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Rev. Leo Woodberry speaks about communities of color and climate action issues in this CleanTechnica exclusive.

CleanTechnica Exclusive

Justice First Tour: Interview With Rev. Leo Woodberry

Rev. Leo Woodberry speaks about communities of color and climate action issues in this CleanTechnica exclusive.

On Thursday, April 12, 2018, a broad coalition of nonprofits launched a major new effort to promote climate and energy justice throughout the South by kicking off the ten-state “Justice First Tour.” Rev. Leo Woodberry, one of the tour’s lead organizers and executive director of the Florence, South Carolina-based New Alpha Community Development Corporation and advisor to Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” Campaign, agreed to an exclusive interview with CleanTechnica to talk about the Justice First Tour.

Justice First Tour

Justice First by Celeste Byers for and Dogwood Alliance

Rev. Woodberry, you have spent your life, according to Netroots Nation, “uniting people of color across America, and in influencing the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic entities to support people of color communities disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.” How have you persuaded people of color to speak out against environmental oppression?

That isn’t hard to do when you look at the fact that environmental injustice impacts the lives of people of color and low-income people disproportionately. They appreciate learning that living near coal ash ponds that have leached chemicals into the ground can cause learning disabilities in their children and give people cancer. They understand when their children are suffering from asthma aggravated by the emissions that come from automobiles.

If you look along the I-95 highway corridor in my state of South Carolina, you see mostly African Americans and other people of color. You can look at the fact that over 75% of African Americans and people of color live within a 30-mile radius of a polluting facility. And you can look at the fact that polluting facilities located near our communities dissuade other businesses from moving into our neighborhoods. They have cost our communities engines of economic development, and there is a direct correlation between that lack of opportunity and crime, and imprisonment, and the violence that occurs in our community when people try to come up with other means of generating revenue and end up on the wrong side of the legal system.

Once we explain all of that to people, they are more readily persuaded to take action because they are protecting the lives of their loved ones and the communities that they live in.

What climate action issues are most pressing to communities of color?

The most pressing issues right now is moving away from fossil fuels — and doing that in a just and equitable manner that doesn’t replicate models of injustice.

Connecting an energy-inefficient, leaky old home to a solar farm doesn’t work, because you still have people heating and cooling the outdoors, spending a disproportionate amount of their income on energy costs and still having their electricity disconnected because they can’t pay the bill. A situation like this just benefits the utility or the electric co-op that wants to secure a share of the new renewable energy industry and keep up its market share. But for the people, it just replicates the same model of injustice that exists with fossil-fueled energy.

While we are moving toward clean energy, we have to make sure that our communities aren’t left behind — that they share in the benefits of the emerging clean energy economy.

Justice First Tour

How does the partnership with the Dogwood Alliance and the Sierra Club bring environmental issues that matter to people of color to the forefront?

These organizations are pivoting toward a new way of doing their work. They realize that communities should lead themselves and communities should speak for themselves. In order for these organizations to be effective, the communities that are impacted most must be involved in the implementation of their programs.

Justice First TourThe Dogwood Alliance recognizes that poor, rural communities are among the most impacted by climate change. For example, flooding can be particularly bad in these areas, because in many cases the local forests have been depleted that could have served as a natural defense against these types of extreme weather events. This has sparked a new conversation about the connections between a long history of land exploitation and its disproportionate negative impacts on low-income people and people of color living in rural areas across the region.

The Sierra Club Ready for 100 campaign realizes that they must partner with the environmental justice communities in order to not have those communities left out as cities move toward being more sustainable. Because if those communities and environmental justice organizations aren’t involved, then there is no one there on the ground to hold the policymakers accountable when they decide that they want to do solar downtown in municipal buildings, hospitals, universities and then later on claim that they have no more resources to help the least among us.

In what ways have you advocated for mass media to share the stories of communities of color who are deeply affected by climate change?

Locally we have a very good relationship with the print media where we can generally get our op-eds and articles printed by them. Social media has been a great tool for us. When we talk about media, that has probably been our best way of connecting with people.

Recently we had very good coverage for our coalition legislative day in the state capitol of Columbia. Reporters were interested in our efforts to put pressure on our legislators for a just transition to a clean energy economy. Our efforts were covered by several print, online, TV and radio stations.

In what advocacy have you engaged that attempts to dissuade evangelicals from denying the effects of climate change?

We are working with faith-based partners, like GreenFaith and Interfaith Power & Light, and we have begun to have greater dialogue with the evangelical church. One point of commonality that we have found is that spiritually and scripturally, we have been called to be stewards of the Earth and caregivers for the poor and those in need. By lifting up those issues rather than taking political positions, we hope to help them gain a greater awareness of and commitment to supporting energy policy and projects that are beneficial both to our planet and the people who live on it.

How can white progressives join in with communities of color toward legislation for healthier cities and towns?

The first thing is to acknowledge the fact that communities should lead themselves to speak in their own voices because they know the needs of their communities and the best solutions for their community. We also want to take a page from what we put forth as meaningful involvement during President Obama’s Clean Power Plan in terms of what is defined as meaningful engagement.

To us that means five things: ensuring that people of color are involved in 1) planning, 2) decision-making, 3) allocation of resources, 4) implementation and 5) evaluation. Any time one of these components is not engaging people of color, we do not have a true partnership. We will have more success influencing policymakers to implement forward-thinking clean energy policies when we work together rather in silos. This is the philosophy that guides the Justice First Tour.

Want to Know More about the Justice First Tour?

The tour started in North Carolina and will continue through nine other states over the spring and summer.

The goal of the tour is to unite different factions within the justice movement to work together for justice throughout the South. All groups involved — whether they’re focused on racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, or gender equality — commit to forming a united front going forward. This effort is modeled after other big-tent movements from America’s history, including the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement.

The Justice First Tour is calling for climate justice, forest protection, and 100% clean energy for all people. The organizers — which include African-American faith leader the Reverend Leo Woodberry, the Dogwood Alliance (based in North Carolina), the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, and a multitude of local groups across the South — believe these objectives are fundamental to achieving a more just and equitable society.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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