MLK Day and Water

In the African American experience, racism perverted even water — the mother of life — into an instrument of oppression. Through the Middle Passage, the Atlantic Ocean connected commerce but separated families and separated people from their right to life and liberty. Fire hoses meant to protect life and property were instead turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Water fountains marked “white” and “colored” turned a necessity into a daily reminder to African Americans that they were officially regarded as lesser.

Today we too often witness official neglect of water systems in communities with higher percentages of residents of color, most notably in lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, but well beyond. Solid waste transfer stations and sewer plants cluster more densely on waterfronts in African American and Latino neighborhoods, imposing environmental injustices. Trucks aggravate asthma in the same communities because barging is squeezed out by municipal economic policies. Combined sewer overflows and leaks have fouled areas of respite like Hallets Cove, at the foot of the NYC Housing Authority projects in Astoria.

HarborLAB works to make access and education on our estuary and watershed inclusive and inspiring. We hope that participants come to even more deeply recognize our common humanity through dependence on and celebration of water.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service please take a moment to tell us how HarborLAB might bring even more free educational paddle tours, classroom activities, and ecological restoration to underserved communities. Maybe yours? Just drop us a note at edu@harborlab.org with your requests and ideas!

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MLK Jr. Gardens. Raleigh, North Carolina.

MLK and Environmental Justice

Portrait at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, via Chris Tank/Creative Commons (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ctankcycles/4755593685/)

If Dr. Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be 84. That’s ten years younger than Pete Seeger, who still champions our waterways. It’s easy to imagine a 2014 with Dr. King walking among us, his eloquence, passion, and organizational genius bending “the arc of history” toward environmental justice.

We HarborLAB volunteers are honored to partner with WE ACT and the Bronx River Alliance, which carry this work forward in Harlem and the South Bronx. We ask you today to email us (harborlab@gmail.com) with additional ideas for water access and cleanups in lower-income areas, and other means of serving the community in 2014. We offer access and programs on both New York Harbor and the Neversink Reservoir. Please make this environmental justice brainstorming part of your “day of service.”

Environmental justice is the theme of several major gatherings this Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. One such host, Yale University’s Peabody Museum, explains:

“Environmental justice is based on the principle that all members of a society have the right to clean air, water, and soil, as well as a right to live in communities where they can raise their families and send their kids out to play in healthy and nurturing natural environments. Further, it embraces the notion that no one possesses the right to degrade and destroy the environment, whether the government at all levels, private industry, or individual citizens. Finally, environmental justice includes a guarantee of equal access to relief and the possibility of meaningful community participation in the decisions of government and industry.”

A fuller declaration of the principles of environmental justice is linked here.

This is a fitting extension of Dr. King’s legacy and vital to those for whom he labored and died. It might also be the engine of environmental progress. Why might campaigns for environmental justice drive the future environmental movement as a whole? They fix gimlet eyes on greenwashing. They press on even when weary because the moral urge is visceral — humans, like other animals, are wired to hunger for justice.

We have pushed the resilience of our planet’s ecosystem so far that habitat and human health are now felled by the same blows. The American ideal is that justice should be blind, but we know that for too long, and for too many aspects of life, color matters. The faces in NYC communities plagued by asthma, obesity, polluted water, and toxic soils are far more often brown than white. Environmental justice for all, however, will be blue and green. Let’s grow it and share it.

For more thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s gifts to the environmentalism, we suggest these essays:

LIveScience: “The Environmental Movement’s Debt to MLK

Grist: “Beautiful Struggle