Listen to podcast episode 3, “Environmental Justice for All,” or read a written version of this podcast episode below.
Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism is a gallery exhibition in The Bancroft Library that charts the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area through the voices of activists who advanced their causes throughout the twentieth century—from wilderness preservation, to economic regulation, to environmental justice. The exhibition is free and open to the public Monday through Friday between 10am to 4pm from Oct. 6, 2023 to Nov. 15, 2024, in The Bancroft Library Gallery, located just inside the east entrance of The Bancroft Library. Curated by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, this interactive exhibit is the first in-depth effort to showcase oral history along with other archival collections of The Bancroft Library.
This exhibition includes three podcast episodes that offer deeper narratives to supplement the archival posters, pamphlets, postcards, photographs, oral history recordings, and film footage that are also presented in the gallery. Please use headphones when listening to podcasts in The Bancroft Library Gallery.
A written version of podcast episode 3 is included below.
Listen to episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All” on SoundCloud.
PODCAST EPISODE SHOW NOTES:
Episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All.” This podcast episode accompanies a section of the Voices for the Environment exhibition that explores how, in the 1980s and 90s, communities of color in the Bay Area fought against environmental racism by creating new organizations, such as the Urban Habitat Program, to demand environmental justice—the equal treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental decision-making. In the city of Richmond, activists in the West County Toxics Coalition and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN, organized against toxic threats from the area’s petrochemical and hazardous waste facilities. Environmental justice activists helped transform the American environmental movement from one focused mostly on landscapes to one that increasingly includes the health and wellbeing of historically disenfranchised people.
This podcast episode features historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, including segments from oral history interviews with Carl Anthony, Pamela Tau Lee, Henry Clark, and Ahmadia Thomas, all recorded in 1999 and 2000. This episode was narrated by Sasha Khokha, with thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine.
This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor of the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, with help from Sasha Khokha of KQED. The album and episode images were designed by Gordon Chun.
WRITTEN VERSION OF PODCAST EPISODE 3: “Environmental Justice for All”
Pamela Tau Lee: We cannot be afraid to talk about environmental racism. We cannot be afraid to discuss that, talk about what it means: the discrimination of communities in environmental policy and being left out of the process.
Sasha Khokha: What does justice look like? Whose lives matter? And how does that relate to the environment? In the 1980s and 90s, concerns about toxic industrial waste led communities of color in the Bay Area, and across the nation, to create new organizations and demand environmental justice—the equal treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in environmental decision-making.
Pamela Tau Lee: What we need to deal with is the racism that is the root cause of why industry was targeting communities of color: because communities of color would not have any power; that it’s much more acceptable to dump this stuff in communities of color. So if we shied away from talking about racism, we would then not be able to articulate the realities, and we felt it was racism.
Sasha Khokha: Welcome to Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. This podcast accompanies an exhibition in The Bancroft Gallery at UC Berkeley that’s the first major effort to bring together both the oral history and archival collections of The Bancroft Library. The voices you’ll hear were recorded by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, founded in 1953 to record and preserve the history of California, the nation, and our interconnected world.
Voices for the Environment traces the evolution of environmentalism in the San Francisco Bay Area across the twentieth century, and highlights ways that Bay Area activists have been on the front lines of environmental change.
This is our third and final episode, called “Environmental Justice for All.” I’m your host, Sasha Khokha, from KQED.
[harmonica blues music]
Sasha Khokha: Communities of color have long confronted environmental racism—the disproportionate burden of toxic waste and industrial pollution in neighborhoods that are mostly low income and home to BIPOC folks. But up until the 1980s, the big players in the environmental movement focused on other issues, like preserving redwood groves or protecting bay shoreline from new construction.
Pamela Tau Lee: I think many of the mainstream organizations, you know, they don’t focus on people. They focus on the ecology and other natural resources.
Sasha Khokha: That’s Pamela Tau Lee, a environmental and labor activist from San Francisco whose oral history you’re hearing.
Pamela Tau Lee: These predominantly white organizations did not want to really acknowledge that there was a different experience felt by communities of color.
Sasha Khokha: Take the city of Richmond, where more than 75% of residents identified as people of color in the 2022 census. Located along the bay above Berkeley and Oakland, Richmond has been home to the Chevron oil refinery since 1902. A host of other polluting industries were established there, too. As a result, people in Richmond experience higher levels of pollution and toxins, and have less access to healthy environments to live and play. In the mid-1980s, Richmond residents formed the West County Toxics Coalition. It’s a multi-racial organization aimed at empowering the community to have a greater voice in the environmental issues impacting their neighborhoods.
Henry Clark: You know, like anyone born and raised in North Richmond, we know that there was environmental problems there, you know, over your whole lifetime. So it was quite only logical when the West County Toxics Coalition was formed and they began to organize in North Richmond.
Sasha Khokha: That’s Henry Clark, who grew up in North Richmond. In 1986, after earning his Ph.D. in religious studies, Clark became executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, and he led it for more than three decades. As a kid in North Richmond, Henry Clark’s home was directly next door to the Chevron oil refinery.
Henry Clark: I can remember clearly waking up many mornings and finding the leaves on the tree burnt crisp overnight from chemical exposure, or you know, going outside and the air would be so foul that you would literally have to grab your nose and try to not breathe the air and go back in the house and wait until it was cleared up. Those type of situations, you know, were a common experience.
Sasha Khokha: Ahmadia Thomas also knows about the foul air in Richmond. She moved there in the mid-1970s and was active in community organizing.
Ahmadia Thomas: Well, then I first came here, I didn’t know, but I used to smell these terrible odors. And I’d say, “What’s that?” And my husband said, “We all smelled it all the time, and we ain’t never made no kick about it.” But they didn’t know what they were smelling. And they were terrible odors: you know ones that smell like sulfur once in a while. Terrible odors out here, after I got out here. When I first came, I didn’t remember smelling all this stuff, but boy, after I was out here a while, I really got environmentally conscious.
Sasha Khokha: Thomas joined the West County Toxics Coalition, too, in part because she was concerned about how Richmond’s industrial pollution was affecting her health—and her neighbors’ health.
Ahmadia Thomas: Like a lot of people had long-term illnesses. Like, these illnesses we don’t know whether they’re short-term or long-term. But if you’ve been affected, say, five years ago and you’re still affected, well now that’s a long term. But, see, a lot of them has been affected. Children, too.
Sasha Khokha: Regular chemical exposures contributed to those illnesses, and so did the periodic accidents, fires, and explosions at the Chevron refinery.
Ahmadia Thomas: And then when they started having the accidents—whoo! There was always a fire or accident. It would be on the TV or in the paper: “There was an accident, but it wasn’t no harm to your health.” And that ain’t true! [laughs] Got to hearing that.
Sasha Khokha: Here’s Henry Clark again.
Henry Clark: You know, these chemical disasters, they do affect people’s lives and people do die from them. You usually don’t hear about the deaths that do occur. You now, they just end up being faceless people whose families may be aware of it, but most of the time you don’t hear about that. Nor do you really even get a good sense of the health impacts, because usually there’s no type of comprehensive health studies that are done or conducted after these disasters.
Sasha Khokha: But the health studies that have been conducted are clear.
Henry Clark: I do know that there’s a 33 percent higher than state average lung cancer rate throughout the Richmond area stretching actually throughout the county, stretching through the industrial corridor.
Sasha Khokha: Here’s Carl Anthony. He’s an architect, a city planner, and a former professor at UC Berkeley.
Carl Anthony: The communities get it. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to figure out if you have asthma rates five or six times the regional average, it’s clearly symbolic of racism. It is an environmental racism.
Sasha Khokha: With so many other Bay Area groups focused on land, trees, and wildlife, Carl Anthony saw the need for a new organization to deal with the complex urban issues confronting communities of color.
In 1989, Anthony co-founded the Urban Habitat Program to focus on people who lived in cities. He envisioned it would be as multi-racial and multicultural as the Bay Area where he lived. And to better understand the connections between social injustice, economic inequality, and environmental racism, Anthony also helped create a groundbreaking journal, first published on Earth Day in 1990, called Race, Poverty, and the Environment.
Carl Anthony: When we began the Race, Poverty, and the Environment journal, we started looking at these. What is the energy cycle? We began to see that the whole system of extracting energy, distributing it, consuming it, and waste, at every step were huge social issues.
Sasha Khokha: Like the chemical pollution near oil refineries, or the health and safety issues for workers there, or the high cost of energy for low income people: all intertwined social and environmental issues. As executive director of the Urban Habitat Program, Carl Anthony built upon the Bay Area’s progressive and environmental traditions, with a focus on community-led decision making and public investment in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. But, the more Anthony engaged with issues of environmental justice, the more problems he saw in the ways that mainstream, mostly white American environmental activists understood their own history.
Carl Anthony: There was a deep problem in the myth of the environmental movement, the story of the environmental movement, as having grown out of a certain understanding about the settlement of North America. Put really briefly, the settlement began in New England when the Puritans arrived, and then they found an empty wilderness, and they cleared the forests and built the dams and the towns, and came all the way across the country, and then they looked back and saw how much devastation they had made.
Sasha Khokha: By the start of the 20th century, that environmental devastation inspired the early conservation movement, led by preservationists like John Muir. But for Carl Anthony, this narrative focused too much on wilderness and the conservation of public lands, and not enough on the history of race and American expansion.
Carl Anthony: You know, if you look back a little bit, you say, “Wait a minute, hold it, what’s wrong with this model?” First of all, the North American continent wasn’t empty. There were ten million people here. So where do they fit in this story? And then, millions of people were brought from Africa who worked the land—now it has been eighteen generations—where do they fit in this story? And in particular, from the point of view of the racial issues, the things that were missing in the John Muir model was that this was the end of manifest destiny. It was the end of the frontier wars with the Indians. These were the years when there was rampant racism against Chinese people and against Japanese people in California; the years when Jim Crow was established, and the national parks were set up that were white only.
Sasha Khokha: If the old land-focused narrative of American environmentalism ignored social and racial issues, it also overlooked the urban issues that Carl Anthony was so passionate about.
Carl Anthony: So, the point I’m making about cities is that the environmental movement took off in many ways by saying, “We’re not connected with that whole thing, that mess around the cities. We’re not going to deal with that.” So there was this big hole. But in many ways, the issues that people are complaining about—whether it’s global warming, or whether it’s the squandering of, you know, chopping down the trees, whatever it is—are rooted in the way that we’re living in cities. So I felt that by setting up the Urban Habitat Program, we would then be in the position to be able to say, “This is how we need to think and act in relationship to restoring our cities. Here’s how we’re going to address the environmental issues; here’s how we’re going to address the social justice issues; here’s how we are going to address the economic issues. And because you care so much about biodiversity and energy efficiency and all these things, we would like to invite you to participate with us in doing that.”
Sasha Khokha: Bay Area activists soon discovered they weren’t alone in the fight for environmental justice. Shortly after starting the Urban Habitat Program, Anthony learned about the Toxic Wastes and Race report published in New York by the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice. That analysis showed how government agencies across the nation consistently located toxic waste facilities in communities of color. And when the Church and other groups began to organize a national summit on environmental justice, the Bay Area sent a huge contingent.
Pamela Tau Lee: . . . 1991, in Washington DC, was so powerful to see people of color in this room talking about their struggles for justice in this country. I had not heard anything as dynamic and comprehensive since the Civil Rights [Movement] when I was young.
Sasha Khokha: Pamela Tau Lee, then a labor activist in San Francisco, attended that First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.
Pamela Tau Lee: When you came into that room, you saw native people from Alaska, the deserts of Nevada, the Shoshone tribe. You saw African Americans who lived in small towns in the middle of Alabama, from the South, New Orleans, with African Americans from Harlem, and Detroit, and South Central Los Angeles. You saw brown people from Puerto Rico, from the border, together with Chicanos from New Mexico and California and farmworkers.
Sasha Khokha: At the summit, leaders of color shared examples of environmental racism from across the country, and they discussed what to do about it.
Pamela Tau Lee: People were there to articulate, what is it that we are experiencing? And what is it that we want? And what it is that we stand for? One is we cannot be afraid to talk about environmental racism. In many of the discussions when we start to talk with the traditional environmentalists, who are mainly white, or the government, they were very afraid of that term. And we said we cannot be afraid to discuss that, talk about what it means: the discrimination of communities in environmental policy and being left out of the process. The mainstream environmentalists, they didn’t want us to say anything about racism. They wanted us to use the word “equity.” And what we need to deal with is the racism that is the root cause of why industry was targeting communities of color: because communities of color would not have any power, that it’s much more acceptable to dump this stuff in communities of color. So if we shied away from talking about racism, we would then not be able to articulate the realities, and we felt it was racism.
Sasha Khokha: As Pamela Tau Lee recalled, activists at the summit also discussed a way forward: demanding justice and taking action.
Pamela Tau Lee: What we wanted industry and the government to use as the criteria for action was the facts: that there is a Superfund site there, that the soil is contaminated, that children are sick, that people have cancer, that the air quality here is bad. And therefore, do something! And what we were coming up against was, you know, “Prove it. Prove that the people are sick. Prove it.” And these communities don’t have the resources to do that. The government and industry knows these people are sick, knows the air quality is bad, knows the soil is contaminated, and should take action. So that was another key component, illustrated very wonderfully in the Principles of Environmental Justice.
Sasha Khokha: The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, and the Principles of Environmental Justice created there, reshaped the trajectory of American environmentalism. It inspired a new generation of activists who put people—not just landscapes—within the environmental agenda. For Pamela Tau Lee, attending that 1991 summit motivated her and others to form a new Asian American organization for environmental justice that would work with people here, in the Bay Area.
Pamela Tau Lee: We came back, Asians came back, we talked together, networked together, and after three years, I think, we formed the Asian Pacific Environmental Network [APEN], which has done very powerful work . . . [with] the ability to begin to articulate what environmental justice looks like for the Asian communities in this country.
Sasha Khokha: The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN, formed in 1993, and its initial work began in Richmond. APEN helped the Laotian immigrant community from Southeast Asia gain a voice in the larger efforts to address the toxic pollution caused by the Chevron refinery and other industrial sites in the city. Today, APEN continues organizing communities for environmental justice throughout the Bay Area.
By the mid-1990s, the demands of the environmental justice movement reached the White House. On February 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order directing federal agencies to “identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations.” Here’s Carl Anthony reflecting on that moment.
Carl Anthony: Well, I think it was, first of all, an incredible achievement. And I can tell you, the ones that did it in the environmental justice movement were virtually uncompromising that the grassroots people have to be at the table. I mean, [they said], “To hell with all these experts and all these consultants and all these people.” They brought the people in who were suffering from the asthma, and respiratory conditions, and from the cancer.
Sasha Khokha: While the executive order didn’t mandate specific actions by law, Pamela Tau Lee thought it was an important benchmark.
Pamela Tau Lee: I think that President Clinton’s order had a very big impact. Many people want to have more, but there is no way that it was going to become law. But that executive order, I think, gave the movement opportunity to advocate the formation of a national environmental justice advisory committee within the EPA. That enabled the White House to call an interagency body to regularly discuss this. And I think that, you know, it’s not like spectacular changes, but I think that it has made a difference.
Sasha Khokha: By the late 1990s, when most of the oral histories you’ve heard here were recorded, several environmental justice groups had formed in the Bay Area. Like PODER, a Latinx-led group in San Francisco whose name stood for People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights. And PUEBLO, which stood for People United for a Better Life in Oakland. And the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in the south bay. These activists often supported each other’s efforts. Here’s Henry Clark.
Henry Clark: Here in the Bay Area, there’s different groups in Oakland or San Francisco that do similar type of work. And so when they have public hearings, or protests, demonstrations, or activities, we go and support their works, send people there to support their work. And when we would have activities here in the Richmond area, they send people over to support our work, so building relationships to mutual support.
Sasha Khokha: Working to integrate environmental, social, and economic change for justice is difficult. So activists celebrate their victories, large and small. Like in the year 2000, when APEN’s Asian Youth Advocates and its Laotian Organizing Project in Richmond were able to create community warning systems in multiple languages for when industrial accidents occur. Or in 1997, when the West County Toxics Coalition shut down the Chevron Ortho Chemical Company’s toxic waste incinerator, which had been belching out pollution for decades.
Henry Clark: That campaign was linked to the Chevron Ortho Chemical Company incinerator that had been operating since 19—I believe—67, on a temporary permit. And Chevron was in the process of getting a permit to expand the hazardous waste that was being burned in that incinerator. The West County Toxics Coalition felt that the company should not get a permit to expand their waste burning. In fact, they should actually decrease the waste that was being incinerated. So we organized a campaign to do public education. We received word that Chevron was withdrawing their permit application to expand the incinerator, and that the incinerator was going to be closing down. And so the incinerator has been closed and dismantled as of June of 1997.
Sasha Khokha: But creating change doesn’t happen quickly. Most of the big, mainstream and mostly white environmental organizations have been slow to expand their activism, their funding, their membership, and their leadership to include BIPOC folks. Even so, since the 1980s and 90s, activists for environmental justice have unequivocally transformed the U.S. Environmental movement from one focused on trees, and landscapes, and sensitive habitats, to one that increasingly includes the health and wellbeing of historically disenfranchised people.
Carl Anthony: What I consider the most important work that I’m involved in is reframing the environmental story.
Sasha Khokha: Here’s Carl Anthony again.
Carl Anthony: There will have to be a much more systematic acknowledgement that environmental and social issues are connected; they are not separate. In my view, that means the environmental justice movement in some fundamental way must become the mainstream of the environmental movement. And I think the environmental movement has had the enormous luxury of being a white movement. But if we’re really serious about changing the dynamics at a global scale, there’s no way that it can keep going as a white movement.
Sasha Khokha: Bay Area environmental justice organizations, like the Urban Habitat Program, have shown a way for activists to build upon their past while still moving forward, together.
Carl Anthony: We kind of represented that model. That yes, you could in fact be advocates of social justice, you could in fact be militant about social justice, and still be an advocate of environmental preservation.
Sasha Khokha: And Bay Area leaders like Henry Clark and Pamela Tau Lee were on the cutting edge of helping the public understand that environmental justice means justice for all.
Henry Clark: When you’re looking at it from an environmental justice perspective, or justice period, the bottom line is that you work out a situation where it will be just for everyone involved, and that’s really what you have to keep the major focus on, especially when you’re trying to deal with situations that have been historically unjust.
Pamela Tau Lee: Many wealthy whites were content for this to be in the back yards of poor communities of color. Well, we were not going to say, “No, we don’t want it. We’re going to put it in rich, white people’s backyards.” That’s not something that we were going to stand for. We were going to always fight for the protection of all, public health of all, the ecology for all.
Sasha Khokha: After all, as our shared world becomes more interconnected, these are issues that affect all of us. Here’s Carl Anthony again.
Carl Anthony: But ultimately, as we get into the twenty-first century, this is the story of how the whole human race is going to address the shadow side of the industrial revolution. It’s not just a Black story. The fact of the matter is that all of us who benefited from the way the industrial revolution had functioned, the gifts that it has given us, are participants in this problem of the shadow side of consumption and waste and all this. Black people just happen to have, you know, kind of an angle or an insight on a piece of this.
Sasha Khokha: Our relationships with the world around us define who we are. So do the relationships we have with each other. Over the last century, Bay Area activists helped advance our understanding of both of these kinds of relationships—from preserving California’s ancient forests, to regulating economic development, to pushing for the health of communities of color as an environmental issue. Today, the social and environmental challenges we face appear even more daunting than the ones earlier generations had to face. Only by working together and building on lessons from the past can we work toward the solutions we need to thrive in the twenty-first century and become the newest Voices for the Environment.
You’ve been listening to “Environmental Justice for All,” the third and final episode in the podcast accompanying Voices for the Environment: A Century of Bay Area Activism. It’s an exhibition in The Bancroft Gallery at UC Berkeley that runs from October 2023 through November 2024. This episode featured historic interviews from the Oral History Center archives in The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. It included segments from oral history interviews with: Carl Anthony, Pamela Tau Lee, Henry Clark, and Ahmadia Thomas. To learn more about these interviews and the Oral History Center, visit the website listed in the show notes. This podcast was produced by Todd Holmes and Roger Eardley-Pryor, with help from me, Sasha Khokha. Thanks to KQED Public Radio and The California Report Magazine. I’m your host, Sasha Khokha. Thanks so much for listening!
End of Podcast Episode 3: “Environmental Justice for All”
ABOUT THE ORAL HISTORY CENTER
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you’d like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. While we receive modest institutional support, we are a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. We must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.