How are we recognizing Black History Month at the Iowa Environmental Council? We want to share with you some of what we’re doing, and we want to invite you to partner with us as we explore the history and shape the future of environmental justice in Iowa.
We got an early start in January. On Martin Luther King Day, we were excited to partner with the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, whose annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast featured a keynote from noted environmental justice scholar and activist — and Iowa State University graduate — Dr. Robert Bullard. He addressed an audience of several hundred Iowans, tracing the history of environmental justice from the story of Dr. King and the civil rights movement to the African-American leaders who organized against the unjust impacts of environmental pollution in black neighborhoods.
Dr. Bullard emphasized that women, young people, and faith leaders have been key throughout this history, like the activists in Warren County, North Carolina who were repeatedly arrested in 1982 for blocking truckloads of toxic waste from being dumped in their community. I encourage you to learn more about that struggle, which birthed the environmental justice movement.
Bullard’s keynote was far more than a history lesson; it was a call to action and a celebration of the historic opportunities we have to address environmental justice today.
That’s why we were so excited to host a “Summit on Environmental Justice in Iowa” immediately following the breakfast. More than 50 people attended, including over a dozen leaders from IEC member organizations and partner groups across the state, who worked with us to plan and lead small group conversations. We shared our stories, our sense of outrage, and our sense of hope for what’s possible.
Together, summit participants identified environmental justice issues in our context, including things like...
• disparities in urban tree cover and exposure to urban heat;
• unequal vulnerability to flooding and extreme weather;
• workplace health and safety, especially for essential workers;
• increased risks of asthma and respiratory disease;
• unequal access to fresh, local food and land to grow food.
The Summit inspired us to continue learning more about this history as we work to address these challenges today. Through our partnership with Drake Community Press, we working toward a book about environmental justice in Iowa. This month, we have a new group of Drake students who will be scheduling interviews with Iowans who want to share their stories and perspectives on environmental justice. In a couple of weeks, our staff will be traveling with this group of undergraduates on a field trip to Waterloo, where we’ll meet with environmental justice leaders and visit sites in that community where the legacy of industrial pollution is an ongoing challenge.
The Summit also inspired us to continue growing our coalition of people and organizations committed to addressing environmental justice now and in the future. This month, as we give special attention to the history and future of environmental justice in Iowa, we at IEC are also spending lots of time at the Capitol. We are troubled by the flurry of legislation that aims to limit Iowans’ freedom to teach and learn about issues of race, equity, identity, and justice, past and present.