Environmental Justice Is Racial Justice Preface

By Desiree Williams-Rajee


"...the lasting power to provide for that which nourishes us and is fundamental to our long-term survival."


Sustainability is globally understood as a social justice movement where people’s human rights are advanced through equitable economic development and care for the environment. The United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals “to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.” Around the world, this is a movement led by Black and Brown people.

Then why, in the City labeled the most sustainable in the U.S., are Black people not at the helm of this conversation? A long legacy of national and local racism that is deeply entrenched in institutional practices and policies have served to effectively discriminate, disempower, disenfranchise, and disinherit Black people from the benefits of sustainability programs and policies. In Portland, sustainability has become synonymous with whiteness, privilege, and exclusion.

But what does sustainability mean? At its core are just two simple words “sustain” and “ability”. To be sustained means “to last”, “to be enduring”, it comes from the same word as “sustenance,” which are the essential things that provide nourishment and are fundamental to our survival. “Ability” means to “have the power”. We can translate sustainability to then mean “the lasting power to provide for that which nourishes us and is fundamental to our long-term survival.”

This definition of sustainability brings us closer to that which ties us together as a collective of Black people: our common ancestral heritage from advanced societies of indigenous people on the continent of Africa. In comparison to the environmental and human degradation and devastation caused by a half century of colonization, Black people had the power to exist for millennia without causing irreversible harm to the earth. These advanced sustainable livelihoods are now the source of interest of elite researchers and scientists, trying desperately to reclaim the wisdom of the past to correct a broken present. 

It is from Africa that our relational world view is derived, where life is seen as a collection of harmonious relationships, where health is achieved by maintaining balance between the many interrelating factors in one’s circle of life. These relational values still hold true today, we can witness this at any place or worship, picnic, or Sunday family dinner. But we are also in a tenuous relationship as we as Black people struggle to exist in an American culture still motivated by colonial thinking where conquest, ownership, individual needs, and immediate gratification predominate. The psychological results of this tension have been devastating - mental health issues, chronic stress related diseases, and violence plague our communities. 

Our version of sustainability must find solutions by remembering the value systems of our ancestral past, prioritizing community over the individual, prioritizing our future generations while honoring our past, and prioritizing that which empowers us to independently provide for and protect what nourishes us: food, housing, clean air, water, and land, and a tightly woven fabric of cultural bonds within community. 

Sustainable solutions will always need to have a systemic approach that applies the rules of both justice and self-determination. We must hold accountable the institutions that have served to dehumanize and disempower us by demanding the correction of past harm in addition to the prevention of future injury. Concurrent to this, we as a community must operate with a sense of hope and vision, if not for ourselves, for our children. We must cultivate relationships so we can trust that those not working directly with us are not working against us. We must organize and build the elements of community that serve our holistic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, based in our identity as Black people, today and into the future. 

Desiree Williams-Rajee Portland, OR 2016