Commentary: Environmental Justice Summit convened empowering visions of clean water, air, land

Posted on Sep 11, 2018 in East Village Magazine

By Michael Mascarenhas

On Sept. 8, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition hosted the 3rd Environmental Justice Statewide Summit at Flint’s New McCree Theatre. The event brought together close to 200 activists, environmental practitioners, citizens, and scholars  to talk about what it means for all living beings to have clean and affordable access to water, air, and land.

This was an important opportunity not only to reflect on the ongoing environmental injustices in Flint and throughout the state but also to change the dominant narrative in an effort to empower those in the room and outside to take control of our future.

The keynote lunch, on the theme of “Water is Life,” featured Jannan Cornstalk, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of the Odawa Indians; and Desmond Berry from Sutton’s Bay, a citizen from the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Cornstalk is a water warrior and activist bringing attention to the sacredness of water.  She organized the Pipe Out Paddle Protest and is a recipient of the Michigan Environmentalist of the Year Award.  She has worked to heighten awareness of water issues such as the Detroit water shut-off and the Flint water crisis.

Berry has a degree in wildlife/forestry conservation and a Ph.D. in religion.  Before he moved into his current position as director of natural resources for his tribe in Peshawbestown, he was a water quality specialist, aquatic biologist, and environmental director and was named Hero of the Great Lakes by Clean Water Action.

The four tracks of the one-day event were:

  1. Water Justice: acting for clean, affordable and accessible water for all our relations
  2. Racial Justice: bringing intersectionality into the forefront, bringing our whole community here
  3. Youth Justice: make way for the youth, they lead today for a better tomorrow
  4. Energy Justice: building the way for energy democracy, leaving dirty energy behind

Summit planners, in conceptualizing the event, said, “As a new administration heads in Jan. 2019, we must define what it means for all living beings to have clean and affordable access to water, air, land and make a way to take decisions about our own future in the critical times of climate change.”

The preparation by summit organizers was simply formidable, providing food and water, as well as speakers and content that was truly engaging. Thank you, Michelle Martinez for organizing such an important and powerful event.

“It was better than most,” a Flint resident reflected. “We’ve had a bunch of those things in the city.  A bunch of meetings, a bunch of rallies. Lots of this, lots of that. A lot of running around. It is hard to actually ascertain what is important until after it is over. And a lot of us are exhausted because you go running around from one thing to the next because you just never know when the decisions are going to be made, where the accurate information is, where you are going to find the thing that you need.

“The summit provided a platform to help cultivate strategies that might be useful for participants working with neighborhood groups, coalitions or on environmental justice campaigns,”  she said.

One striking observation about this summit was the people in the room. There was clearly a diversity of expertise—citizen, organizer, professional, and academic. But also, the diversity of experiences was significant,  as young activists talked with elders, and professionals collaborated with citizens.

It felt to me as if we all had something important to contribute, and that together we had the power to change our communities and the larger environments in which we live, not just for humans but all living creatures. I, for one, was taken aback by the mix of idealism, expertise, and capacity in the room.

Michael Mascarenhas is associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley.   He has a degree in forestry from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University.  His most recent book is New Humanitarianism and the Crisis of Charity:  Good Intentions on the Road to Help (Indiana University, 2015). He is working on a book centered in the Flint Water Crisis, tentatively titled “That Ain’t Right”:  Power, Profit, Poison and Protest in Pure Michigan.

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