The following is a speech I delivered at the Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat in Pacific Grove, CA, on October 6, 2010. The theme of the meeting was Connectivity – Innovation – Collaboration, and the topic of my panel was “Ignored at our Peril”, which explored the influences of finance, structural racism, taxes, and military spending on the environment and environmental policy.

Good afternoon everyone.

I’ve been asked to speak to the impact of military spending on the environment and environmental policy. There are many ways to approach this subject, and today I’m going to approach it from two perspectives: the peril and the opportunity.

The peril as in what we sacrifice as a society when we so disproportionately spend in the areas of military defense and military aggression at the expense of what Dr. King would call “programs of social uplift”.

The second perspective on the issue of military spending and the environment that I want to attempt to broach today is the opportunity to connect the dots to strengthen our movement. Or, put in another way, the opportunity to frame our environmental movement as a movement for good and a movement for justice, while our opposition is a movement for bad and a movement for injustice.

On the side of peril we have war, poverty, and pollution. I view these three perils as one in the same. And these perils come from structural injustice.

First, structural injustice in our politics: principally in the form of a two-party system where campaign contributors’ interests trump voters’ concerns.

Second, structural injustice in our policies: in the form of our laws that cater to industry prosperity over individuals’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And third, structural injustice in our practices: in the form of taking advantage of the communities that are the path of least resistance.

An example of the convergence of this “axis of evil” of war, poverty, and pollution, is Hurricane Katrina.
Fourteen months before Hurricane Katrina, and five months before the 2004 Presidential Election, the Hip Hop community held a major summit in New Orleans, LA. The idea of our summit was simple – it was time for young people to control our destiny by getting out the vote because the policies enacted by those in office have a tremendous impact on our lives. Our theme in 2004 if you recall was “Vote or Die.” We didn’t quite foresee at the time that the mandate “Vote or Die” represented a literal truth.

At the same time as that summit, Walter Maestri, Emergency Management Chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, made a statement in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that caused grave concern about the fact that there was no money in the budget to complete the levees:

“It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”

Five months later, President George W. Bush would be reelected on November 2, 2004.

Ten months after that, Hurricane Katrina would hit the Gulf Coast on August 28th, 2005. Then after the storm passed by New Orleans, on the morning of the 29th, when the sky was a beautiful bright blue and the sun was out in full force, the levees would break, destroying many parts of the city, and leaving over 2,000 people dead in the immediate aftermath. And, as we all know it was poor people of color who did not have cars to get out, and who were left behind.

Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, on in March of 2006, a video released by the Associated Press definitively revealed that the President lied to the people about his knowledge of the danger to the residents of New Orleans. With advance warning about the imminent risk of massive flooding and inadequate preparation for the disaster, the President failed to act to protect the citizens of the Gulf Coast region, and then lied about what he knew to salvage his credibility.

In a very real sense, Katrina’s victims were casualties of the Iraq war, global warming, and structural racism. We see in this instance the failure of our politics, policies, and practices, realized as the implementation and justification of increased military spending, instead of addressing failing domestic infrastructure in the face of very real threats of global warming.

I could go on for days bringing forth instances of the peril of our disproportionate military spending. But I am not one to preach to the choir for too long.

So let us move off of the peril, and discuss the opportunity.

We have the opportunity to replace war, poverty, and pollution, with peace, prosperity, and purification.
Environmental advocates like us, are a big part of this vision. We have an incredible role to play in concert with others like us who are fighting for good. We are all up against a very sophisticated opposition.

When speaking to young people I often say that our parents fought Jim Crow; and thank God, they beat Jim Crow. But you see, just like our parents had children, so did Jim Crow. Jim Crow’s kids have become very sophisticated, James Crow Jr. Esq. I call them. They can look just like any of us, they drink lattés, drive drop top BMWs, work at the World Bank or are Coal Industry lobbyists, or they may sit on your kid’s school board. They probably even listen to Hip Hop music.

While I know one of the themes of this retreat is the “complexities” of the issue, the “complexities” of the solutions, the “complexities” of the politics, and the “complexities” of our movement. But let me make it simple for you.

The story of the future of our planet is one of good versus bad. That is our frame. That is how we will appeal to our allies, that is how we will grow new allies, that is how we will invigorate the passion of the people to stand up and say I don’t want war, poverty, or pollution. I want peace, prosperity, and purification.

So as environmentalists, how do we talk about Peace, Prosperity, and Purification? I will speak specifically to communities of color, because my heart and my faith are with my community. That is my driving force.

For communities of color, peace definitely deals with international conflict and war. But it is also a domestic issue. It is about making sure your child is safe. In some cases children are safer in Afghanistan than in Chicago. So, how does the environmental movement build a vision for peace that people can subscribe to? That is something we must explore and address.

For communities of color, prosperity isn’t about having enough cash in your pocketbook, it is about wealth in your community, and the opportunity to build wealth. Engaging communities of color in the environmental movement around the vision of working class green jobs (a promise that we cannot deliver on for anywhere near the number of people who need jobs), is not a vision of prosperity unto itself. Business, entrepreneurialism, education, philanthropy, neighborhoods with the same schools, safety, health, transportation, and services, that affluent communities have, is a vision of prosperity. So how does the environmental movement build such a vision that people can see?

Lastly, purification. Purification is a part of faith and a part of long-held traditions of health, conservation, and environmentalism. To get rid of pollution that causes global warming, that makes our air and water dirty and unsafe, we must purify. Moving to clean energy off of fossil fuels is a purification process.

The grandmothers and grandfathers in our families, and mothers and fathers, who can’t afford health care for their children take great care in keeping our homes and food extremely clean. Keeping away dirt and bacteria, is synonymous with keeping away illness and disease. When someone is sick, home remedies of what to eat and what to drink are relied on as a way to purify the body, to flush out the sickness. So how does the environmental movement connect with our communities’ traditions of keeping our homes healthy and clean, with the vision of a clean and healthy planet?

The time is now to figure out the answers to these questions.

Simply put, I believe the answer is to leave our moderately-effective transactional relationships behind. The types of relationships that establish plans like – if you do this and stand here and say this, I’ll do that and stand there and say that.

Instead, our relationships must be transformational.

Our visions, missions and strategies will vary, but that should not matter if love and respect is our core value.
The environmental philanthropic community is one of the wealthiest communities on the left – that is a good thing. A wonderful thing. But, we have a lot to learn from the struggles led by poor people, who have made major gains without a portion of the funds that the environmental community has.

There is a fundamental truth in Hip Hop that I think is useful for all of us to remember. No amount of money can buy you Street Cred. Street Cred only comes from being in the streets, and doing good in the streets.
The time to be “in the streets” is now. The time to be talking to everyone, and growing our movement person to person is now.

I know many of us are feeling disappointed in this particular political moment. My good friends Rev Jesse Jackson and Van Jones urge us to “Keep Hope Alive”, and they are right.

For so many in the electorate – and also for those to whom we need to expand the electorate (which needs to be a core strategy of the environmental movement) – they see an Administration that for the first time in history looks like them. They see an African American President, they see an African American EPA Administrator, they see a Latina Secretary of Labor, they see an Asian American Secretary of Energy, they see a Latino Secretary of the Interior, and they see an African American Attorney General.

We cannot underestimate the power of this shift. That doesn’t mean that these folks are not to be held accountable. Of course they are. But, it is our moment, as movement leaders, to show the American people, particularly disenfranchised communities, how to access power, how to force power, how to build power. That is our job.

At the same time, the burden of saving the planet is not ours alone. As humanity we will either prosper together or we will perish together. So together we must find the solutions required. The moment the weight of the world’s problems become one group’s burden, we have lost.

Thank you very much for having me. I look forward to a robust discussion at this critical time for our generation and future generations. Power to the people!


Cross-posted at www.huffingtonpost.com, www.jackandjillpolitics.com, and www.hiphopcaucus.org.

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