Movement icon Grace Lee Boggs at environmental justice conference

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The equivalent at a nurses’ convention would be having Florence Nightingale in attendance. For an auto show, perhaps Henry Ford.

It was Grace Lee Boggs for hundreds of environmental justice advocates gathered in Detroit on Thursday for the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Environmental Justice conference.

Workshops have dealt with the federal  efforts to ensure environmental justice components of permitting, future priorities, and how local organizations can get funding and technical support.

But it was Boggs, speaking at lunch Thursday, who provided a first-hand historical perspective about the movement, defined as the effort to ensure that poor and minority communities are not disproportionately impacted by the harmful effects of industrialization, development and waste disposal.

Boggs was born in 1915 in Rhode Island, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. In 1940 she earned a PhD. from Bryn Mawr, and went on to work with C.L.R. James and other noted Marxists and to marry black autoworker-activist James Boggs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Boggses wrote several books, together and separately, and launched their own tradition of social activism in Detroit — now functioning as the nonprofit Boggs Center — that has fostered the Allied Media Project, the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality and Detroit City of Hope.

Boggs herself was around for the birth of the environmental justice movement — in the 1980s, poor and minority communities, initially in the South, began demonstrating against and eventually suing to prevent toxic waste facilities being located in their communities.

“It’s a movement that is environmental but is also very comprehensive in terms of where we are in the world today,” Boggs says.

She urged the conference audience to link work in environmental justice advocacy with the elected officials who can create laws and policies affecting the health of communities and residents.

“Talk about where the world is at and the kind of leaders we need,” she said.

But she cautioned not everything can be led by the federal government. “How many of you think about creating a community from the ground up? Because it cannot be done from Washington,” Boggs said.

She was joined on stage by Bunyan Bryant, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment and founder of the school’s environmental justice program.

“It used to be that I new everybody, but that quickly changed,” he quipped, looking at a lot of new and unfamiliar faces in the crowd as he relived the early movement. He recounted the 1987 report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” that showed how waste sites were located near minority communities and the 1991 conference People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference.

Three years later, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order mandating that federal agencies make environmental justice part of their mission by identifying and addressing disproportionate and adverse impacts of programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations.

“That really put environmental justice on the radar screen of governments,” he said.

Bryant cautioned there is plenty of work to be done. Many in attendance are community organizers from around the country who work for health equity, environmental justice and green job training, for example.

Bryant related two recent experiences that made him feel the movement is having a widespread impact: A South Korean government official told him environmental justice is one of the largest social movements in that country, and he saw an episode of The Practice that dealt with environmental justice and injustice.

“I knew it had come of age,” he said. “And we’ve gone international.”

Workshops, free and open to the public, continue through Friday morning at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center and are also sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Kresge Foundation, the Sierra Club and Detroit’s Greendoor Initiative.

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