Collaborative Imagining and Action
By Roselyn Poton, Environmental Justice Fellow
I invite you to pause for a moment and imagine a world where the environment and all people – regardless of their color and background – have their needs met and more. We want our communities to thrive and ensure no one is left behind. We can do this by coming together and collaboratively taking action to create just futures for all.
While attending the One Water Summit in September, four key themes emerged. These themes represented the culmination of my last year of work hosting community convenings with the Oregon Water Futures Collaborative (OWF) and supporting community-driven well water testing as the Environmental Justice Fellow at Willamette Partnership. To collaboratively imagine and take action for a just future for all, we need to apply an environmental justice lens, operate from an abundance mindset, take creative and inclusive approaches, and center communities.
1. Apply an Environmental Justice Lens
Applying an environmental justice lens is essential when working through environmental issues. The US EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”(1) Understanding which communities experience disproportionate impacts from environmental health issues informs investments in communities that need it most and creates space for impacted communities to lead decision-making processes. Applying an environmental justice lens to environmental issues is critical to creating just and equitable futures for all.
2. Operate from an Abundance Mindset
Working from an abundance mindset allows us to see many possibilities of a future where people and the environment have their needs met and the opportunity to thrive. It is inclusive and strives to see the positive potential and opportunities that emerge from acknowledging and valuing our differences. When we come together with each of our unique gifts, we can find creative, community-driven solutions that celebrate diversity. An abundance mindset is based on a gift economy in which gratitude creates reciprocity. In “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer shares Indigenous wisdom about ‘reciprocity’ and ‘gratitude.’ Kimmerer writes, “In a culture of gratitude, everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again. This time you give, and next time you receive.”(2) For communities to thrive, we must move away from scarcity frameworks and towards reciprocity and gratitude. Economic models based on environmental scarcity as a driver for decision-making are inadequate and cannot solve environmental problems. They limit our ability to solve problems creatively and effectively distribute environmental gifts because they present false choices related to ownership and control rather than need and service. Kimmerer states, “Continued fealty to economies based on competition for manufactured scarcity, rather than cooperation around natural abundance, is now causing us to face the danger of producing real scarcity, evident in growing shortages of food and clean water, breathable air, and fertile soil.”(3)
OWF is an example of a collaborative based on gratitude and reciprocity. It is composed of multiple organizations and people with different skills, talents, and knowledge. Each organization has its unique focus, but they work collaboratively towards a shared vision of water justice to impact how the future of water in Oregon is imagined through storytelling, capacity and relationship building, policymaking, and community-centered advocacy at the state and local levels. OWF has pooled diverse knowledge and gifts together that create and grow community-driven solutions.(4)
3. Take Creative and Inclusive Approaches for Just Futures for All
Past policies like ‘redlining’ and the Homestead Act created inequities that continue to impact communities across the US. The legacy of these policies continues to cause negative impacts today in BIPOC, Tribal, rural, and low-income communities that have been historically overlooked, underinvested, and left out of conversations that have profound and lasting impacts on community members’ health and well-being. For example, communities of color in Portland, Oregon, are more likely to experience flooding and suffer from excessive heat.(5) Black, Asian, Latinx, and low-income populations in the US are exposed to higher concentrations of air pollution, such as Particulate Matter 2.5, than other groups, leading to asthma and other respiratory diseases.(6) Our environment shapes our health and how we experience life as much as we shape the environment. To prevent further negative health impacts, promote healing, and create just and equitable futures for all, we need to take creative and inclusive approaches to policy and processes.
At the One Water Summit, I attended a session on the topic of “Anti-Displacement and Social Infrastructure Development,” where several speakers spoke about the need to center communities and ensure their voices are heard from the beginning whenever there are discussions related to their community.(7) In this session, one of the issues raised was the tendency for long-standing community members and small businesses to be pushed out and displaced after infrastructure improvements to public housing and cities are made. Improvements to infrastructures lead to higher property values and rents that can make living in the community unaffordable. Communities want improvements that do not lead to their displacement. The presenters shared possible solutions such as building anti-displacement protection into project development plans, analyzing property management companies and their practices, adopting inclusionary zoning policies, and creating community land trusts.(8, 9) It was emphasized that community members be included every step of the way when development plans are being drafted, ensuring their voices are meaningfully heard.
4. Center Communities
Centering communities is critical when working through environmental issues. Implementing this practice, however, is not as simple as saying it. Part of centering communities requires removing obstacles that make it difficult for community members to participate in conversations and decision-making. We must recognize that community members work, have families, and may not communicate in the same way or the same language as those wanting to assist communities on environmental issues. Centering communities will look different in each unique place. For example, when hosting community convenings with OWF over the spring, we offered each participant compensation, chose a time outside of working hours, and offered convenings in Spanish or English depending on participant preferences and needs.
Other examples of centering community voices shared at the One Water Summit by attendees and speakers included:
- Hire from within – Employ people from within the community as opposed to bringing in outside workers to complete community projects.
- Involve from the start – Work with communities to understand and define issues from their perspectives.
- Recognize, value, and honor community expertise – Offer participants compensation for their time attending workshops, completing surveys, and sharing back findings and results from research and community projects.
Working with Oregon Water Futures Collaborative over the past year and as an Environmental Justice Fellow with Willamette Partnership has been an invaluable experience in building knowledge and skills that will be useful in working through environmental issues. These experiences have illustrated the importance of applying an environmental justice lens while working from an abundance mindset, taking creative and inclusive approaches, and centering communities to come together to collaboratively imagine and take action towards just futures for all.
Rose Poton (she/her) is Willamette Partnership’s Environmental Justice Fellow supporting the community-led drinking water quality testing program and Oregon Water Futures Collaborative. She studies Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon’s Law School, concentrating on water and environmental conflict. Rose was a Project Manager with the Just Futures Institute and an Environmental Justice Fellow at the University of Oregon. She uses a community-centered and environmental justice lens to approach complex environmental issues. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, gardening, and playing with her four-year-old daughter, Jazz.
- US EPA. (2022). Environmental Justice | US EPA. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice
- Kimmerer, R. W. (2020). Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed. https://www.amazon.com/Braiding-Sweetgrass-Indigenous-Scientific-Knowledge/dp/1571313567
- Kimmerer, R. W. (2021). The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance. Global Oneness Project. https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/essays/serviceberry-economy-abundance
- Oregon Water Futures. (2022). Elevating Water Priorities for Oregon Communities. Oregon Water Futures. https://www.oregonwaterfutures.org/
- Brown, L. (2021). A Natural Vision for Water Part 3: Advancing Health and Environmental Justice – Oregon Environmental Council. Oregon Environmental Council. https://oeconline.org/a-natural-vision-for-water-part-3-advancing-health-and-environmental-justice/
- Feldscher, K. (2022). Study shows stark disparities in race and pollution exposure – Harvard Gazette. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2022/01/study-shows-stark-disparities-in-race-and-pollution-exposure/
- US One Water Alliance. (2022). US One Water Alliance: One Water Summit 2022. US One Water Alliance.
- Community-Wealth.org. (2022). Community Land Trusts (CLTs). Community-Wealth.Org. https://community-wealth.org/strategies/panel/clts/index.html
- Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R). (2022). Inclusionary Zoning and Mixed-Income Communities | HUD USER. Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R). https://www.huduser.gov/portal/periodicals/em/spring13/highlight3.html