by Constance Garcia-Barrio

Some years ago, thanks to small but consistent donations to the Ocean Conservancy, I got an invitation to a coffee-and-cake gathering with other women donors at the home of a Main Line matron. I was the only black woman and surely the poorest one there. I soon found myself called aside by the lady of the posh house. She told me, in so many words, that I did not fit in. Race and class trumped helping the ocean. I left angry and humiliated.

I wondered if similar incidents had contributed to the apparent whitening of the environmental movement, or if the media smarts that let groups like Greenpeace grab air time put a mid-to-upper income white face on environmentalism. Thank God for green groups whose skills spotlight environmental threats because the earth needs all the friends it can get, but the faces TV viewers usually see hardly tell the whole story.

For many of us African Americans, earth-awareness harks back centuries. “In 1792, a man, aged 72, was cured of the stone by taking the expelled juice of red onions and horse mint,” an observer wrote in an 1801 medical journal. “The discovery was made by a Negro in Virginia, who obtained his freedom thereby.”  Enslaved Americans relied on plant medicine, and some of their remedies were noted in medical literature, often without crediting those black herbalists.

Black folks like my mother, a Virginia farm girl who came North with the Great Migration, brought with them a knowledge of healing plants and respect for the earth, and passed those herbal heirlooms on to their children. I use the mint transplanted from the old Spotsylvania County farm to my small front yard in Mt. Airy to settle a chancy stomach.

Some of us who practice African-based religions like the Yoruba tradition also value plants for their spiritual qualities. Blacks aren’t alone in honoring the earth. Native peoples from the Arctic to Argentina revere the land. Asians, Hispanics and other groups have similar values. That outlook can serve us well because we have much at stake in environmental issues.

“Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007,” a report prepared for the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, found that nationwide communities of color are targeted for hazardous waste disposal sites and polluting industries.

Environmental racism puts people of color at higher risk, but ultimately everyone stands in the crosshairs of pollution and the profits-over-people outlook. We’ll all sweat as the climate heats up. Foods with GMOs will wind up in most families’ cooking pots.  The effect of the bee die-off and its grievous impact on agriculture will hit us all. In short, it behooves us to work together to save the earth.

Differences of race and class pose stout barriers, but they can be crossed. For example, two sometimes-inimical groups, ranchers and Native Americans, formed the Cowboy and Indians Alliance to fight TransCanada’s proposed XL pipeline. It would cross ranches and Oglala Lakota land in Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Such teaming up takes work because tension often marks meetings of people of different race and class backgrounds, but anticipating possible conflicts can defuse them. For instance, in interracial meetings, white people, especially men, tend to take up a big chunk of the time allotted for speaking. If we’re to collaborate, our voices must count equally, and that means equal talking time.

The flip side of that issue is for us people of color to know that we have ideas to contribute and to break through doubts, old hurts and memories of being silenced in order to voice our views. We need to speak up, even if we do it in ungrammatical English.

Whites and people of color may have to work not only to find common social ground but a physical space where everyone feels at ease. Whites may feel reluctant to drive into the city while blacks may be less likely to have a car or time to travel to the suburbs if we’re working several jobs.

People of any color who lack time or transportation can still jump into the fight against pollution and environmental racism by joining groups that prioritize those goals. A recent newsletter of the Sierra Club, Pennsylvania Chapter (717-232-0101), states the organization’s desire to have a more diverse membership.  Likewise, Earthjustice (800-584-6460) represents seven communities of color across the country poisoned by power plants, oil refineries and landfills. (Both of these groups have a four-star rating, the highest one, from the Charity Navigator, because they make excellent use of donations.)

My earth roots are too deep to let one rich racist dunce kick me out of the environmental movement. A few years after I was booted out of the mansion, Ocean Conservancy (800-519-1541), also a four-star charity which seeks a diverse membership, invited some of us local donors to tea and treats at no less a place than the Union League.  I savored the goodies and the setting at that interracial meeting with enormous satisfaction.

Constance Garcia-Barrio is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, author and retired professor of Romance languages at West Chester University.