How Civil Rights Works Led Me To Environmental Justice Litigation


Given my background as a civil rights lawyer, people often ask me why I now work for environmental justice. Earthjustice feels like home now and I landed here based on my strong feeling that the work I have always done – fighting for equality for all – is precisely the work I continue to do here. Nothing is more important than the fight to ensure a safe environment for all, regardless of race, class or any other characteristic.

The most personal answer to why I’m doing this job is that I went to law school to become a civil rights lawyer. As a child, I was inspired by stories of my uncle’s work in Mississippi in the 1960s. He left his job as a priest at a small Episcopal church in New Jersey to move to Mississippi to help register voters black. He was arrested, imprisoned and forced to harvest cotton. His safety was constantly threatened because he wanted to help black people vote.

Voting was and is a path to full citizenship. With voting, people can choose their leaders, have a say in how they are governed, be heard, and over time elect people who will protect their interests and keep them safe in their country or community.

I lived with my uncle and his family for a short time in Mississippi in the 1980s, and realized that some of the people responsible for his imprisonment and other civil rights activists were still in government or just in the neighborhood.

Sheriff's deputies chat with Martin Luther King Jr. at the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966.

Sheriff’s deputies chat with Martin Luther King Jr. at the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi in 1966.

Bob Fitch via Stanford Libraries

I asked him how he was dealing with it and he laughed and said he was praying for them. And he kept fighting. He had moved from voting to economic justice and was running a community development corporation in the Mississippi Delta by the time I got there.

With him, I learned to garden in the rows and rows of vegetables he had in his huge yard. I hated. No matter what time we went there to pull weeds or turn the soil, with the subtropical humidity of the Mississippi, it felt like an overheated sauna as soon as the sun peaked over the horizon.

Like many Mississippians, my uncle had developed a healthy distrust of almost everything, including: the government, packaged food, restaurants that didn’t prepare food like him, and doctors. The garden was both a protection against food insecurity and a means of nourishing oneself from the land. Growing our own food gave us comfort: at least the food from the garden wouldn’t kill us, even if it was possible that the government, medicine and neighbors could all kill us without too many consequences.

Coming from the suburbs of Dallas in the 1980s, working in my uncle’s huge garden was my first experience with the earth. Staying in Mississippi was my first experience of tangible, racialized, and insurmountable injustice.

My family’s experience led me to work for civil rights and social justice through litigation in the Deep South as an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center and later for the American Civil Liberty Union. I have worked for the ACLU of South Dakota and North Dakota with Indigenous clients who struggled to protect their ancestral lands, their rights, and their lives through environmental protection.

Indigenous Water Guardians march against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in 2016.

Indigenous Water Guardians march against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in 2016.

Joe Brusky / CC BY-NC 2.0

As I advocated for my clients in the South and on the Plains, I sought protection and freedom for myself. This work concerns the protection of individuals and equal treatment. My uncle’s work protecting our bodies from toxic, overpriced junk food in grocery stores and registering black voters in Mississippi led to my work. My work to protect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) bodies from unreasonable police brutality, to protect BIPOC children from abusive school discipline, and to protect the rights of Indigenous organizers to plan peaceful protests is all work that goes directly to the work of environmental justice.

Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Similarly, pollution anywhere is a threat to everyone eventually, if not immediately.

Now I work on the lived environment – specifically the air we breathe, the toxins in our world, the pollutants in our water, and the burning of fossil fuels contributing to global warming and the resulting natural disasters that disproportionately kill or injure the poor, people of color, and people from countries that have contributed less to the cause of this existential crisis.

This work is a continuation of the work I have always done – because Earthjustice work, like traditional racial justice work, is deeply rooted in protecting all as we struggle to peacefully inhabit this small planet together.

Medical assistant Jennifer Martinez draws blood from Joshua Smith which will be tested for PFAS levels in Newburgh, New York, in 2016. PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and are also known as 'chemicals for forever,” have been detected at dangerous levels in Newburgh, Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, Rockland County, Poestenkill and dozens of communities on Long Island.

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