New Documentary Tells the True Story of Black and Brown Environmentalists

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The unofficial Earth Day Flag created by John McConnell includes The Blue Marble photograph taken by the crew of Apollo 17 (via WikiMedia Commons)

The organization Black Millennials For Flint made “Toward Environmental Justice” to teach others about the influence of Black and Indigenous folk on the Environmental Justice Movement.

By Nadira Jamerson, Word In Black

Since its founding in 1970, Earth Day’s been an annual reminder to give thanks for the natural resources that sustain our lives. But with environmental destruction and climate change disproportionately affecting people of color, it’s also an opportunity to amplify the work of Black environmentalists and grassroots leaders who fight to protect our communities.

But what does working toward environmental justice for all really look like?

“I’ve been working on environmental justice issues since I was a student,” says Mustafa Santiago Ali, the vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.

“Whatever I can do to be of service and to continue to put a spotlight on the issues that are impacting our communities, but also the opportunities that exist in our communities, to address health and wealth, I am always down for the cause. I’m blessed that folks invited me into the space and that I was able to share a little bit,” he says

Santiago Ali’s one of the activists featured in “Toward Environmental Justice”, a documentary short that follows 30 years of what’s referred to as the “17 Principles of Environmental Justice” — the core principles of the Environmental Justice Movement from the perspectives of Black and Indigenous groups. The mission of the 17 Principles is to promote humanity and advocate for access to non-toxic resources as a basic human right.

Black Millennials For Flint (BM4F), a Memphis-based, collaborative organization that champions ending the crisis of lead exposure in African American & Latinx communities, produced the film.

“It is imperative, especially as we are right here at Earth Day, for us to ground ourselves in the Environmental Justice principles because it humanizes Earth Day,” says LaTricea Adams, the President of BM4F.

The organization has its roots in the community organizing and activism that emerged in 2015 and 2016 during the Flint Water Crisis. It’s backed the passage of legislation such as the DC Childhood Lead Prevention Amendment Act of 2017 and runs as Lead Prevention Ambassador Leadership Program.

Despite these achievements, Black environmental activists such as BM4F aren’t often seen in the news media, including on Earth Day.

“Throughout time with Earth Day, it is often marketed to a very white, target audience,” Adams says. “However, when we think about the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, it is a culmination of the original stewards of the land. It’s the governing principles of Black folks, LatinX folks, Indigenous folks.”

Over the course of a year, the organization shot the film in several locations throughout the country. Touching footage of experts admiring their homelands from New Mexico to Memphis, and in Washington, D.C. offers viewers an intimate look into the strong connections these activists have with their environments. But instead of a feature-length documentary, BM4F condensed the footage into a nine-minute video so that the knowledge presented can be conveniently accessible to all.

The documentary short begins by showing connections between the Civil Rights Movement and the Environmental Justice Movement through footage of Martin Luther King Jr. supporting the Sanitation Labor Strike of 1968, which was both a labor and environmental health issue.

Two decades later, Black and Brown environmental justice leaders — mostly youth and young adults — are seen gathering at The National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit to draft and adopt the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice.

“We are starting to see a lot of resources being regenerated through environmental justice even from our current administration,” Adams says.

Indeed, the Biden Administration recently made several promises to move toward better environmental justice practices by reevaluating ineffective environmental justice organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and by funding organizations that truly work to better the environmental conditions for all communities.

“A lot of that action stems from this powerful group of Black and Brown people that were literally advocating for humanity. Environmental justice is grounded in human rights and civil rights. Now is the time, more than ever, to really amplify history and how it should be governing our work today.”

Along with Mustafa Santiago Ali and LaTricea D. Adams, the film also features Jade Begay, the climate justice director of the NDN Collective, and Esther Sosa, the project manager, diverse partners of the Environmental Defense Fund.

BM4F will be hosting a special Facebook screening of “Toward Environmental Justice” during Earth Day 2022, at 1 p.m. ET, on April 22, 2022. BM4F also plans to provide “Toward Environmental Justice” as an educational film that can be used throughout classrooms in the country.

“This needs to be in history books. This needs to be a part of our historical curriculum not only in K-12 but also in higher ed. It is of critical importance that we make sure this does not fall through the cracks of the sort of American tapestry of history,” Adams says.