For Black History Month, Justin Onwenu, a Sierra Club Environmental Justice Organizer based in Detroit, shared with us his thoughts on the environmental movement, organizing, his work in Michigan, and the work that lies ahead to dismantle environmental injustices.
Can you share a bit about your upbringing – where you grew up, and when you realized a ‘calling’ to work on environmental justice?
I was born in Detroit, where my family – on my mom’s side, has been for many generations. My dad is Nigerian and came to Detroit early in his life. When my parents divorced, I spent most of my childhood with my mom who lived in Alabama. I ended up going to college in Houston and was originally interested in medicine. Part of the reason why I decided to go to school in Texas was that Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world. I remember in high school looking at Google Street View and seeing how far away the hospital was from my dorm room. For most of my life, I’ve been interested in medicine, public health, and addressing health disparities.
I read your interview in NPR about how you wanted to become a doctor, and then Hurricane Harvey hit. How did this event change your trajectory?
The big change was Hurricane Harvey. During my final year of college (at Rice University) I was serving as Student Body President. Near the beginning of hurricane planning at Rice, I served as an intermediary between students and administrators. Off-campus students were concerned about flooding. There were students on campus concerned about what was going to happen due to the flooding – you know, what would happen to those who had cars or, their belongs, in general. The university was nervous about food supplies and food shortages on campus. There were a lot of workers who keep Rice running: custodians, cooks, and librarians. They couldn’t come to campus, and I worked to get students to step up in their absence.
When the hurricane hit Houston, it became clear that this wasn’t just a normal hurricane, that this was something that would be life-altering for many people. What we ended up doing was establishing the Rice Harvey Action Team, which matched students, faculty and staff to churches, community centers and shelters in need. We ended up sending out about 1700 volunteers and I think for me, that was a turning point when I first started to think about climate and about community organizing.
I also started to think about climate change as an existential threat, but also as a huge driver for health issues. There are numerous refineries, other toxic facilities, and Superfund sites in the Houston area that flooded, carrying pollution through the neighborhoods. And of course, there are disparities on which neighborhoods are adjacent to these sites and how long it took authorities to respond to one neighborhood versus another. So, this was my first time organizing a lot of people and was also the first time that I started thinking about climate and environmental justice seriously.
But, yes, even as late as March of my last year at Rice, I was still thinking about medical school. But that entire year threw me into organizing work. That year, there was Harvey but there was also March For Our lives movement focused on preventing gun violence. There was also lot of work on making sure Rice was a welcoming place for immigrants given the anti-immigrant fervor at that time as well. College affordability was also a major issue that I got involved in too. I just got a taste for what organizing feels like and looks like and decided to pursue environmental justice after college, mainly because of my interest in public health and my experience in Houston going through Hurricane Harvey.
The Black community has been hit especially hard by the Covid-19 crisis – not just when it comes to health disparities and the economic fallout, but also with the uneven response from government institutions caused by structural racism. Meanwhile, another crisis – environmental injustice – continues to disproportionately impact communities of color. Last year we saw the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, whose killings – and those of others – brought around a reckoning on racism in America. From this, we did see environmental groups take stock and begin to take action to address these issues internally and through their work. How far have we come, and what else must be done?
There’s certainly been a reckoning. When I talk to a lot of high schoolers and college students and I ask them to picture someone who is passionate about environmental issues or climate action, many respond that they think about outdoorsmen – this idea that is also how the environmental movement began, a movement traditionally dominated by men who explored the outdoors.
More people are starting to realize that the environment is about more than just nature and conservation. It’s also about the communities and the neighborhoods where people live. I think one of the biggest challenges we face is how we’re engaging our communities. Whether it’s inner-city black folks who haven’t had access to nature or low-income people in deindustrialized towns once centered around coal or manufacturing, many of the challenges our communities face are similar, poor air quality, poor water quality and high power bills. The environmental movement traditionally hasn’t reached out to the communities that are most impacted by climate devastation and natural disasters.
We’ve seen this change. Environmental justice, as I see it, is at the center of the environmental movement right now. And this is a good thing. I don’t think you can, politically speaking, pass a big bill on climate or the environment without the support of environmental justice communities being onboard. And I don’t think you can get people, ready to transition and make investments in our clean energy economy without going into the places like Michigan, where manufacturing is a huge part of the economy. The environmental movement has had a long history of excluding a lot of people but now is the time to build an inclusive movement. I think people are starting to realize that the environment is about our health. It’s about our economy. It’s about our families. It’s about our neighborhoods. I’m glad that we’re seeing this mindset change now, where the work is being led by the communities who are on the front lines of climate change and environmental degradation. It’s long overdue, but a welcome change.
You mentioned Michigan. You’re seeing some of these big automobile manufacturers who are pledging to transition to electric vehicles. How do we ensure that those opportunities, these clean jobs, are going to those who have traditionally not been at the front of the line?
Because it’s the right thing to do strategically. It’s also just a practical necessity. If you knock doors of any community in Michigan, people will tell you they care about the economy but aren’t certain about the connection between addressing climate change and what it means for the economy. We’ve got to do more to speak to people’s concerns about that, and especially with Black communities that haven’t seen these types of investment, whether it be in job training or just jobs in general. This is an opportunity to get that right, and I think we’re seeing some of this with Biden’s Justice40 initiative – dedicated investment into frontline communities. You’re seeing people rallying around that plan and pledge, and if we get it right, this will make a huge impact.
The Biden administration ran on one of the most ambitious climate platforms in history. The president has pledged to center environmental justice in the administration’s work – through executive orders, new positions at federal agencies, and a plan to invest more in frontline communities. What are your thoughts on these actions?
Yes, this is exciting. I believe it’s part of the president’s job to be ambitious. The executive orders have followed in that mold. The way a president speaks about the issues is probably one of the most important things that a president can do. Think about it: Immigration wasn’t a top policy issue in 2014 and 2015, but Donald Trump – in a very awful way – brought the issue to the forefront during the campaign. And so I say that to say that leaders messaging focus can have a huge impact on what voters say that they care about.
In Congress, I think we’re seeing that we need to build coalitions to tackle the big issues like climate change. All these issues – health, pollution, jobs, Covid recovery, racial injustice – they’re all linked to climate change. The impacts – whether it’s climate-related, or pollution, always have a cost. If you live near a refinery, your home is going to be worth a lot less than it would be. You’re going to be spending more on healthcare because of asthma and visits to the ER. Your child is probably not going to perform as well in school as they would have otherwise. So, pollution has a real cost.
When it comes to jobs, we have a huge opportunity to make sure that we’re rebuilding our manufacturing sector, investing in electric vehicles and things of that nature. And then on racial injustice, we think of images from Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, and the communities burdened with asthma – these vulnerable communities that have been devastated by climate change. We’ve got to continue telling the story of those who must be prioritized when it relates to investment.
From the climate strikes around the world to the marches right here in America, we saw young people in large numbers demanding action. And in the 2020 election and the Georgia Senate runoffs, we saw youth turnout surge because of hard work through organizing. How do we keep young people engaged given we’re still trying to get Covid-19 under control?
When I think about voting, I think about how it fits into our overall engagement – it’s important for setting expectations. Georgia is an example of this, but what I was excited to see in the Georgia runoffs and all the organizers that made it possible is the way that Stacey Abrams has talked about voting – that’s it’s a starting point, not the end of one’s civic duty. I’ll say that as Democrats, we have had a habit of having charismatic leaders who are rooted in the right things, the right values, but the energy around those candidates oftentimes dissipates after elections.
I think people are starting to realize that even when you have a great leader in office, they need pressure. They need support, they need engagement to ensure the agenda they campaigned on is implemented. The first thing that I would tell other young people is we have to change the way that we think about politics and voting. And we must understand that you vote, but your engagement -your protesting, your writing, your demands, your voice, and your participation in public forums like town halls, is what leads to sustainable change. Changing the way we think about what it means to be engaged after election day and what it means to be a good citizen is important.
Can you share what you’ve been working on in Michigan. You’re also a member of Governor Whitmer’s Black Leadership Advisory Council. Can you share how that came about and more about the work you’re doing in this role?
There are a couple of big issues in Michigan, and more specifically, in Detroit. In 2019, the state’s only oil refinery had a couple of toxic release events that scared plenty of people – many workers had to go to the hospital and people in the surrounding community experienced nausea and other symptoms related to the release. We spent over a year pressuring the State and the refinery to lower emissions and invest in the very communities that were being harmed. Because in many cases, money from fines doesn’t go back to these impacted communities. We came together to raise our voices and make our demands heard. As a result, the company is now investing over a half-million dollars in air filtration systems for the local school close to their facility and better air monitoring technology.
This model of organizing is being replicated elsewhere. A contaminated piece of land contaminated with PCBs and uranium fell into the Detroit River, which is a drinking source for millions. We once again organized – raising the issue with lawmakers and other allies and pushed the state and local governments and the EPA to be more responsive to protecting our drinking water and the Great Lakes. Whether you’re lobbying, canvassing, or talking to your neighbors about these issues, we all have a role to play.
Governor Whitmer created task forces related to environmental justice and racial justice, and I’ve had a chance to serve in both capacities. But, what I’m most excited about is the environmental justice advisory council and the Black leadership council, and the opportunity to work on the ground and as a grassroots organizer on policies. Last summer, with the protests around George Floyd, people started to realize how systemic many of the issues we’re facing are and how we must take an ‘everything approach’ to our advocacy. I’ll have opportunities to provide input and guide the policy process – something that I welcome and am excited about.
Finally, how can people reading this blog learn more about your work?
Definitely sign up for Sierra Club newsletters. They often send updates on what organizers like me are doing. I’m also on social media – you can follow me on Twitter at @JustinOnwenu. You can also reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.