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Environmental Justice Activists Speak on Coalition Building to Challenge Globalization

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March 26 , 2004

Environmental Justice Activists Speak on Coalition Building to Challenge Globalization

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Teresa Leal (left) and Joni Adamson

By Alana Belcon FP

Teresa Leal, a Mexican Opata human rights and environmental activist from Ambos Nogales (the twin cities located on the Arizona-Mexico border), and Joni Adamson, associate professor of English and folklore at the University of Arizona, are pioneers in finding ways to bridge the long-standing rift between academia and activism. In a talk titled “Environmental Justice Networking on the U.S.-Mexico Border” in Gamble Auditorium March 10, Leal and Adamson argued that globalization policies such as NAFTA highlight the interconnectedness between environmental issues and human rights and ultimately affect us all. Their presentation was the first in a two-lecture series, “New Perspectives in Environmental Justice,” which was organized by visiting assistant professor of geography and women’s studies Giovanna Di Chiro.

Grassroots organizations have always practiced networking as one of their strongest movement-building tools. However, the traditional “power-holding” approach, as Adamson described it, used by academia with respect to activists has proven detrimental for the ongoing cooperation between the two camps. Leal and Adamson have been working together for many years to reverse this process and to form new connections and alliances. “Between scientists and activists there has always been a hesitancy to work with each other, and this is true also with industry,” Leal said. “Often we’re antagonistic and refuse to talk to one another, but we have common needs for survival that we can organize around: stopping the increase in cancers, reducing toxic contamination, and improving the quality of life. After establishing those common threads, we can try to negotiate with each other and look for what we can agree on and work on.”

This September 23–25 in Tucson, Arizona, Leal and Adamson will bring together former antagonists to find those common goals as they invite “academics, activists, artists, scientists, students, and government and industry representatives to all talk about how we might meet some common environmental and social justice goals.” Sponsored by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) and the University of Arizona South (UAS), the symposium will focus on environmental justice, urban ecology, native lands, and grassroots activism.

For Leal and Adamson, environmental and social issues cannot be separated. Tohono O’odham and Yacqui students played a major part in showing this connectedness to Adamson, who taught high school students on the reservation for eight years and currently teaches college courses attended by large numbers of Native American students. She talked of listening to her students’ accounts of living next to open-pit coal mines and breathing in toxic coal dust or experiencing the daily shocks from dynamite explosions blasting uranium ore from Native American lands. Adamson said she learned to “reread” the romanticized view of Native Americans as “closer to nature” and to see instead how the literature of American Indian authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo tells of the environmental and health impacts of poverty, unemployment, and cultural annihilation that go hand-in-hand with living next to an uranium mine or a nuclear waste dump.

For Leal, the interconnections between social and environmental issues became clear in her early teens when she worked with the United Farm Workers Union helping organize Mexican farm workers in the cotton fields of southern Arizona. Fearful of the repercussions of losing valuable work time and even losing their jobs, farm workers, “protected” by mere scarves tied over their faces, often continued to pick cotton while crop-dusting planes sprayed DDT over the fields. Leal’s efforts to help farm workers understand their economic and human rights and to protect themselves and their families from exposure to hazardous pesticides indelibly impressed on her the necessity of looking at both the social and environmental components of her work. “At the time, we didn’t call what we were doing ‘environmental,’ we just called it ‘survival,’ ” Leal said.

During their visit to Mount Holyoke, Leal and Adamson also met with Hilda Colón and Julia Rivera, community organizers from Nuestras Raíces—a grassroots environmental justice and community development organization serving the low-income Latino community in Holyoke.

When asked for advice on how Mount Holyoke students can become involved in making a difference in the world, Leal and Adamson recommended that students who are interested in bridging the gap between academia and the community should volunteer with organizations such as Nuestras Raíces (which means “Our Roots”). The expression “Think Globally, Act Locally” reflects a theme that runs through many grassroots environmental justice organizations and, therefore, working to make a difference in our own neighborhoods should be our first step, they said. While we should be informed and aware of the global dynamics of social and environmental issues, our local sphere is often the place about which we feel most passionate. “Environmental issues start where we live,” Adamson said. “They start with our values. What do we value?” To avoid the old problems of the division between academia and activism, Adamson advised that upon volunteering, students should view themselves the way she sees herself when she works with environmental justice communities—as a tool in the toolbox. “Our attitude should be, ‘Here I am, what do you want me to do?’” she said.





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