Growing up in East Los Angeles as the
son of Guatemalan immigrants, the everyday challenges faced by the people
of my neighborhood seemed far removed from the American dream: the lack of
good housing and jobs, money for groceries, failing schools and
all-too-common police brutality. If you had asked us, we would have told
you we were concerned about the days when the air pollution was especially
thick, or when the smells coming from the incinerator directly south of
our housing complex were particularly bad.
We would have told you we were concerned, but that these were not the
greatest challenges facing us. That's not to say they were not important
problems, but any agenda that did not speak to our economic and social
needs seemed irrelevant.
For communities like mine, environmentalism has seemed to be about
preserving places most of us will never see. Even when environmentalism
has focused on problems that affect urban communities, such as air
pollution or lead poisoning, it has pointedly avoided addressing our
desperate need for economic development. Environmentalists do not talk
about the importance of a living wage or affordable housing because, we
are told, those are not environmental problems. Foundations feed this
problem by failing to recognize minorities and urban city residents as
prominent stakeholders in the environmental arena.
While many leaders of the environmental movement have a deep and
abiding interest in social and economic equity, that concern is largely
absent from their work because it is "not their job." The same mistake is
made by every other progressive movement, including the civil-rights
movement. We have become trapped in narrow categorical definitions of
ourselves rather than a comprehensive understanding of what values we
stand for in the world.
Orson Aguilar is the associate executive director of the Greenlining
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle