A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Post Was Originally Published January 18, 2017 in Grist.
Environmental justice work will need to change in critical ways as Donald Trump ascends to the White House, but not in all ways, says Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). On-the-ground organizing around community members’ local concerns will still be the core.
APEN brings the voices of Asian and Pacific Islander communities to the forefront of environmental health and social justice fights in the Bay Area. The group has successfully challenged multinational corporations and swayed local political authorities, notching important wins on occupational safety, affordable housing, transportation, renewable energy, climate change, and more.
Here, Yoshitani chats about APEN’s work and what inspires her as she looks to the future.
Q. You started out as a youth organizer for APEN in the 1990s, working with Laotian refugees in Richmond, California. And in the years since, you’ve had some amazing victories — stopping the expansion of a Chevron oil refinery, for example.
A. APEN is on the map for some of our big wins, like the Chevron campaign. But those wins rest on the shoulders of a couple of decades of organizing and trust-building and fighting for the needs of the community on a day-to-day basis.
Our first campaign was for a multilingual emergency warning system, not just for the Laotian community but for all the immigrant and refugee groups in the county who were only getting their warning calls in English. That was a huge problem, because of the explosions and fires and accidents that happen on a regular basis around the refinery. It could be the difference between life and death.
We also did education work to inform the immigrant community about the health impacts of subsistence fishing in the Bay, and about lead in dishware. We had a community garden, where seniors would come and garden and interact with the young people in our youth program, teaching them about the herbs and vegetables they had brought over from their home countries.
Environmental justice is really all about listening to the community, making sure that they have a voice on the things that are most important to them. Doing that sometimes helps you build power and improve quality of life. It can take time. But there are just no shortcuts to building power.
Q. Given that your work is deeply rooted in that community, what difference does it make — if any — that we’re having this regime change in Washington?
A. In many ways, our work doesn’t change that much. We will continue to do the base-building, relationship-building, trust-building organizing work that’s connected to the solutions communities really need and hope for. And we will continue to connect that organizing work to real policy change at local and regional and state and national levels, too.
But absolutely there are impacts and changes given the new administration. The trajectory that we started — building power on the progressive left with people of color and low-income communities in leadership — has to accelerate.
California is a leader in demonstrating an equitable approach to climate policy. We’ve been able to win policies that get people jobs and bring wealth into the community and clean the air for our kids and offer economic and political and social opportunities. Being able to move that agenda faster and to model it for other states is really critical. California can point the country toward the future — not just in policy but in politics and power. That’s exactly where our state needs to be, and organizations like APEN and our communities have to help guide that and lead that.
On a practical level, too, our state has some of the highest populations of people who would be impacted by what the Trump administration promises to do — immigrant and refugee communities, Muslim communities, communities of color. California has to stand up really strongly and powerfully to defend the interests of our residents.
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