Our place in the environmental movement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death

I am writing this at the end of a very long and emotionally exhausting week dominated by the murder of George Floyd and the grief, outrage, fear and violence that has gripped our community in its wake. I know that I am not at all alone in feeling compelled to take meaningful action, but also in struggling to know what to do from my position of relative privilege.

In this week of intense feelings and nearly overwhelming tension, I do feel especially fortunate to work at Environmental Initiative. Over the course of the past few days, I have found myself in reflection and dialogue with our staff and members of our Board about what George Floyd’s unjust death means for our community and for the work of our organization. Inspired by these conversations, I feel clear about one thing that I can do and need to do. I am moved to affirm my relationships to those of you who are our supporters and partners of Environmental Initiative, and to share how I understand the relevance of these events to our work together.

I feel fortunate to be in an organization that has come to recognize that all environmental issues are also issues of equity, race and justice. Over the past three years, we have begun to reimagine what is the legitimate work of an environmental organization, who should be involved and what we hope to contribute to larger movements for a better Minnesota and a better world.

Issues that once seemed like narrow environmental issues to me I now see to have strong dynamics of race, such as the fact that the quality of the air you breathe in the Twin Cities has a lot to do with the color of your skin and the zip code in which you live. At the same time issues that once felt separate from environmental issues I now see as being clearly interconnected, such as the issues around access to safe, affordable housing. As an organization, we are facing up to the fact that the systems we have accommodated for so long create conditions where communities of color, Tribal Nations and rural communities are often the most impacted by these kinds of environmental, social and economic issues writ large, and at the same time often find themselves excluded or marginalized in the decisions that affect them, or worse, demonized for trying to participate.

Despite the best intentions and high aspirations of the environmental movement itself, I recognize over the years that I and many others have accepted all of this division as an unavoidable part of our reality or somehow acceptable in our work. We accept division of people into allies and enemies, and we consume ourselves in polarization and find ourselves playing into the myth that the prosperity of people somehow can be separated from the wellbeing of the living world. We must do better and find ways to be better together.

I have come to see separation and division as the fundamental problems that underlie many of our most pernicious environmental issues, and that our highest and best work as an organization is in building a stronger understanding of the interdependence of all people and the interdependence of people and the living world. This is healing work in a fragmented world that is in desperate need of healing.

The killing of George Floyd demands justice, and so do the persistent patterns that mean that we don’t all breathe the same clean air or drink the same clean water or have the same access to quality jobs. We are an environmental organization that understands that its work as building meaningful relationships between business, government, environmental nonprofits and now impacted communities, and for that organization George Floyd’s death and its aftermath are a reminder of the deep harm done to people and planet alike by division and separation.

I’m inspired in this moment to dig deeper with all of you into what we can do to help heal that division, and to contribute to a healthier environment, a more resilient economy and a more equitable society.

I look forward to hearing your reflections on this moment, its meaning to you and to your own work, and your ideas for how we can do even more impactful work together. Contact me if you would like to have any of those conversations.

In partnership,

Mike Harley