Green and black

Pub date November 19, 2008
WriterAlex Jacobs
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

GREEN CITY The 2008 San Francisco Green Festival, held Nov. 14-16 at the Concourse Exhibition Center, is a well-established environmentalist event that featured more 1,000 vendors and was overseen by 1,600 volunteers, all united in promoting a greener future.

Yet the event’s keynote speaker, Cornel West, along with Van Jones of the Oakland-based Green Jobs for All and San Francisco-based Muslim minister the Rev. Christopher Muhammad, all conveyed an expanded definition of environmentalism that emphasized social justice and concerns specific to African American communities.

The idea behind this fusion of black and green is that our traditional view of environmentalism, with its focus on the health of ecosystems, needs to be expanded to social systems as well. In that context, Muhammad’s long fight against Lennar Corp.’s reckless approach to developing Bayview-Hunters Point (see "Question of intent," 11/28/07), in which his Muhammad University of Islam was exposed to toxic asbestos dust, takes on new dimensions.

As the first speaker of the day Nov. 15, Muhammad’s speech was geared toward local issues of concern. Muhammad continued to shed light on the "environmental racism" taking place in the Bay Area communities of Bayview-Hunters Point, North Richmond, and West Oakland, referring to the injustice as San Francisco’s "dirty little secret." Environmental racism ranges from citing polluting industries in poor communities of color to inequities in who has access to healthy food and preventive medical care.

Muhammed brought to light the issue of San Francisco’s declining middle class and minority populations, citing rising crime rates and housing costs as culprits. He also commended the Green Festival for bringing people together to hear about an expanded scope for environmentalism. "It’s a place where people can come and be informed about issues that impact them that have historically been left out in terms of this whole [green] movement," Muhammed said.

The last scheduled speaker of the day was prominent social critic and Princeton professor Cornel West, author of the new book Hope on a Tightrope (Hay House). Muhammad has worked with West in the past and praised him as a fellow advocate for social justice: "I’ve met with him on a number of occasions and worked with him on various projects. He’s an ally."

West stressed the importance of addressing social justice by saying, "There’s a need to target [environmental racism]. You need a coalition in order to bring hard pressure to bear, so it can become more of a national issue."

In many ways, the people are showing signs of resistance to change, as with the passage of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California, a result he calls "catastrophic." Still, he said, now, after a historic presidential election, is the moment to begin the transition. "It’s the end of an era. Thirty years of a country sleepwalking is over," West proclaimed to the cheering crowd.

He warned everyone not to believe that change will come overnight, reminding the crowd that it is ultimately up to us to push the change that we so desperately crave. "It’s not just about one messianic figure on his way to the White House," West said.

Green energy is the future of this country, West said, and one of the many ways we can foster positive change. The potential to lift up communities of color as part of the transition to new energy sources has been a big focus for Van Jones of Oakland’s Green for All, who spoke Nov. 16 about his new book, The Green Collar Economy (HarperCollins). He said we must "invent and invest our way" out of our current "gray economy" and into the new "green economy."

West also said the American people are still coming to understand the nature of the problems we face. "America has grown old, we’ve grown wealthy, but we have yet to grow up." But he ended his speech on an upbeat note, saying this age of conservation and greater awareness will create what Sly Stone called the "age of everyday people."

This year’s Green Festival exposed attendees to nontraditional environmental problems that pollute our social environment. The take-away from this new focus was that "going green" involves more than just driving a hybrid car and shifting to compact fluorescent lights — it means truly transforming our communities.