California protesters. Credit: uusc4all/Flickr
California clean water protesters. Credit: uusc4all/Flickr

Earlier in the month, I attended the National Environmental Justice Conference (NEJC) in Washington, D.C. Over the span of the conference, I was able to hear from people from all over the country who are working on environmental justice issues. Some of the speakers had been working on environmental justice for half a century! A lot has changed since then, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made.

Let’s take a look back at where we were 50 years ago. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited the use of federal funds to discriminate on the basis of color, race and national origin. This served as a powerful base for the environmental justice movement. Protests filled the 1960s, as minority populations began to take a stand against environmental injustices they were experiencing. These injustices ranged from migrant farm workers being exposed to DDT to toxic dumps in close proximity to communities.

In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, building off of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to bring a social and civil rights approach to environmental issues. While these policies incorporate an environmental justice consciousness at the federal level, there is still a lot of work to do on the ground for underserved minority communities that continue to bear the burden of environmental hazards. Efforts like capacity-building, environmental education and technical training are some of the ways to help these communities.

At Sam Houston National Forest, the Latino Legacy Program is helping to develop picnic areas, boat access points, swimming areas and many other resources for the Hispanic community, which is the majority of the forest’s visitors. The Latino Legacy Program also has an education and outreach team, called “Los Amigos del Bosque” (Friends of the Forest), and “Boqsue Movil” (Forest Mobile) that provides bilingual information on conservation to engage Latino youth and communities.

Credit: Nongbri Family Pix/Flickr
By sharing photos and stories on Discover the Forest’s Facebook page, minority families are building a community of outdoor enthusiasts. Credit: Nongbri Family Pix/Flickr

The U.S. Forest Service is also developing its Discover the Forest Campaign to reach minority audiences (Descubre el Bosque). By translating educational material and creating more targeted ads, the Discover the Forest Campaign hopes to inspire all populations to get outside.

At the NEJC, I learned the importance of presenting tools and information in a variety of ways since different audiences may have different priorities and values. There also seems to be an underlying value of community and family across all audiences, which will be a key to building the next generation of conservationists.