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Home Admin The intersection of Race & the Environment: the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in the San Francisco Bay Area by Barnard Blogger Pearl Karliner-Li
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The intersection of Race & the Environment: the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in the San Francisco Bay Area by Barnard Blogger Pearl Karliner-Li

From my experience, many individuals dismiss environmental climate change as a leading and urgent issue, not because they don’t believe it to be true or important, but because they believe there are more urgent issues at hand, for example, the fact that there are 45 million people “stuck below the poverty line” in the US (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/16/poverty-household-income_n_5828974.html) or the 795 million people who suffer from “chronic undernourishment” in the world (https://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/). However what many people fail to recognize is the pervasiveness of the current and potential effects of climate change and environmental degradation on all sectors of life, and that these are inseparable from global and local inequities. https://apen4ej.org/

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), located in Richmond and Oakland, California, does an excellent job of synthesizing the inequalities that exist politically, economically, and socially and their intrinsic relationship to the environment. The Asian/Pacific Islander population in the San Francisco Bay Area makes up an ever increasing 24% (http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/bayarea.htm). People often discount the struggle of the Asian American and Asian communities in America as they are often named the “model minority” and excluded from discourse around race and POC communities. However, there is a long history of racism and discrimination towards people of East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, West Asian, and Pacific Islander descent that is still in effect today. This is especially true in the Bay Area, which has historically been a hub for API immigrants. (https://apen4ej.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Skilled-immigration-masks-APA-poverty.pdf)

Specifically organizing in the East Bay, APEN promotes an agenda that involves the API community, consisting of low income youths, immigrants, and refugees, to “develop an alternative agenda for environmental, social and economic justice” (https://apen4ej.org/who-we-are/mission-and-vision/). Their mission and vision statement clearly demonstrates a basic understanding that the social and economic welfare of the community is dependent on its access to a safe and healthy environment, and vice versa. One cannot occur without the other. 

APEN implements a three-pronged approach consisting of civic engagement through electoral organizing, building membership and power through community organizing, and “advancing structural changes” through policy (https://apen4ej.org/what-we-do/policy/). In the “policy” page on the website, APEN sites the “economic environment” as having the greatest impact on the natural one. Within the current capitalist system, nationally and globally, money seems to control the political, the social, the environmental. This goes to show that it is impossible to consider environmental conditions and climate change in terms of science alone; it must be situated within current economic structures. 

Starting in 1993 in Richmond, APEN originally worked with the Laotian refugee community (generally non-English speaking), living in proximity to the Chevron Refinery. Throughout their campaign APEN has won key victories to improve the air quality and general quality of life for this community. They won a community multilingual warning system in 2001, stopped Chevron Refinery’s expansion in 2010, and passed the Richmond General Plan in 2012 (https://apen4ej.org/what-we-do/organizing/Richmond/). APEN has transformed the Laotian immigrant community into a highly politicized group that uses grassroots organizing to fight for environmental justice. (https://apen4ej.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Lipo.Award_.pdf) This comes a surprising and unique case, many low income communities of color experience environmental injustice. (https://apen4ej.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/With-an-Eye-on-the-Future-Ethnic-Californians-Embrace-Environmentalism.pdf)

Later on in 2002, APEN expanded to Oakland, where they mainly worked for housing and workers’ rights within the APA community in Chinatown (https://apen4ej.org/what-we-do/organizing/Oakland/), where my grandmother lives. Although APEN functions within and across political lines, largely recognizing these borders in terms of its policy work, the fact that it has spread across the East Bay over time, demonstrates the recognition of very real political forces at work while simultaneously considering environmental effects that cross borders.

APEN’s political (and subsequently environmental) victories in the East Bay have not been won alone. APEN often collaborates and participates in coalitions spanning race and the environment. However APEN is one of few organizations that actually combines the two, functioning at an intersection that is often passed over. What’s interesting is that APEN, beginning in 1993, grew out of a national push to recognize environmental racism as an important and real trend. The First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit of the Environmental Justice Platform convened in 1991 (https://www.ejnet.org/ej/). Since then there has been a greater push to pay attention to the intersection of race and the environment, however it is rare to find an organization that uses the environment to push a social agenda. 

 
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10 Comments  comments 

10 Responses

  1. Ray

    This is a timely issue to highlight since it sheds light on the political and economic realities of climate change. The decisions that federal and international heads of state make influence entire populations. APEN seems to fulfill a role in highlighting the industry blind spots that negatively impact the environment particularly for API communities, whether due to unintentional consequences or callous policy. Thanks for this.

  2. Ambria

    This article is fascinating and timely! At a time when many people of color are being spatially relegated to environmentally damaged regions, it’s great to hear about groups bridging that intersection to fight back. Interesting to hear about the necessary confines of the economic system. Does the Right to the City movement and the globalizing/regionalizing of the economy (or the concept of the new rights of city inhabitants, period) have any impact on APEN’s work?

  3. Sara Lytle

    In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, this initiative seems truly groundbreaking and should be a model for other organizations. It reminds me of the crisis of the Columbia slough in Portland, Oregon, where low income citizens were deliberately placed near an industrial waste zone to pave the way for modernization of the central city. Both water quality and air quality are compromised upon for the sake of development, and this often takes the form of disadvantaging the most vulnerable populations.

  4. Melody Tai

    Pearl, I love how you combined two often-overlooked issues to point out the interconnectedness of the problems we face in the world today. Sustainable development pertains to not only the environment, but also to socio-economic issues, hence the triple bottom line. Between fighting for workers’ rights and encouraging marginalized communities to rally together for environmental justice, APEN’s work definitely addresses their relatedness. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Amelia Marcantonio-Fields

    Pearl, this post is so important. Thank you for sharing this information. I agree with you and believe that environmental issues are so intertwined with systemic inequalities and discrimination. Your description of APEN gives me hope though! Are there other organizations doing this important work too?

  6. Lauren

    You bring up a very interesting argument that climate change is being denied because of its relative importance to other issues, not because of its absolute importance. Additionally, your thesis that climate change is interconnected to global and local inequities is very insightful. I appreciate how you synthesize social issues, such as Asian American discrimination into your argument for climate change. I am glad that I read this article because I was previously unaware of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

  7. Sage Max

    This is so wonderful! It’s amazing to hear about these impressive initiatives, because this is an often overlooked problem. Tackling other issues under the umbrella of environmentalism (or whatever the hot-button issue of the day may be) is a cherished tradition among activists. In the animal rights movement, many have begun promoting research on the environmental effects of meat production as a tool for ending factory farming practices or promoting reductions in meat consumption. I look forward to following APEN’s agenda more closely and seeing what they do next!

  8. Kate Barrett

    Pearl, I really like how you angled your paper in a more anthropological sense. You eloquently stated the truths behind not only dismissals of environmental issues, but also the very real problem of discrimination and racism against Asian-American communities living in the US. As a third generation Chinese-American, I hear stories from my grandparents of their ventures into the US, and even the way racism has affected my own mother. I think that combining both race and the environment is a crucial step forward in understanding the solutions to things like climate change and environmental justice.

  9. Anna Kaplan

    Pearl is highlighting the importance of the intersection of multiple factors and climate change. I think that understanding and incorporating existing social and economic issues to climate change makes the world see the issue is more human than presently recognized. We need to incorporate various communities into our climate change solutions to create a more inclusive and a more resilient future.

  10. Erin

    I completely agree with your thoughts that many people dismiss climate change as an issue we should be addressing whole heartedly due to the other imminent issues such as poverty and hunger. For me, I believe that by addressing such issues of climate change, many of the other dilemmas can also be addressed at the same time- for example by increasing our focus on urban agriculture, we can create more cycles of fresh air within cities and reduce the temperature of the UHIs whilst producing more food for the surrounding areas. I found it really interesting how you linked the importance of economic focus and the environment to race, as this is something I had never considered before. I’m glad to have read your article which has really opened my eyes up to the concept of environmental racism and hope that as our society progresses in our strive for worldwide sustainable development, this is something we will be more aware of.

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