Across Western North Carolina, environmental organizations and activists have fought for decades to protect the natural environments of the Southern Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville’s own Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit forest protection organization engaged in work across the South, has made its mark by preserving the beauty of these breathtaking landscapes. But becoming just as important to the group’s environmental activism is something less visible: social justice.
“We have become increasingly aware of how closely forest destruction is linked to community destruction,” says Emily Zucchino, community network manager for Dogwood Alliance. “As an organization, we wanted to become more clear and explicit in the role between environmental injustice and forest destruction. We were forced to re-evaluate the way we do our work, who we are partnering with, and what those partnerships look like.”
One such partnership, the Justice First Tour, comes to Asheville’s Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center on Saturday, July 14. In collaboration with the Sierra Club, New Alpha Community Development Corp. and Kingdom Living Temple, a church based in Florence, S.C., Dogwood Alliance is traveling across seven Southern states to engage vulnerable communities and build solidarity around climate crises.
The tour’s Asheville stop takes place in conjunction with the Southside Rising community celebration, which features music, food, cultural performances, local vendors and social justice activities. Zucchino says the event will tie the community’s poverty and gentrification issues together with the greater environmental context. “Where we see issues of affordable housing crises, we see climate justice arise also, as far as extraordinarily high energy costs for lower-income communities,” she says.
Zucchino also mentions the WNC Renewables Coalition’s planned proposal for a citywide transition to 100 percent renewable energy. “This is an imperative opportunity for justice: If we transition to clean energy without shifting power out of the hands of corporations, we will have lost,” she explains. “Therefore, this is a call to all of us to push for a switch to renewable energy and ensure that the benefits of this transition are in the hands of Asheville’s most vulnerable communities.”
The first step to making these important changes in a community, emphasizes Zucchino, starts with elevating the voices of community members themselves. “We desire to take the conversations and outcomes from the Southside Rising event to elected officials in our area so that the people can have a platform to communicate their frustrations and what they would like to see happen,” she says about the Asheville stop of the Justice First Tour.
Dogwood Alliance’s approach is derived from the tradition of environmental justice, a concept popularized by Alabama native and Texas Southern University professor Robert Bullard. As he explains in his 1993 book “Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots,” environmental damage is often inflicted on already disadvantaged or marginalized groups. “Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets’ or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation,” Bullard writes.
The U.S. government recognized the value of environmental justice when it created the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice — originally the Office of Environmental Equity — in 1992. Its formation came as a response to years of work by environmental and civil rights activists who formed their own groups and coalitions, such as West Harlem Environmental Action, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, to protect themselves from further environmental neglect.
This change in the governmental protection of all people was largely due to underserved communities taking a stand against unhealthy and unsanitary environmental conditions. Inspired by that history, Dogwood Alliance is working to strengthen the link between environmental conservation and these roots of environmental activism.
“Dogwood Alliance is a forest protection organization,” Zucchino says. “We are not a racial or economic justice organization, but there are other groups doing that work. What we do is identify those organizations, support and partner with them, and learn how we can do forest protection work from a lens of justice.”
Such reflection is crucial for organizations that wish to pursue equity in their service. DeWayne Barton, community leader and founder of Hood Huggers International, does not believe there is optimal collaboration among local environmental organizations. “We have all these good groups doing this great work, but they’re not connecting,” he says. “I wonder how we can all work together to have a bigger impact on the entire community.”
While Barton says that organizations such as RiverLink have offered helping hands in the past, he sees missed opportunities for more consistent, mutualistic working relationships. Discussions over the I-26 Connector highway project, for example, have engaged his Burton Street community and the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens in the same fight for environmental protections as other groups.
“Those that want to help have to value the work that these neighborhoods are already trying to do and add capacity to it,” Barton says. “We could use support in the gardens, at Smith Mill Creek where we’ve been trying to put in a greenway for almost a decade, or by working on the pipeline to get our local young people invested in environmental opportunities, especially in light of this highway expansion.”
Zucchino agrees that a community united achieves bigger and better goals than a community divided. Environmental protection, justice and appreciation, she says, can only benefit everyone if all have a seat at the table. “We understand that we are never going to be successful in our mission of protecting forests if there are still racial and economic injustices. Until there is a shift in this paradigm that values profit and economics over people, the environment and forests, we cannot be successful in our most fundamental goals.”