This article was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.
It is not a coincidence that, as 2013 is coming to a close, the southern portion of the Keystone XL Pipeline is almost completed and abortion clinics are dwindling here in Texas.
As someone familiar with both reproductive and environmental justice in a “red state,” it doesn’t surprise me. Reproductive justice organizers in red states often talk about how the struggle is deep in the South, Midwest, Southwest, in indigenous communities in the so-called United States, and other resource sparse areas: the prairies, the piney woods, the desert, the third coast—the gulf. These are all locations of trauma. They will remain locations of trauma so long as these areas and communities are exploited by amerikkka. As the environment experiences violence, peoples’ reproductive autonomy diminishes.
In order to have reproductive autonomy, we need to work towards reproductive and environmental justice. Reproductive justice only exists when we—all the people of the world—have the political and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about our genders, bodies, and sexes for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities. People experience reproductive oppression differently due to varying systems of oppression. When our bodies, spirits, and communities are unable to live healthy lives because of environmental injustices, our reproductive autonomy is taken away from us. This is the basic connection between environmental and reproductive justice. Working for both is cru- cial because those who experience reproductive oppression are also more likely to be exposed to environmental degradation, toxins, and other dangerous effects of our current climate crisis.
Reproductive and environmental oppression are everywhere: the widespread sterilization of black, brown, and indigenous bodies to “control overpopulation”, the use of the Rio Grande River as a toxic waste dump for Agent Orange-esque herbicides (making it hazardous for undocumented immigrants to cross over and see their families), the increase of violence against Native women and children because of “man camps” brought by the construction of the KXL pipeline, the increase in asthma rates for children in low-income families because of refiners, bus depots, and air pollution.
In a room of 150 environmental activists at Powershift 2013, one of the biggest environmental conferences in the United States, only five raised their hands when I asked who knew what reproductive justice was. The room was made up of mostly white, long-term and newly interested activists from the East coast. I suspect that their white and geographic privilege plays into their lack of awareness on the connection between environmental and reproductive justice struggles in marginalized areas. Similarly, panels that address environmental and climate issues are often lacking at the biggest reproductive health-rights-justice conferences. Without understanding these intersections, organizations and individuals will not be able to do social justice work or advocate with communities in holistic ways.
If we are doing environmental work but are unable to identify the ways in which particular communities experience reproductive oppression, then are we really doing work that addresses all of the intricacies and intersecting complexities of these communities? This conversation is necessary.
I came into environmental organizing, initially around hydraulic fracturing in North Texas and the Keystone XL pipeline, with a reproductive rights-justice background. I expected these worlds to operate in very similar ways. I was wrong. I was quickly disempowered as a queer, gender non-conforming Chicanx in predominantly heterosexual-cisgender-white-male organizing spaces. I have been somewhat involved in environmental activism for over a year now and have witnessed how white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, trans* erasure and other oppressions permeate in organizing culture. Anti-oppression politics are not taken seriously in the white-dominated organizing spaces, and the people of color who are a part of frontline communities are pushed to the margins. Feeling these intensities, I realized that my reproductive justice background made me able to address how multiple struggles are connected.
As I brought my analysis and experiences to white-dominated environmental spaces, I quickly learned that I would be seen as divisive if I ever felt safe enough to voice my concerns. To claim that impacted communities of color are being divisive is a way of silencing; it’s an aggression that further satisfies the goals of colonization. Sadly this happens all the time, and being in those environments made me realize how widespread it is. Although I have learned to expect such behavior, it breaks my heart to witness the suffering that other people of color experience on levels that I never will.
Powershift 2013 exemplified the ways that already marginalized voices are silenced in so-called “environmental justice” spaces. These divisions were particularly apparent when a woman of color coming from the effected community of Manchester in Houston, TX was repeatedly interrupted during her keynote speech because she dared to challenge big green NGOs. This incident demonstrates the way that people from frontline communities are tokenized by predominantly white organizers but silenced when they try to express the concerns of their communities.
I am over white-dominated environmental groups, just as much as I am over the mainstream white-dominated reproductive rights “pro-choice” movement. I get frustrated when these groups co-opt the environmental and reproductive justice frameworks. I am waiting for them to be held accountable for understanding and acting on these intersections that they claim to understand. They are the ones with the most resources. Either they start centering more voices from the communities that struggle against environmental and reproductive injustices or they should hand over their resources to people who can adequately support their communities. A perfect example of how many activists fail to think outside their single-issue framework is the recent glorification of Wendy Davis. Her face is being used in mainstream re- productive rights organizations, while commu- nities in North Texas face some of the worst air quality in the nation. Those who praise Davis as a “pro-choice” hero may not know that she has played a crucial role in supporting fracking, a practice that perpetuates both environmental and reproductive injustice. It is impossible to be simultaneously “for reproductive justice” and “pro responsible gas drilling.” This glorification has built a narrative of who (white, cis, upperclass, heterosexual, citizen) and what (“just vote!”) is involved in the fight for “reproductive justice,” and has caused the erasure of marginalized people who have been doing reproductive health-rights-justice work here for years.
We must be reminded that women of color developed the reproductive justice frame-work. We must be reminded that people of color developed the tenants of environmental justice. Without remembering and honoring the historical roots to each movement, we perpetuate the erasure of people of color and their experiences with reproductive and environmental oppression. We must also remember to challenge power inequalities. It can only be achieved if white supremacy is dismantled.
For those of us who are non-indigenous people of color and white folx wanting to organize in more holistic ways, we need to recognize our settler privilege and honor indigenous communities that have been fighting against colonization, reproductive oppression, and environmental degradation for gener-fucking-ations! There is no way we can move forward in this fight with true honesty and intentionality if we do not recognize this.
Collaboration is key. This means centering women, queer and trans* people of color from frontline communities in our conversations with both environmental and reproductive justice movements. This also means taking advice from one another, sharing skills, seeking guidance, and holding each other accountable for the big possibility of fucking up. We also need to organize spaces for self-care, love, self-reflection, self-actualization and appreciation for one another.
We could all use some healing.
I don’t want there to be a split anymore; we are fighting for the same things. I want the same people who are pissed off about the state of reproductive health care access in Texas to be standing up against the toxic agenda of oil and gas industries and vice versa. I hope to have these conversations and see this collaboration in the future. I hope to witness the bridging of gaps and the creation of an intrinsic web of networks, resources, friendships, actions, rage, and love.
Agent Orange: a militarized herbicide notoriously used against civilian populations in Vietnam, Cam- bodia, and Laos during the Vietnam War; causes environmental and reproductive health problems primarily for indigenous communities of color
Chicanx: gender-neutral identification that some Mexican-American individuals claim
heterosexism: a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of heterosexual behavior, identities, and relationships and against LGBTQ+ behavior, identities, and relationships