Opinion

Environmental Community Must Do Better at Addressing Structural Racism

While we know statements are never enough, we here at Groundwork Rhode Island wish to publicly and explicitly affirm our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the families of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tony McDade, and the many others who have been murdered by police, and, in the recent case of Ahmaud Arbery, by white supremacists.

It is telling and enraging that in just a matter of weeks since the murder of George Floyd, which catalyzed a truly global movement calling for change and accountability, we have had to add more names to the list of Black and Brown people whose lives have needlessly been cut short.

As an environmental organization that works primarily in Black and brown communities but has primarily white leadership, the hurt, pain, and frustration hits home. The reality again knocks down our door to remind us that many of our staff, youth, and adults we work alongside, and their families, are not safe in the communities in which they live.

Structural racism — including police violence, environmental and health disparities as demonstrated most recently by COVID-19 infection and death rates, mass incarceration as the go-to response for social ills, and too many other examples to list — continues to take the lives of Black and brown members of our communities. We must more fully understand the privileges that are bestowed upon white people, including the peace of mind and pursuit of happiness that all of us, regardless of skin color, should be able to expect and enjoy. The need for change and the dismantling of racist systems that oppress our communities is now.

While Groundwork Rhode Island is part of a nationwide network that has also expressed its commitment to anti-racism both internally within our organizations and externally in the communities where we work, we realize we are far from perfect in putting anti-racism into practice and dismantling the culture of white supremacy. As part of the Greater Providence community we must examine our efforts, shift as necessary, and be part of the broader fight to fix these injustices.

As part of our 2020 Green Team youth program, for example, we will add stronger curriculum components that not only focus on how racial injustice connects to environmental injustice, but also on reimagining what community safety could look like. We will work with our youth to help answer: What makes a community safe? What resources are actually needed to make a community thrive? Who is helped and who is hurt by the public safety system as it currently stands? What are ways we can help change systems of oppression starting with ourselves and our neighbors?

While we recognize it is never easy to change old systems, we also recognize that when enough people understand the roots of the problem, we can work together to dismantle what’s not working and build up what will.

It is easy to feel despair in times like these, but the movement for Black lives has never been stronger, and real change is on the horizon, which should give us all hope for the future. All of us who care deeply about justice must keep up the pressure for change.

Groundwork Rhode Island’s goal is to be even more involved in this movement as we move forward. We’ll be deepening our commitment to listening to the needs, experiences, and solutions of Black and brown communities as we strive to live up to our mission to create healthier and more resilient urban communities through environmental sustainability and economic opportunity. We will seek out ways to work collaboratively with organizations that have been doing the work locally to end police violence and the violence of the wider criminal-justice system. Too many of the people we work with on a daily basis have been hurt by these institutions; we can’t ignore the need for systemic change while also continuing to support individuals who are working to improve their own lives.

It is also important to separately acknowledge the courageous activism of Black Lives Matter, and other unaffiliated organizations and individuals, for organizing such a strong, diffuse movement and for providing inspiration for people around the world to demand that governments and institutions live up to their stated moral principles.

Lastly, we can all take action in our own lives, in the everyday decisions we make: where to shop, where to donate, how to get involved, and how to make our communities better. A number of local sources have compiled lists of Black-owned businesses in the area and organizations that are working to end systemic racism, police violence, and to support the leadership of Black and brown people.

Kufa Castro is the program coordinator for Groundwork Rhode Island and Amelia Rose is the organization’s executive director.

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