Weaving A Net That Works


It was lunchtime in a dusty barrio near Tijuana, Mexico, where the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) had come to meet in July 1993. The schedule called for us to march to a transfer station for hazardous waste, one of many plants poisoning the area, and picket it. I asked how long the march would be; “oh, very short, it’s only a quarter of a mile. But the quarter of a mile was straight up.

That march to the top of a long steep hill could symbolize the challenges facing the Network as it has worked to build a binational movement led by people of color for social, racial, and economic justice. Today SNEEJ can point to regional, national, and international accomplishments that deserve to be called unique.

The Network was formed in Albuquerque in April 1990 at the People of Color Regional Activist Dialogue on Environmental Justice initiated by the Southwest Organizing Project of New Mexico. At the time, observers said “it won’t last a month, there’s too many cultural and racial differences.”

They were wrong. By 1992 the Network embraced 70 grassroots organizations in 6 states, working together on such issues as lethal pesticides used in agriculture, dangerous chemicals in high-tech industry, lead poisoning, and how they affect communities of color. It brought together African American, Asian/Pacific Island, Latino, and Native American groups to develop a common agenda. As an organization of organizations, SNEEJ has always been more than a coalition. Intended to become multi-issue and permanent, it serves as a vehicle for sharing local strategies and victories as well as providing many types of training and assistance in getting funding to its affiliates.

During its early years, the Network focused on consolidating its elected leadership (the Coordinating Council), formalizing membership, and other aspects of organizational development. It held annual gatherings, and still does, where Network members evaluated past work and planned for the next year. Then came 1993, when 20 grassroots community, human rights, and youth organizations from Mexico’s border states attended the first cross-border Network gathering. That weekend in Tijuana/San Diego, you could see the dream of a binational Network beginning to come true. The next few years would show just how bold the dream is, and why Richard Moore insists on calling the Network “a developing binational organization.” In short: we’re not there yet.

By March 1998, when I attended a Coordinating Council meeting, SNEEJ had completed eight years studded with achievements. With a staff of six at its regional headquarters in Albuquerque, it had found ways to coordinate with more than 70 groups in six U.S. states plus 3 Mexican states (Baja California, Chihuahua, and Coahuila) plus over 15 tribes and other indigenous formations.

One of the most striking organizational accomplishments was the continuing women’s leadership. Even in its second year, the Network already had a core of strong women like Rose Augustine, a Chicana from Arizona; Patsy Oliver, an African American woman in Texarkana, Texas; Odessa Ramirez, Native American from Nevada; and by the third year several exceptional Asian American women like Pam Tau Lee and Pamela Chiang in California. The addition of working-class Mexican feminists from the maquiladoras has expanded the Network tradition of powerful female leadership. This can be seen in its revised mission statement, which acquired a new emphasis on gender issues in 1997 and the proposal for a women’s caucus at a 1998 Network meeting.

In its daily work, SNEEJ had taken on county, state, and federal governments as well as industry, agribusiness, and the military in the course of those first three years. It won some amazing victories. At a time when deregulation was a global trend, SNEEJ compelled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take regulation more seriously.

The Network’s EPA Accountability Campaign was originally launched on July 31, 1991 with simultaneous demonstrations at EPA regional offices in Dallas, Denver, and San Francisco. Each office received a copy of SNEEJ’s long letter detailing many examples of EPA inaction or opposition in the face of environmental abuse harmful to people of color. The letter asked for several reports on EPA actions, a meeting between the EPA and the Network, and new policies to address past discrimination. I had the pleasure of seeing that letter delivered at an Albuquerque ceremony in which the EPA made awards for Environmental Excellence to two companies known for contaminating water. The Network representative pointed out this contradiction; the EPA representative looked uncomfortable.

Eventually the EPA agreed to negotiate, sent numerous representatives to various meetings, and visited some of the affected areas reported by the Network. Richard Moore’s testimony before a congressional committee on a children’s cancer cluster in California that resulted from pesticide spraying added to the pressure. So did the publicity about industrial pollutants causing children in the Brownsville, Texas border area to be born with all or parts of their brains missing. Throughout the negotiations, the Network stood firm on two principles: meeting with EPA administrators, not public relations mouthpieces, and direct representation of the affected communities—no brokering.

Major Victories Over The EPA

Since then, Network-led actions have forced the EPA and other federal bodies to begin addressing environmental justice concerns all over the Southwest. SNEEJ has won major victories including a dramatic increase in the enforcement of EPA regulations in communities of color and an overhaul of U.S. environmental policy. On the national level, the Network played a key role in organizing an ongoing dialogue between EPA leadership under both Bush and Clinton and environmental justice organizations. It compelled EPA visits to 18 contaminated sites in the Southwest. With Clinton’s election, SNEEJ was promised participation in his transition team; when later shut out, it managed through colleagues to help assure that environmental and economic justice concerns would be heard. Such efforts led to Clinton’s 1994 Presidential Executive Order No. 12898 mandating all federal agencies to prepare plans for integrating environmental justice into their work. (The order carried no enforcement provisions.)

Also, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee to the EPA, chaired by Richard Moore, was established as a vehicle to ensure an official voice for Network and other grassroots organizations.

On the local and regional level, the EPA campaign has racked up too many accomplishments to list here. Just to suggest their range, the Network helped to stop the world’s largest toxic waste disposal company from placing an incinerator in Kettleman City, California (95 percent Latino). It helped pave the way for the Isleta Indian Pueblo of New Mexico to win formal recognition by the EPA as a state, which allowed the Pueblo to develop precedent-setting regulations over water usage by cities, industries, and federal facilities. It pressed for the fining (and later closure) of a southern Arizona recycling facility responsible for dangerous levels of chemical release into nearby communities. When the EPA stepped up its efforts to make Chevron abate emissions from a plant in the primarily Black/Laotian community of Richmond, California, that was in no small way thanks to the Network; a $5 million grant for community programs and worker training in Richmond also resulted. Recently the Network became involved in efforts to keep Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act a tool in fighting environmental racism (see box).

Among the Network’s other efforts, the Sovereignty/Dumping on Native Lands Campaign stands out as a rare example of joint work by Native Americans with people of color (a term many indigenous people do not use for themselves). It began as an internal education project of the Network, but has become increasingly external, with such actions as supporting the Western Shoshone fight to stop missile testing in Nevada; helping Dine (Navajo) groups seeking to end mining by Peabody Coal at Black Mesa; and working with the Havasupai people, who live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, in their struggle against uranium mining.

In 1998, José Matus became one of two Sovereignty Campaign chairs. He represents the Alianza Indilgena Sin Fronteras (Indigenous Alliance Without Borders) in which four border nations—the Yaqui, Tohono Olodham, Kickapoo, and Cocopah—work together on human rights abuses, border-crossing issues, land claims, and preservation of their heritage. Over the years SNEEJ has also developed working relations with the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of several environmental justice networks that address the needs of particular communities.

The Network’s Youth Leadership Development Campaign, which is internal to the Network, has established an internship program; held several trainings that focused on organizing and leadership skills; and ensured the participation of hundreds of youth from affiliate and guest organizations. For all the talk in progressive movements about involving youth, SNEEJ seems to be one place where this really happens. Young people have been integrated in its decision-making and leadership. The Network’s ongoing commitment to strengthen youth involvement is reflected in the 1997 addition to its mission statement of “generational injustices” as another target. At the March 1998 Coordinating Council meeting, 21-year- old “Che” Lopez was heard as an equal; at the end of that meeting he announced his plans to run for City Council back home in Hondo, Texas.

Border Justice is Worker Justice

The Border Justice Campaign has been growing steadily in its efforts to pressure government and private industry to provide safe working conditions and living conditions in areas around the twin plant industries located in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Since 1993, it has convened meetings of representatives from many grassroots organizations on both sides of the border to discuss strategies and collaboration. It has been working closely with the Mexican Action Network Against NAFTA.

The campaign for justice on border issues often coincides with the Worker Justice Campaign. Worker justice involves a broad spread of U.S.-based groups such as Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in the Bay Area and Fuerza Unida in San Antonio. With the Network expanding into Mexico, the maquiladoras on the border have become increasingly central to both campaigns. Again and again, SNEEJ’s work has underscored the close connection between environmental issues and labor struggles, for example, in the pesticide spraying of farmworkers. Network members often say that all worker issues are environmental issues, especially if we see environment as meaning life-style or, more precisely, the cycle of life.

In this spirit of linkage, SNEEJ began meeting with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) at the union’s invitation. Traditional environmentalist groups have often found themselves at serious odds with labor, hounded by the image of middle-class, privileged “tree-huggers” whose goals threaten the livelihood of hardworking loggers—or whatever the industry might be. “Green” picket lines outside a factory’s doors have come to symbolize the clash. Conflict is seen as inevitable, with no possibility of compromise, and the notion that workers and environmentalists might form alliances against common enemies has rarely been articulated.

In 1997, OCAW adopted a resolution recognizing that it often has the same corporate opponents as the environmental justice movement, and is often working for the same goals. Therefore, said the resolution, OCAW would make every effort to form partnerships and coalitions with environmental justice groups around common goals. In February 1998, OCAW and SNEEJ signed an historic agreement, based on “our collective desire to move a progressive agenda.” It said, in essence: let’s talk before declaring war on each other. OCAW would try “to avert divisiveness between communities and workers at facilities represented by OCAW by agreeing to facilitate meetings at the point of controversy to permit representatives to develop a common agenda and to agree, where that can’t be done, to mutually respect the mandates of each organization.”

In negotiating the agreement, the Network stood fast on certain principles. It insisted that not only SNEEJ but all the environmental justice networks be present, including the Indigenous Environmental Network, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Southern Organizing Committee, and North East Environmental Justice. OCAW accepted this, but then asked that they agree not to picket factories whose workers belonged to OCAW when dialogue was taking place between the union and any of those groups. This SNEEJ had to refuse; it would be like a union giving up the right to strike. Also, SNEEJ couldn’t commit its affiliates to such an accord. But the agreement to negotiate in cases of conflict was finally adopted.

In the same meetings, OCAW and the Network discussed the Just Transition, a strategy to cushion the job loss that often occurs when a corporation must phase out environmentally harmful production. OCAW had resolved in August 1997 that it would support policy initiatives to eliminate extremely harmful substances so long as dislocated workers and their communities were helped during the transition to sustainable production. This set the stage for joint efforts by SNEW and OCAW stretching from Alabama to California. In Oklahoma, for example, an indigenous tribe reported problems with the products of a facility where the workers belonged to OCAW; the Network and the union went there in April 1998. The strategy of demanding a Just Transition could be applied in many situations, as Ruben Soli told the Network’s Coordinating Council. It could be applied to Levi Strauss, to Intel, and to fight the effects of NAFTA. Any Just Transition should have its terms defined by the people affected.

The concept of Just Transition gives us an example of why making the Network truly binational requires constant, two-way translation that will explain many realities such as: U.S. and Mexican environmental laws and policies, the structure of indigenous nations and tribes in the U.S., the fact that Mexico lacks that whole U.S. world of nonprofits and grant-making foundations, and the more massive presence of the labor movement in Mexican politics. On another level, there are differences in decision-making styles and methods to be understood, or assumptions of political and theoretical knowledge. The list goes on, down to translating unfamiliar acronyms.

In daily practice, there is the need to translate into at least English and Spanish the discussion at meetings, the minutes of meetings, conference calls (crucial to Network functioning) while in progress, letters and memos, faxes, “Action Alerts,” proposals, and other documents. This is work whose necessity is not questioned but whose cost can be great. To sit through a totally bilingual, 2-day meeting of 20-plus people discussing complex subjects is to feel a great respect for the Network in undertaking to create genuine binationalism. Many U.S. organizations working on environmental problems at the border do not integrate Mexicans; paternalism defines the relationship. As Teresa Leal of Nogales, Mexico pointed out, “They may organize tours to show the impact of the maquiladoras but often the agenda has been imposed from the U.S. side.” Other Mexicans say, “We are never part of their decision-making process.”

Making A Commitment To Respect

If the Network has succeeded where others failed, this must be partly because from the beginning it sought to establish a tradition of mutual respect and cooperativeness. In December 1996 this goal was formalized as the “Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing” during a meeting held by SNEEJ at Jemez, New Mexico, to discuss international issues. The six principles included doing “bottom-up” organizing, letting people speak for themselves, inclusiveness, and having a commitment to self-transformation—changing from operating in an individualistic mode to one of community-centeredness. “We must be the values that we say we’re struggling for.”

It is natural, then, that Network meetings have always included a strong spirituality. They usually begin and end with a circle—often to hear a prayer, given by an indigenous representative, or a remembrance, a thought. The spiritual presence is one reason why an annual Network gathering often feels like a vibrant multi-colored family in action.

In this spirit of sustenance, SNEEJ maintains several training projects for affiliates on a wide range of issues, for example, environmental law and how to use it. Again, the demands of communication can be intense; for example, the annual workshop on worker health and safety is conducted in five languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Laotian. The Network also engages in “partnerships,” by which SNEEJ raises funds to help a particular organization in the Network meet a specific need for training, equipment, or other needs. Today the Network has become increasingly consolidated, without losing its grassroots essence and style of work. As the Network’s coordinator, Richard Moore, said in the early days, “We may be poor people, but we’re professional poor people.”

The need for resources, including people, has always been a basic issue for the Network. Sometimes a project has had to be put on hold for lack of resources or other limitations. This happened to the Hi-Tech Campaign, which worked on making the Intel Corporation accountable to the communities where it operates in New Mexico and helped expose Intel’s water usage. The Campaign also teamed up with the Labor Occupational Health and Safety Program at UC Berkeley, to train people in occupational health and safety related to the electronics industry; that program continues today.

On the scenic West Side of Albuquerque more than 17,000 documented works of indigenous rock art known as petroglyphs can be found. Native Americans hold the area sacred, as a place where items are placed for the deceased to begin their journey into the next world, and it is still in use by Pueblo Indians. In recognition of its significance, the Petroglyph National Monument was established in 1990.

In April 1997, Republican Senator Pete Domenici announced intentions to push through federal legislation (Senate Bill 633) that would hand over land so that a 6-lane highway could be built through this area. The goal: to facilitate access by real estate developers. They include people like John Black, whose 6,700-acre Black Ranch is slated for development.

Protest against such desecration has been led by the Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition. Last March Native American, Chicana/o, Mexican, African American, Asian/Pacific Island and Anglo demonstrators picketed the Albuquerque office of Senator Jeff Bingaman, who supports the highway. The Network’s Coordinating Council all turned out for the “Youth Speak-Out and Prayer,” which featured drumming, native prayers, and speakers. I couldn’t help counting: of the half-dozen Native American, Chicano, Asian/Pacific and African American speakers, five were in their 20s. The bad guys just might lose this fight.

It is clear today that we need global movements to answer the globalized assault on people and the planet. The Southwest Network stands as a model for how that answer might be constructed. One thing for sure: the answer must express interdependence, like a circle, like the earth. Like life itself, as our native sisters and brothers tell us.

In the face of the threat to undermine the use of Title VI in combating environmental racism, SNEEJ and two other networks have been supporting the Chester, PA plaintiffs. They are brining pressure within the Title VI Federal Advisory Committee to the EPA, which includes representatives of industry, state government, and grassroots environmental justice organizations, and some academics. They have, for example, pressured this committee to hold meetings not just in Washington, DC but in the communities directly concerned so the impact of racist discrimination can be better understood. Also, they have struggled to have the committee see racism in more than strictly Black/white terms, so as to understand the scope of the problem.

The grassroots organizations in this fight, facing a huge and historic challenge, know they have a responsibility to defend millions of human beings     Z

This article was adapted from De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century, by Elizabeth Martinez, to be published by South End Press.

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