice and climate policy go hand in hand.”

Joe Robertson: You said recently that it was the discovery that food was not readily available, locally, that woke you up to the need to become an activist. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what it has to do with issues like environmental justice? 

Tina: “For me, this idea that a city can not have a supermarket is fascinating. I worked for the Tibetan government in exile in India, and I could get on a daily basis bananas, grapes, and I was at the base of the Himalayas. I go to Pennsylvania, to a small city in Delaware County, and I couldn’t get an apple, banana or grapes. 

“So it got me thinking: How do people actually begin to address these concerns when they don’t have access to things that they need? 

“I was in a city called Chester, Pennsylvania, which has several issues, from food insecurity to health disparities to pollution and toxic waste, refineries a half mile from it, high rates of asthma, high rates of cancer, strokes, you name it… I was at a confluence of many social issues, social justice issues. Environmental Justice was a part of that, as well as economic, health, education, prison reform…

“I would say I got a master class in this type of activism, because I was in a community that had to deal with all of them at the same time, which is pretty much the norm for any community that is working on the front lines from any of these positions. If you’re working on police reform in your community, you’re probably needing to address environmental justice.

“I think it’s right to think of environmental justice as a connective tissue to bring together this intersectionality of how these movements complement one another in their approaches to transform systemic paradigms that are rooted in racism… 

“Our systems were never created in the United States to function for everyone. It is the ideal now that we have that our systems, our government, our laws, will function for all… 

“Most of the folks who are impacted by sea level rise in the Gulf South, along that corridor, are Black or other minorities, but primarily Black or African American people, who were not permitted to buy land above the flood plain; they were only allowed to buy land in the flood plain.

“So there’s a system. This is, you know, post-slavery; this is not the last 50 years. We have a system that was created to say: You will not have access to the same quality of environment as white people will. We’ll give you the worst land; we’ll make sure it’s the most difficult place to grow food, to survive in a storm, and on top of that, guess what, we’re not going to insure you, we’re not going to provide you with access to loans that allow you to actually renovate or fix up your properties; you don’t get any of these other benefits. And so the system is in place that even when you are trying your best, you’re at a disadvantage. 

“Now we’re looking at an opportunity to really be transformative around a holistic approach to addressing the systemic framework that was established before slavery.” 

Joe: The idea underlying our democracy—which is that the value of each individua person should be paramount, paramount to the whims of power, paramount to the whims of wealth and privilege, that’s the idea, but the history of course is very different. Do you think if we’re going to really live that idea, if we’re going to actually have rights that are real, that are manifest, that are protected, not just privileges for some and not for others, that we actually have to build fairness into all of these environments, that we have to eradicate this unevenness somehow? 

Tina: “I am a proponent, and every time I speak anywhere, I say that if we’re really serious about transformative change, about transformative policy, we must lead first with equity as not just the lens but the actual framework by which we develop, design, implement policies, initiatives, approaches to solving our greatest problems…

“We cater to those with, and we care very little for those without.” 

Joe: Can we become a society where it’s more normal for everyone to be invested in the success of others? 

Tina: “It’s a practice in caring, just like it’s a practice in being indifferent. If we want to actually have a society, a world in which we are invested in each other, we practice being invested in each other. We really are intentional about the way in which we show up for one another… 

“More white people are on welfare than any other group of people, and that’s a fact. But there are white people who believe, not all but many, that white people should have access to welfare but nobody else should have access to welfare, ‘because they don’t deserve it’… 

“We can have these broader intentional conversations, but we also have to acknowledge and really dig deep into the systemic biases and the systemic racism that exists that says these systems can only work for one group of people, or this group of people, or that community of people, and no one else. And I think that has to be part of that nuance of… how we’re going to look at this together… because if it’s not, then we’re back where we started.”