Environmental justice started very much as a protest movement with towns and neighbourhoods organizing against the health and environmental inequalities to which they were being subjected.
Documents such as the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice’s 1987 report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States were important in informing communities that toxic sites were being disproportionately placed in areas with high levels of residents of colour. Additionally, others worked to highlight the environmental racism and injustice that existed at other scales. For example the high levels of led-based paints in low-income neighbourhoods, or in the impacts of water supplies in the Global South as globalized industry avoids environmental protection legislation in the North. As the environmental justice movement grew it became a focal point tying together concerns and actions of urban people of colour in the US, with rural communities, Indigenous and First Nations Communities, and social movements in the Global South.
At the same time as communities continue to organize against environmental injustices a new type of positive environmental justice organizing has also developed. Here the focus is on bringing health and environmental amenities to neighbourhoods that have suffered from underinvestment, rather than just fighting against the negative.
The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council (WRWC) is one example of a positive environmental justice organization advocating for ecological, health and economic justice in Rhode Island, and especially in the Olneyville neighbourhood of Providence.
Aside from a really fun word to say, the Woonasquatucket is a major watershed in the state of Rhode Island covering 50 sq miles and five municipalities. It also plays a prominent role in the history of industry and economic growth in Rhode Island.
The waters of the Woonasquatucket were the perfect site for early manufacturing, and today mill buildings are still scattered throughout the Olneyville neighbourhood at the water’s edge. Unfortunately in return for powering the industrial revolution the watershed was used as a dumping ground for almost a century’s worth of production. Similarly the Olneyville neighbourhood, home to working class and immigrant residents for over a century, has been neglected by many of the same institutions as the watershed, and this is particularly true with the large scale loss of manufacturing jobs in the past decades.
WRWC, in partnership with other neighbourhood organizations and businesses, is working to address both the natural and social environmental justice issues in the neighbourhood. WRWC does a little bit of everything, from coordinating large scale clean up days, to attracting investments to some of the city’s most neglected parks, and coordinating with the neighbourhood CDC to produce a major park and greenway project along the river.
Now they are working to invite people and wildlife back to the river. WCRC hosts dance classes in the park, walking days and bike rides along the greenway, and river paddles in the summer and fall. Their River Ranger program is an opportunity for youth to gain work experience and act as stewards of the river, and their work building fish passages along the river is helping make fish a more common sight.
Staff see successes in their work through the increased use of the parks. They hear from residents who now have a safe option for healthy outdoor activities in their own backyard, and they see wildlife coming back to the greenways, parks and rivers. While there is still more they hope to accomplish, WCRC has started the important work of highlighting the ways in which environmental amenities are not luxury items, but fundamental in terms of urban heath, well-being, and justice.