In the world of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, nothing exists in isolation. Environmental justice started out mainly focusing on race, as Black communities across the nation began pushing back against the discriminatory placement of hazardous sites in their communities. Throughout the years, research showed that class and income are also significant factors when it comes to environmental exposure. For this reason and more, we cannot have true environmental justice without also dealing with the economic inequalities here in the United States and supporting initiatives to address it globally. The link between addressing economic inequality and promoting environmental justice is not new. It has been lived and understood by many for generations and was a core part of the civil rights movement. In the months before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. participated in the fight for the rights of Black garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He, and many other civil rights icons, understood the role that dignified and safe working conditions plays in the fight for racial equality. As we continue the work of those who came before us, it is vital that we fight not just for environmental justice, but the economic and labor justice as well. 

Economic Justice 

The fight for economic justice has repeatedly made national news as workers continue to push back against lower and stagnating wages, lack of on-site protection, and insufficient benefits. In addition to this, the rising cost of living has pushed many to sacrifice their personal and family lives and pick up a second or third job just to provide for themselves and/or their families. Economic injustice has made leisure a luxury and reduces the amount of free time that lower income communities have to engage in politics and self-care. Meaningful involvement is a necessary part of environmental justice, but members of environmental justice communities may not have the privilege of time to engage in environmental conversations around infrastructure, flooding, and the siting of hazardous facilities near them. True economic justice would reduce the need to work long hours or multiple jobs to make a living. This would in turn, free up time that people could use for community engagement and many other things that previously wouldn’t have been possible. There are many causes of economic injustice, and thus, many ways that it could be addressed. One approach to this issue is through Community Economic Development (CED). 

What is Community Economic Development? 

Community economic development (CED) is a principle that addresses the many social burdens that low-income communities face and aims to close the gap and offers community-based solutions to address these problems. This can include measures like job creation and retention, updated and expanded infrastructure, and access to education and training. Another major part of community economic development is the investment in community resources that would provide food, shelter, childcare, and other types of support that contribute to a higher standard of living. When we look at environmental justice through this lens, CED not only provides the support that would allow individuals to engage in environmental advocacy, but also gives folks the leisure and personal time to invest in themselves and their lives. If everybody had the time to participate in advocacy, we would likely see an increase in the participation of low income and BIPOC community members as a hobby or passion instead of a means of survival. Investment in CED has the ability to even the economic playing field which would in turn set the stage for a more inclusive and equitable society.  

The Community Economic Development Framework has the ability to address economic inequality and, in turn, advance environmental justice. There have been many programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that have created jobs and provided job training for communities. These have shown us that, when it comes to economic justice, not all programs are created equal. The original CCC plan was created in 1933 and aimed to provide conservation jobs like forestry, soil conservation, and recreation. This program was an amazing boost to the economy and is often mentioned in conversations about engaging youth in the environmental field and lowering unemployment. One thing that is not talked about enough, though, is the fact the millions of jobs created by the CCC went mainly to young white men. If we were to create a modern Civilian Conservation Corp founded on the principles of economic and environmental justice, we would be able to diversify the outdoors while creating conservation jobs for people who are often underrepresented in the field.  

A Just Transition 

Labor is a crucial part of both economic and environmental justice. We cannot talk about unfair and discriminatory exposure to hazardous waste without talking about working conditions for people who are often denied adequate protections. In addition to the lack of protection, these jobs are regularly labeled as unskilled, a bias that is used to refuse higher wages and better working conditions. Too often, the majority of jobs available in low-income or communities of color  require exposure to chemicals or exhausting physical labor for long hours at a time. The oil and gas industries have been no exception. Keeping this in mind, it is critical that we proactively take advantage of the shift towards renewable energy and green jobs by creating fulfilling and dignified jobs for people  who had previously been working in these fields. If we fail to do so, we risk leaving behind hundreds of workers who deserve to be a part of our transition to cleaner energy. This has been discussed for years as a just transition and has recently gained popularity amongst workers and legislators. 

What Now? 

For us to have an equitable environmental justice movement we must talk about economic and labor justice simultaneously. We need climate change solutions that support low-income communities and meaningful collaboration in conversations and actions around development and infrastructure. We need to include workers in the conversations about transitioning to renewable energy and provide job training to support those who want to make the switch. Most importantly, we need community-based solutions and engagement so that we can be sure that any solutions directly meet the needs of the community.

Marissa McClenton is the author of this blog and a student at University of Delaware as well as the Clean Water Campaign’s Grassroots Organizer. Stay tuned for more insights and resources from the DEIJ Corner and Marissa in the future!