Even in Memphis, the green movement looks, well, white.
Last year, former Portland, Oregon, parks and recreation director Charles Jordan gave a talk at Memphis College of Art that touched on making the environmental movement more inclusive. Of the 400 people in the room, Jordan was maybe one of five African Americans.
But Green for All's "The Dream Reborn" conference, held last weekend at the Cook Convention Center, saw 1,000 attendees of every race, creed, gender, and age.
"Most environmental conferences are 98 percent white, but most environmental problems impact people who are not white," says Green for All founder Van Jones. "We thought we'd come to Memphis to honor Dr. King and talk about the challenges that face vulnerable people."
The mission of Green For All is to create a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. Conference organizers mandated that 70 percent of attendees be persons of color.
"We believe that all people deserve access to healthy food and clean energy sources," Jones said. "Environmental solutions are not just for people who can afford to buy a hybrid car or put solar panels on their second home."
Speakers highlighted links such as the one between clean air and asthma and the one between clean air and obesity and diabetes.
"If they located power plants in rich neighborhoods as quickly as they do in poor ones, we would not be here today," said Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx and an environmental justice activist. "Energy would have been clean and green a long time ago."
Jones said he wanted attendees to understand that the environment affects everyone and that there are economic opportunities in the growing green economy.
"There seems to be a common belief that there is one planet called the Earth where the environment is, and we live on some other planet," the Jackson, Tennessee, native said. "We're a part of the Earth, and in industrial societies we sometimes forget that."
Jones, a Yale law school graduate and co-founder of Oakland, California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, is an energetic, charismatic man. During our interview, I witnessed people (from Chicago, New Orleans, Alaska, you name it) come up to tell him what they were doing in their own communities and what they wanted to do or just let him know they were there. Finally, he led me down a hall and around a corner — hidden from other conference attendees — so he could answer my questions uninterrupted.
"Environmental solutions can help the planet and the pocketbook. When you weatherize your home, it might be good for the environment, but it also saves you money," Jones said. "If you buy healthier food, it might cost a little more in the short term, but it will save so much in medical bills in the long term. It's much more cost effective.
"The green economy is not just a place to spend money, but a place people can earn money."
Conference attendees learned about Native-American reservations harnessing wind energy and then being hired by nearby farmers to erect wind turbines. They heard about green housing developments in Newark, New Jersey. They heard about green job programs and ways to convince both public and private entities to retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient.
"This is a more efficient economic model, one that I think Dr. King would have been proud of," Carter said of the possible green economy.
At the same time that Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King's children were leading a march from City Hall to the National Civil Rights Museum (see "40 Years Later," page 9), conference attendees spoke about how "The Dream Reborn" conference was a natural extension of King's work.
Zakiya Harris, who performs with her husband as roots band Fiyawata, is a 30-year-old mother who lives in Oakland, California. She attended the conference because she felt it was a once in a lifetime chance and that it was the rebirth of the movement.
"This resonates with me," she said. "This is the future. This is what it's going to take to have a transformation of our planet."
Harris cited speaker Afeni Shakur Davis, former Black Panther party member and mother of rapper Tupac Shakur, and how women played an important role in the civil rights movement.
"Even in Oakland, the crowds are not as diverse as this," Harris said. "In the movement, women played a powerful role. White people played a powerful role. Labor played a powerful role. It looked like this, only 40 years ago."
Just a little greener.
"Sometimes people think about environmentalists as people who only care about polar bears," Jones said. "We fight pollution and poverty at the same time. We're passionate about the planet and people."
For more information, visit dreamreborn.org.