Earth Day 2021 Is an Opportunity to Focus on Environmental Justice


Earth Day was first envisioned as an opportunity “to shake up the political establishment,” in the words of Senator Gaylord Nelson, and draw national attention to environmental issues through teach-ins, demonstrations, and other advocacy efforts. It has since set a historical precedent of community advocacy driving momentum around monumental and foundational environmental legislation.

Fast forward 51 years, and the tradition of Earth Day remains very much alive, with the Biden Administration positioning the day as a key milestone in its climate agenda, with plans to convene 40 global leaders in a two-day virtual Summit. President Biden plans to use the historic day to unveil its 2030 emissions target, and among other key priorities, to showcase its equitable vision for climate action.

Earth Day has long raised national and international alarm bells, specifically around environmental justice issues. This year especially, however, leaders and activists should use the day to shine a light on the injustices that have been illuminated and exacerbated this past year and, in quintessential Earth Day fashion, push forward the historic legislation that the Biden administration has begun to roll out around environmental justice.

In the past year, COVID-19 has hit BIPOC and low-income communities more acutely, with Black, Indigenous, and Latino Americans dying at a 2.7 times greater rate from COVID-19 than their White counterparts. This story of unequal impact is not new, however, with the intersecting roots of pollution and racism running deep through the nation, with 57% of people of color living in counties with some degree of failing air quality, as compared to 38% of white people; and huge swaths of BIPOC communities in Louisiana living and dying in the wake of oil refineries and petrochemical plants in what is referred to as “Cancer Alley” everyday. COVID-19 has exacerbated these health inequities resulting from environmental injustice and hundreds of other cases of injustices like these, and in conjunction with the racial reckoning of the past year, brought to light just how important our national focus on justice should be.

Robert Bullard, writer of the 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Justice, and a prominent figure in the environmental justice movement described 2020 as a “watershed year for justice,” as these issues, in light of COVID-19, finally took center stage. With Robert Bullard, himself, recently appointed to President Biden’s newly established White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, he and others are poised to carry this focus on justice into 2021.

Specifically, with Bullard, the rest of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, other key leaders, including Secretary Halaand, the first Native American woman to hold a Cabinet-level position, and EPA Administrator Regan, a Black man who established North Carolina’s first environmental justice and inequity advisory board, the whole of the Biden administration is prepared to activate on justice. Specifically, Earth Day can help to build support for the Environmental Justice for All Act, Biden’s America Rescue Plan Justice40 Initiative, and other recent federal actions and commitments.

While these large sweeping legislative measures are critical, the spirit of Earth Day lies in community and frontline organizing to push for these measures, and there are many ways that individuals can get involved in this year’s Earth Day activities, especially as a force for environmental justice:

  • The Earth Day Organization, in partnership with Education International, Hip Hop Caucus, and Earth Uprising, will be hosting three days of climate action through parallel climate summits from April 20-22. These events will focus on climate literacy, environmental justice, youth-led climate-focused issues under the broad theme of restoring our earth.
  • Directly speaking to environmental justice, on April 20, the Hip Hop Caucus will present the “We Shall Breathe” virtual summit, focused on the intersecting issues of climate justice, pollution, poverty, police brutality, the pandemic, and racial equity.
  • On April 22, the digital events will begin at 12 PM EST, running parallel to President Biden’s Virtual Leaders Summit, and feature many topics, including equity and environmental justice.
  • The Earth Day Organization also provides a helpful map to identify events in different areas, as well as resources to guide individuals that want to plan their own digital Earth Day events.
  • Earth Day Initiative is planning a series of virtual events and beginning on Sunday, April 18, from 12 to 8 PM, the virtual stage will host a number of speakers, including Taylor Morton, of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. On Monday, April 19 from 12 to 7 PM, a virtual festival will give participants the opportunity to explore virtual booths from many organizations, including specifically environmentally justice-focused 1 Freedom for All, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and others.
  • Tune into the Earth Day Mini Film Festival, which will feature many free social-justice-oriented environmental films from April 19-25. Watch out specifically for Mossville: When Great Trees Fall on Friday, April 23, from 6:30 to 9 PM CT.
  • Tune into EarthX Film Festival, keeping an eye out for Barriers to Bridges on April 18 at 2 PM CDT and April 20 at 7:30 PM CT.
  • Participate in Sierra Club Earth Day activities, specifically watching their April 6th artist-led workshop tying environmental and social justice issues.
  • Eventbrite is a great resource to find specific Earth Day activities in your community. Visit their website and type in “Earth Day Activities” and a zip code in the search bar, and many opportunities to get involved will pop up. Consider, specifically, looking for activities with a justice-oriented bent.
  • In addition to events or activities to take part in on Earth Day or during Earth Week, another great place to start is to take time to learn more about environmental justice, how it started, its significance, and how Earth Day and Earth Week moving forward can serve as opportunities to focus on the importance of environmental justice as a core pillar of climate activism. Donating to environmental-justice focused organizations can also be a great way to support these issues and support smaller community-based NGOs.
  • And finally, most importantly, if individuals have access to the outdoors and can get outside, use this day to enjoy the many benefits of the Earth. Access to and enjoyment of outdoor spaces has historically been limited to White communities and it is our collective responsibility to drive greater equity and accessibility in these spaces so that all communities can enjoy the many benefits that can be found outdoors.

Individuals organizing and participating in Earth Day events focused on justice can help to support the growing momentum around the legislative action being driven by the Biden administration. It will take these systemic measures to bring environmental justice to communities around the nation and globe, but Earth Day offers a special moment for individuals to use their voices and the spirit and tradition of the day to further spark action.

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