Image: Mapping community priorities for climate action

What are the responsibilities of environmental organizations in building a racially-just society?

TEA's Executive Director Emmay Mah shares her reflections on allyship.

At a time when the struggle for racial justice is at the forefront of public discourse, environmental organizations like the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) are compelled to reflect on their roles and responsibilities in addressing the inequity, violence, and systemic oppression experienced by Black, Indigenous and other racialized peoples.

It’s a gross injustice that the burden of “righting” our society continues to be borne by the people who experience the most extreme forms of racism and discrimination. It’s long past time that those of us who hold resources and influence help to share this burden, and this includes the environmental community. 

At TEA, our commitment to more deeply embed an equity lens in our work, and build meaningful relationships with racialized communities, is an ongoing process. While I do not claim to have all the answers, I’d like to share some thoughts on what allyship can look like for us and other environmental organizations, and how we can contribute to catalyzing and supporting lasting change.

Use our platforms to express support and solidarity.

In the context of the ongoing violence and dehumanizing behaviour experienced by Black and Indigenous communities, staying silent is not an option. Many environmental organizations have public platforms that can and should be used to speak out against injustice and make statements of support and commitment. The intention is not to put environmental organizations at the centre of this discourse, but rather, to support and amplify the voices and messages of those who are at the forefront of the struggle for racial justice.

There can be no climate justice without racial justice.

Build connections to our work.

At TEA, we have a clear purpose – building a greener city for all – which is grounded in the belief that environmental issues impact all residents in our city, and that solutions must consider how to address inequity related to these environmental problems. This does not diminish our important environmental watchdog and policy-advocacy role. On the contrary, by including an equity lens in the in-depth environmental analysis TEA conducts, we aim to do a better job of preventing unintended harms and maximizing the positive benefits of the solutions we put forward.

The analogy that “we are in the same storm but on different boats” has been used to describe the COVID-19 pandemic, and similarly applies to the interconnected nature of climate, economic and racial justice. For example, in our city, there is growing income inequality between racialized and non-racialized populations, and significantly higher rates of poverty among racialized people, including children. Household income can determine where people live and their housing conditions, which in turn impacts how they experience environmental shocks such as extreme heat. Low-income households have very low consumption-based emissions but are made disproportionately vulnerable to climate-related risks.

For several years, accelerating equitable climate action in Toronto has been a core focus for TEA. We consistently advocate for housing retrofits as a climate solution that can reduce emissions, make residents’ housing more resilient in extreme weather, and create good, green job opportunities for equity-seeking people in the skilled trades. We also believe that retrofit programs require safeguards to protect tenants’ rights so that retrofits don’t lead to renovictions.

Illuminate systemic impacts. 

Environmental organizations have a responsibility to understand and situate their work in relation to other systemic issues. We have to recognize that many of the drivers of environmental harm are the same drivers that create systemic inequity and injustice. Data – both statistics and other information provided by communities – can reveal the deep connections between these issues and illuminate systemic solutions that can address harm to people and the planet.  

Overlaying environmental data with geographical and race-based data can tell a powerful story. For example, a 2017 US study found that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (from transportation emissions) were 2.7 times higher in neighbourhoods with the highest proportion of racialized people than those with the lowest proportion. This type of work, which highlights the connection between pollution exposure and where racialized people live, can facilitate collaborative advocacy among environmental groups and community members.

Make space for excluded voices.

It’s a painful fact that our political institutions were born out of a colonial system that was designed to keep certain people silent and subordinate. This legacy remains with us today in overt ways – such as the Indian Act and the visible lack of diverse political representatives at all levels of government – and in more insidious ways when it comes to which voices hold influence in how government designs policy, implements programs and allocates resources.

Sadly, the environmental movement has also played a role in perpetuating this legacy. There are historic examples of conservationist beliefs conflated with eugenics, and contemporary examples of environmental campaigns that have chosen to completely disregard the implications for local populations including Indigenous communities. The voices of Indigenous people and other racialized people, who have demonstrated tireless leadership in defending land, water and air, have gone unrecognized, and at times, have been purposefully excluded or undermined.

Given where we’ve come from, and the injustice that continues today, we need to proactively work to build a different path forward. It is important for the environmental movement to recognize and support the work led by Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities, which happens in spaces that are inside and outside of mainstream institutions. Environmental organizations can play a role in amplifying these voices in environmental policy and programs, and broader decision-making and resource allocation processes.

There are encouraging initiatives underway that seek to make space for racialized people in public policy and inside the institutions where decisions are taken. The action-research project led by Adapting Canadian Work & Workplaces (ACW) in collaboration with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities: An Environmental Justice Perspective, focuses on building Black and racialized leadership capacity to address environmental racism and influence public policy on climate. The Urban Alliance on Race Relations recently launched the Black Youth Fellowship, a professional and leadership development program focused on building the next generation of Black public servants, which will place participants in a Toronto Councillor’s office.

As a municipally-focused organization, TEA has intentionally built relationships with organizations who work with diverse communities across the city. We collaborate with these partners to engage more racialized people in civic processes to shape Toronto’s environmental policies and the City Budget. TEA also showcases and shares stories about the work of racialized people leading outstanding environmental work. We are committed to being vocal advocates for meaningful and transparent public participation and believe that our city will benefit from a greater diversity of voices calling for deeper and more equitable environmental action from government. 

Face uncomfortable truths and be prepared for a long journey.

For all of us who are committed to sharing the burden of addressing past and present injustice in our society, it will be a long journey. During the first weekend of large-scale protests across the US, ignited by the killing of George Floyd by police, the hashtag #MeanwhileInCanada was trending on social media. Instead of using this moment to try to better understand the experiences of Black people on this side of the border, a significant number of people took to social media to paint an image of contrast between our ‘troubled’ neighbours to the south with our own ‘harmonious’ society.

In my view, a key role for allies is to help people and institutions face the uncomfortable truth that Black, Indigenous and other racialized people are continually treated as less equal and less valued members of our society. This is true here, in the US, and in many other parts of the world. We need to address the cognitive dissonance that can happen when people are confronted with a reality that does not match what they believe to be true – in this case about Canadian society – and use this moment to build greater understanding and empathy, not disassociation.

This brings me back to where I started. Those of us who hold resources and influence, organizationally or personally, need to be willing to have uncomfortable and challenging conversations with our peers, communities, co-workers, employees and supporters – and be willing to listen to racialized people who offer the gift of sharing their experiences with us. It is only through the willingness to linger in a place of discomfort that we can begin to fully understand and address injustice in our society, institutions and communities.

When I discussed writing this blog with my team, they urged me to share some of our challenges as an organization. One of the examples we discussed was how we respond internally to support the people on our team. TEA has a field canvass team, which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, went door-to-door speaking with residents all over the city and raising critical funds for our work. At present, they do this work on the phone. Over the years, racialized workers on our team have had significantly different experiences than their non-racialized counterparts – whether it’s experiencing subtle mistrust or overtly racist behaviour while interacting with the public.

While TEA cannot control individuals’ behaviour towards our team, our organization can ensure that measures are in place that help workers feel supported when such incidents occur. In addition, equipping outreach workers with professional identification and providing supportive verification systems, which we started to do last year at the team’s request, can go a long way in mitigating certain types of harmful and hurtful interactions. Our team is encouraged to exit from situations where harmful views are expressed – whether it’s on the phone in person – since we do not want our workers to be subjected to discrimination nor do we want to recruit supporters with discriminatory views. We have had to face the reality that TEA’s outreach work takes place in a society where racism exists, and we must continually listen to staff and improve on how we support our team as they engage the public.

At TEA, we still have much to do to ensure that our work meaningfully supports the priorities of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities in Toronto. We are part of a growing movement that recognizes the interconnected nature of environmental, economic and racial justice work, which is why we are calling for green and just recovery for Toronto as we emerge from COVID-19. I am hopeful that we collectively can do the work needed to turn this important moment in history into an era where real change happens.

Several years ago, I was conducting a focus group discussion with a community group, and stories were shared by two elder members – one Black and one Jewish. They were commiserating about how there used to be parts of our city where they couldn’t go, and one recalled a sign that was posted in a public place that read “No Blacks or Jews allowed”. This was an important reminder to me about what has happened, in living memory, right here in Toronto. I sincerely hope that these elders will see a profound transformation in their lifetimes – a time when all people are safe, heard and valued.

Emmay Mah is the Executive Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA).