Justice in Totality

Eric Richardson speaking at a climate rally on the capitol steps in February 2020

During Black History Month and throughout the year, we honor the important work and critical role of Black leadership in Oregon’s environmental movement. From the Albina Vision Trust and Imagine Black (formerly PAALF) to the Coalition of Communities of Color and community organizers that came before them, we are all indebted to the strength and resilience of the Black Oregonians and advocates who have been fighting for safe streets, healthy neighborhoods, and clean water before we were even talking about climate justice.

One of those organizations is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As Oregon’s environmental justice movement grows, so has the leadership of the Eugene-Springfield chapter of the NAACP. Since 2017, Oregon’s largest NAACP chapter has been building capacity in environmental and climate justice with the goal to reduce harmful emissions (particularly greenhouse gases), advance energy efficiency and clean energy, and strengthen community resilience and livability. The NAACP Eugene-Springfield chapter played a key leadership role in the Clean Energy Jobs campaign, testifying and rallying supporters on the capitol steps. Today they are a partner in our work to advance the Oregon Climate Action Plan and the Clean and Just Transportation Network. This session, the NAACP is leading advocacy for a collection of bills to embed climate and equity in our state’s land use planning goals.

We sat down with NAACP Executive Director, Eric Richardson, to talk about how NAACP’s role as history keeper plays into this moment for climate, what calls him to this work, and where Oregon should go from here. Here’s what he said:

How we think about climate change and our environment is clearly a topic you have something to say about. What calls you to this work?

I’ve always been a student of history. My father was an amateur historian, and as a young person, I liked looking at stories coming from the world – from Black Africa, Brazil, Jamaica – as a collective narrative about the Black world’s interaction with the industrial north, beginning with the slave trade and leading up to where we are today.

Environmental justice needs to happen here and abroad. W.E.B. Du Bois talked about Blacks in America having a responsibility for other Blacks in the world. If we allow Africa to be continually devastated, like the Nigerian Delta region and oil exploitation, inevitably that will happen at home. In the Pacific Northwest, we can get caught up in the beauty of our rivers and mountains, but even here, our Native peoples and our most vulnerable people are being placed in harms way. In Eugene, life expectancy studies demonstrate this difference even in our city.

As we know, climate change has been going on a long time. There is much work to do. We understand the needs around education, partnerships, and on-the-ground conservation. We’re trying to get recognition on a national level for how environmental justice affects civil rights and health. There needs to be more capacity building for organizations like ours, doing our work to talk to people and connect them to the grander movement. 

As a keeper of so much history, what can NAACP teach us about this moment in time for climate advocacy and environmental justice and its intersections with racial justice movements?

We’re concerned about environmental justice, criminal justice, housing, health. With environmental justice, it’s increasingly evident that it’s affecting all the others – or the others have to respond to it.

NAACP represents a long dialogue between the descendants of slaves in America and the U.S. government about its obligations to Black folks and all people in this country. This idea of freedom is not light. The abolitionist movement is part of any movement of freedom in the U.S. To forget that is to be remiss.

NAACP was formed in 1909 by the first generation of Black folks to attend universities and travel the world, to participate in the world as participants. At NAACP, we have a yearning for justice in totality. Now 112 years later, there’s all kinds of forces to keep Black people from that dream, that idea of total freedom, that idea of brotherhood in this nation, as we’ve witnessed. But NAACP is a multi-generational organization that is in conversation with our nation, government institutions, residents and citizens. It’s about making sure our soul is in policy. It was always an interracial understanding that this is about living up to the dream of the United States of America.

Even in this period of division around Black Lives Matter, we are not in 1940s America. The legislation passed in the late 60s allowed people to move freely a lot more, which led to generational movement into the sciences, the education pool, into the civic arena. That’s why, in 2021, we can look at major cities and see Black women as mayor.

But what continues to be true is the discrimination against the poorest of the Black community and the poorest of all communities through policy.

Our work is about the sharing of this liberty – liberating everyone. Oppressive structures affect everybody.

What’s top of mind for you about climate justice and environmental justice in Oregon as we look ahead in 2021?

We want Oregon to follow through on the Oregon Climate Action Plan. We want to see buy-in from all sectors of state government to reach the goals set forth and understand why it’s necessary.

We want to remove the conflict between what’s perceived as rural considerations and urban, Black folk considerations and white folks. Instead, let’s ask how we are going to have the most balanced, passionate, effective system? We have to work together to make that happen. We all have to continually figure out how to embrace the idea of demographic change, and have this dialogue about acceptance, about who we are, our own acceptance, and what the other is too.

As far as building green and building smart, we must also build with economic considerations for those that most need economic considerations. New programs, like apprenticeships, should be put in place where the impacts will be felt and for the people who will be most affected by economic changes. I’d like to see a more citizen-driven approach where people are the consideration, not necessarily the financial profits.

How can we make Oregon’s environmental movement more intersectional?

Environmental justice, climate education, our role as stewards, citizens, caretakers, as family members – these ideas need to be taken up at a young age. We’re putting public money toward educating our kids, for what? Education should be relevant to our situation. Teaching kids this idea of involvement with our system as participants – we need to encourage that kind of thinking from a really young age.

We also have to think about how to bring back a sense of spiritually; not necessarily religion but a sense of connection to something we care about. Somehow, we’ve lost that in many different areas. I’m not a deeply religious brother, but I do see myself as a spiritual brother. NAACP’s mission is driven by the spiritual wishes and yearnings of the slave and their children who were there at the founding of this organization. We have to keep this in mind as we move forward.

The little folks in this family are what has driven me as well. As a father — I’ve been married 30 years — and soon-to-be grandfather, that’s always been the thing. If you care about your family, care about balance and folks having opportunities to grow into excellence, that’s what you do, you have to work for it.

 

We want to thank Eric Richardson for his time to chat with us about these issues, for sharing the history of the NAACP, and for being a great partner in the fight for a strong and resilient Oregon. The header image is also from the NAACP Eugene-Springfield Facebook page. 

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