California’s New Environmental Movement

How communities of color, using health and jobs as rallying cries, took on Big Oil -- and won!

Two children, one wearing a blue shirt and other a pink shirt, play in the sand on a beach.
A still from “Where We Live,” a 10-minute documentary on the defeat of California’s Proposition 23, released in March 2012 by the Funders Network on Transforming the Global Economy, Solidago Foundation, and Kontent Films. Photo courtesy of Kontent Films

At least 18,000 people die each year in California as a result of bad air quality. That’s 180,000 preventable deaths over the course of a decade.

When it comes to environmental health in communities of color, saying “This is life and death” is not rhetoric, but a reality that fueled a remarkable grassroots victory in 2010. California voters, led by its voters of color, turned back an oil company financed initiative aimed at overturning the state’s toughest-in-the-nation global warming law.

The initiative, Proposition 23, would have suspended California’s climate law unless the state’s official unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent or less for four quarters in a row, something that hasn’t happened for several decades. So, while the measure’s stated goal was to protect jobs and the economy, its real objective was a defacto repeal of the law, popularly known as AB 32, potentially taking down tough climate action across the nation.

Global warming—or more accurately, climate change—is the result of too much carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. These gases are released by the burning of fossil fuels and are almost always accompanied by co-pollutants—toxins like sulfur dioxide and particulate matter associated with bad air quality and health problems. Climate change increases air pollution, and in California, as in the rest of the United States, people of color and poor people already breathe the dirtiest air and experience disproportionately high rates of pollution-related health problems.

Two Texas-based oil companies, Tesoro and Valero Energy Resources, funded a successful $2 million signature gathering campaign that placed the misleadingly named “California Jobs Initiative” on the November 2010 ballot. The campaign hit economic issues hard, claiming that AB 32, along with the state’s long history of incentives for clean energy and energy efficiency, had destroyed California’s economy and cost thousands of jobs. The pro Prop. 23 campaign predicted it would raise $80 million to $100 million, the biggest expenditure for a state ballot measure ever.

A Fight for Survival

With two oil companies trying to undo what they had worked so long for, the environmental and environmental justice communities had no choice but to move quickly, explains Roger Kim, executive director of Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

Uppermost on everyone’s mind in mid-2010 was the stinging—and needless—defeat of 2006’s Proposition 87, which would have placed a tax on oil company profits to fund renewable energy research and development. Well funded (to the tune of $40 million) by two progressive donors, the Prop. 87 campaign felt it did not need to engage communities of color, labor, or low-income communities to win. As a result, the no campaign, funded by Chevron and other oil companies, immediately and effectively tagged the measure as a tax on the poor. Thanks to a relentless “no on 87” paid media campaign targeted at people of color and the lack of a “yes” ground game or media in those same communities, Prop. 87 was defeated by a nine-point margin.

When it came to Prop. 23, therefore, rather than only participate in the mobilization of the traditional environmental groups, environmental justice and social justice leaders created their own coalition, Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition, not only to defeat Prop. 23 but also to advance long-term economic justice, health, and environmental protection. The Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, later joined by APEN, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Greenlining Institute, and PowerPAC, formed the nucleus of this coalition, which quickly grew to more than 120 environmental, social, and economic justice organizations statewide.

APEN and its allies knew it was imperative that people of color and low-income community organizations reach their communities with messages about health and jobs — and with messengers from those communities. They used three central “no on 23” messages:

  • Californians don’t want outside interests, especially dirty Texas oil companies, dictating what our future will look like.
  • The clean energy economy is the biggest jobs and economy driver in California, and is made possible by AB 32 and related green policies and programs. Don’t destroy what is working for all Californians.
  • By halting AB 32, Prop. 23 would cause more air pollution and pollution-related health problems, rolling back years of work to improve public health in California.

The first message was the focus of campaign materials distributed by Stop Dirty Energy, an existing, mainstream environmental campaign collaborating with Communities United on the No on 23 effort. The health and jobs messages were central to Communities United’s media and organizing campaigns. Ella Baker Center director Jakada Imani explains, “We went to communities of color and said, ‘These oil companies don’t care about you — what they want is the right to pollute your community and the right to pollute your children.’”

Building from the Base

For environmental justice and community-based organizations, says APEN’s Kim, taking on a message about health, jobs, and justice was less challenging because those conversations were already taking place in communities. Building from this base, Communities United organized and implemented an impressive and large-scale voter engagement program which included:

  • Talking one-on-one at the door or on the phone (in English, Spanish, and Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese) with 250,000 households in 10 counties that are home to 75 percent of California’s voters of color. Roughly 280,000 pieces of direct mail (also in four languages) were sent to likely voters of color in those same 10 counties. These 10 counties are also home to the state’s — and the nation’s — worst air quality and the largest percentages of the population suffering from respiratory and other diseases connected to bad air.
  • Organizing a caravan to six college campuses across the state, attracting thousands of young people to the cause, sparking rallies and street events in a dozen communities. A hip-hop “No on 23” anthem went viral on YouTube thanks to the tour and the popularity of the artists involved. These events got earned media coverage, particularly in ethnic radio stations and newspapers.
  • Reaching every ethnic media outlet in California in its own language through activists and leaders from those communities. This was the first time an environmental campaign reached out to California ethnic media outlets, which in many cases are the primary sources of news and opinion for their communities. Stories appeared in everything from large print dailies like La Opinion in Los Angeles to small weeklies, and from big radio and television outlets such as Univision to small community-based stations. In addition, Communities United purchased $200,000 worth of radio time in every major media market and ran Spanish language ads featuring Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and legendary United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta with messages about health.
Prop 23 Up in Smoke

In the end, “We didn’t just beat the oil boys. We beat the pants off the oil boys,” Imani says, smiling. “All [our] folks brought everything they had to the table.” Prop. 23 was defeated, with 61.6 percent voting against the measure.

But that’s not the whole story. Communities of color provided that vast margin of victory. While voters of color made up 37 percent of the electorate and whites 63 percent, 73 percent of voters of color and 57 percent of white voters voted against the measure. One million new voters of color came to the polls in November 2010 in California, so even if white voters had supported Prop. 23, this huge outpouring of motivated voters of color would have guaranteed its defeat.

In this story, nothing about California is unique — not the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on the health of communities of color, not the massive demographic changes, and not the deep concern of people of color for health and environmental quality. The fight against Prop. 23 illustrates how communities of color often display strong environmental values, even if community members are not affiliated with so-called green groups. In fact, polling data consistently document the fact that, overall, people of color are more concerned about environmental problems and more committed to environmental values than are white people.

A July 2011 Public Policy Institute of California poll showed 61 percent of Californians believe that the effects of global warming have already hit the state and 66 percent support AB 32’s overall goal, with 58 percent believing action must be taken now to mitigate its effects. However, just 51 percent of whites, as compared to 69 percent each of blacks and Latinos, say the state should act right away. About 66 percent of Latinos and blacks said global warming is a serious threat to the state, as compared to 38 percent of whites. The same poll found that 77 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Latinos believe air pollution is a serious health problem, as compared to just 44 percent of whites. Finally, the poll shows just one-third of whites believe air pollution-related health problems are worse in low-income communities, as compared to two-thirds of blacks and Latinos.

Sustainable, Equitable, Healthy Communities

Since the modern environmental movement began more than 40 years ago, grassroots campaigns and communities of color have fueled the most important environmental victories in California and in the nation. Sadly, even though the direct effect of these campaigns on greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and health is huge, at this point they are too often undocumented, not aggregated, and dismissed as singular, “local” fights or worse, as “NIMBYism.” But these communities are where “folks … are sick of seeing every other kid with an [asthma] inhaler,” as Communities for a Better Environment’s Bill Gallegos puts it. They know “you don’t have to live with it. You fight it,” he says. They are working every day to create a sustainable, equitable, healthy, and democratic future for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.

The Prop. 23 story grabbed big headlines, but too often that’s not the case with these grassroots campaigns. The challenge to the environmental movement is learning to listen to the grassroots, which already wholeheartedly embraces health and environmental values — and has demonstrated repeatedly that it’s willing to fight for clean air, clean water, and safe and healthy communities.

As Gallegos explains, “We know what needs to be done [and] we know what the solutions are: energy efficiency, conservation, regulatory mechanisms, replacing fossil fuel with clean renewable energy sources, public transportation versus single car transportation, expansion of green space, [and] restoration of wetlands. It would improve our public health and put hundreds of millions of people to work.”

With Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition now morphing into Communities United for Clean Energy and Jobs, the same community power that fueled the defeat of Prop. 23 will be harnessed to put those solutions in place in California and around the nation.

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