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Reflection: Juneteenth at the OEC

The Ohio Environmental Council, and our partners in the environmental movement, have a long history of racism and shutting people out because of the color of their skin. This is something we must all reconcile and commit to change. The OEC has taken steps to form a permanent committee with real financial resources to tackle this challenge from top to bottom, update our hiring practices, and educate our staff and partners – but we must do more and we commit to do more. We hope you will join us in an effort to dismantle systemic racism in our organization, in our movement, in our society – and in ourselves.  To learn more about our ongoing efforts, please click here. We are committed to listening to, recognizing, and amplifying the leadership of Black and Brown partners and staff, and we appreciate Karlton’s willingness to share his lived experience with us.

In solidarity and growth,
Heather Taylor-Miesle (Executive Director), Miranda Leppla (Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee Co-Chair), and Carol Davey (Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee Co-Chair)

Happy Juneteenth everyone! On behalf of the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) and myself, we hope you take the time to remember the history and meaning behind this day, as well as its parallels to and intersectionality with current events regarding racial injustice. During this time, please remember that freedom has never been free, but paid with blood and bondage; and, that justice is a continuous relay and all people are tasked with carrying the baton.

As I write on this Juneteenth, the 155th Juneteenth celebrated in the United States, yet the 1st Juneteenth celebrated by the United States, I must come to you plainly and truthfully. I am a black man in America and I have been for 30 years now. I am the Cleveland Metro Director for the OEC and I have been for 10 months now. Also, I am the only black person on staff at the OEC and I have been for 8 months now. But, most of all, I am tired – no, exhausted and drained, mentally and physically. 

I’m not exhausted and drained because of being a black man in America, because I’ve been raised to bear that burden and endure that pressure since I was little, even as current events tested me to my limits. I’m not exhausted and drained because of being the Cleveland Metro Director, because I believe that I’m the right leader for this role at the right time, though I’ve endured obstacles and issues of a racial nature that have led me to question my worth and abilities to lead. But, I’m exhausted and drained because I’ve persisted and persevered through those two roles while also being the only black person on a staff of over 20 people, which has led me to question, at times, my purpose and whether the environmental and environmental justice movements are really for black people.

I do not say this to stir sympathy for myself or foment displeasure towards the OEC, but to tell the objective truth of the situation. I am grateful for the support and mentorship of OEC Board Member Jade Davis. I am thankful for the support of my colleagues, particularly those on the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. I’m also grateful for the external support and partnership of the few fellow black environmentalists in this local and statewide space, several of whom I’m proud to call friends.

I never knew or thought I’d ever be in the environmental and environmental justice space, let alone willingly work as the only black person in an environmental advocacy organization as late as a year ago. However, I came to the OEC with an expectation to gain skills as a manager and program lead while getting into a sector I only dabbled in prior. Little did I know that in 10 months, I’d discover that I was to find my professional niche (diversity, equity, and inclusion – DEI – in the environmental space) and feel called to fulfill a purpose at the right time (to be the leading and only black voice in a white organization in a white sector at a time of racial unrest). 

In some aspects, I have both found myself and my voice to live and speak the truth even if it has left white power structures uncomfortable or upset (also referred to as “white fragility”). I have learned that nothing will improve unless it is agitated to change in the midst of discomfort. 

I have learned that one of the root causes of the environmental and EJ movement’s reckoning with racial injustice is because white environmentalists have had to confront the intersections between the origins of environmentalism and the history of slavery. Many observers, both internal and external of the environmental and environmental justice movements, like to believe that the lack of diversity and inclusion of black people – by way of a lack of funding, resources, culturally-competent programming, etc. – is the reason for little black participation in environmentalism. However, the truth is that the origins of the American environmental movement began in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived on these shores. 

It began in the water – the same water that transported millions of black bodies to the Americas and the Caribbean through the Atlantic Triangle Trade. It began in the air – the same hot air that we breathed when packed together on slave ships intermingled with the rank odor of salt water, human waters, and disease or death. It began on the land – the same land we tilled, bled, and died on for the development of America and its economy. It began in democracy – the same democracy we were denied in the Constitution where we were declared 3/5 of a human; denied in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; denied in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s; and, denied even to this day through voter ID laws and a lack of enfranchisement for those in reentry. 

These are just as much the origins of environmentalism as the burning of the Cuyahoga River. Yet now is the first time white environmentalism has been forced to confront it directly. 

It has been made clear through the racial injustice and tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others. It was made real when Christian Cooper was violated and whose life was essentially threatened when Amy Cooper tried to call NYPD on him for bird watching in Central Park. All because he was black and enjoying an environmental activity which white people felt that he, as a black person, should not be doing and had no right in doing. In Amy Cooper’s view, and that of many others in the environmental movement and elsewhere, bird watching or jogging or swimming or barbecuing in a park or even urban farming–the agricultural root in slavery from which environmentalism grew – is not considered a black thing to do, that these things are for whites only. 

Out of 155 Juneteenth celebrations, this is the first truly celebrated by the U.S., and it is my sincere hope that it is not the last. Juneteenth is the date, in 1865, in which the Union Army read the Emancipation Proclamation and announced the end of the Civil War to slaves in Texas. This was nearly 2 ½ years after President Lincoln gave the original Emancipation Proclamation address and 2 months after the Civil War ended. 

Likewise, 400 years later, it is my hope that white environmentalism is similarly receiving long-delayed emancipations of their perceived proprietorship over environmentalism and environmental justice, and that they choose to make space and clear the room to allow black and other people of color the chance to lead and direct the future of the movement. For when white environmentalism confronts environmentalism’s origins within slavery’s history, it allows me to think of water, air, land, and democracy without 400 years of racialized subtext and emotional baggage, but to just think of water, air, land, and democracy policies. Also, it allows me to not be exhausted and drained. It allows me to not just be a black man in America, not just be the Cleveland Metro Director, and not just be the only black person on a staff of 20+ people. It allows me to just be an environmentalist. It allows me to not be the only one like me here. That is what Juneteenth should look like at the OEC.