Rights Become Reality
By Miya Yoshitani
Nearly two decades ago, when I came to the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) as a youth organizer, we did an exercise with our teen participants asking them to fill in a timeline of AAPI history. We would place the colorful sticky notes on the timeline to mark key moments – Chinese laborers build the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Filipino and Japanese farmworkers strike for better pay, Executive Order 9066 putting 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps, the fight for the International Hotel. A history steeped in institutional racism and inspiring leadership with real victories from community organizing.
Today, as APEN’s Executive Director, I feel honored to be part of the work that continues to add more organizing victories and milestones to the AAPI history timeline, and I keep with me the lessons learned from APEN’s founders and from the environmental justice movement about empowering those most directly affected to lead the charge for change.
When I got to this fight, President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice was the news of the day. This order acknowledged the rights of all people to a clean and healthy environment, but no stroke of a pen can turn rights into reality. It’s the tireless organizing, the calling and knocking and persuading and energizing that produce the legal, administrative and corporate victories of which APEN and our EJ allies are rightly proud.
This order continues to be a critical milestone – official acknowledgement of the disproportionate and unjust environmental damage caused by pollution on communities of color and low-income working class communities.
Making this order more than words on a page continues to guide and animate our efforts towards environmental justice. Low-income Asian American and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos, communities living on the fenceline of refineries, next to freeways, in cancer allies, near incinerators, coal mines and dirty power plants. We continue the fight for environmental justice, acting as a powerful emerging force to confront one of the greatest environmental injustices of our times: the destabilization of our climate. Here, we share with you a powerful short film about a new generation of leaders – through the Our Power campaign. This grassroots effort, driven by Richmond’s low-income communities of color, is educating and empowering Richmond resident’s to be on the frontlines in the struggle for building a resilient and thriving local clean energy future.
In California, the federal recognition of the importance of environmental justice through Executive Order 12898 has been a catalyst for helping us advance innovative state policies in recent years. For example, APEN and other Asian American organizations were strong supporters of the recently passed SB 535, which ensures 25% of all revenue collected through the state’s cap and trade program benefit California’s most disadvantaged communities who are also the most impacted by climate change. This law is expected to drive billions in public dollar investments to low-income communities of color throughout the state.
This is just one of the many victories we have seen. Since the early days of the Executive Order, communities of color in California, like the low-income AAPI immigrant and refugee communities organized by APEN, have not only been on the frontlines of fighting pollution, but on the cutting edge of solutions on all fronts, including transitioning the state from a polluting fossil fuel based economy to a clean renewable energy economy. We have a vision for local, renewable energy that creates jobs, new models of ownership, and deep community resilience in the face of climate change.
While much has changed over the last 20 years, some essential things remain the same. Our will, our resolve and the courage of our communities have not altered, and neither has our gratitude for the tireless support of allies like you and champions of change within agencies like the EPA.
About the author: Miya has an extensive background in community organizing and working in the environmental justice movement. She was a participant in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 and on the drafting committee of the original Principles of Environmental Justice. Miya first joined APEN staff in the mid-90s as a youth organizer. Today she serves as Executive Director-continuing on a 20 year journey of leading the fight for climate justice in California and trailblazing the path forward in bringing Asian American immigrant and refugee community voices to the forefront of environmental health and social justice.
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