Earth Day, White Privilege and Decolonizing the Mind

Arturo Sandoval, founder of The Center of Southwest Culture, was a member of the first national Earth Day organizing team. He was a leader in the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1970’s and continues today to work for environmental justice, human rights and community-based economic development. Sandoval was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director.

ARTY: You were part of Denis Hayes’ team that produced the first Earth Day in 1970. What was that experience like?

ARTURO: It was my first time organizing on a national level. I worked with a very bright team. It was lots of work. It was very exhilarating. It completely exceeded anything we hoped to achieve. It was like holding onto the tail of the tiger. We were basically just trying to stay out of the way of a freight train coming down the tracks because the response to the first Earth Day was so overwhelming. It was huge. It was just unbelievable, and took everything we had to just try to connect the dots and get information out to the people and not get in their way.

ARTY: In conjunction with your national organizing, you led a march in Albuquerque.

ARTURO: I wanted to make sure that people of color were featured in some way in the national coverage. So I worked with my colleagues at United Mexican-American Students at the University of New Mexico (UNM). We organized a march to South Barelas, which is a Mexican neighborhood where they had built the solid waste plant. Every day a film of dry material from the plant would cover everything, and it smelled really bad. I thought it would be great if we could get national coverage to focus on that issue.

We marched to the plant, and we were successful in getting the City of Albuquerque to move the plant much further south into the valley. People tell me that that was the first national environmental justice march led by people of color in the U.S.

ARTY: As a leader in the Chicano civil rights movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, how were you received by white activists? Did you come up against white privilege or even overt racism?

ARTURO: I don’t think I ran into overt racism, but I do think there was a very East-West Coast culture that emerged. I think the conservation movement is also very classist in that the majority of environmental activists that I interacted with were middle-class and upper middle-class. I came from a working-class background. As a Chicano, I was definitely a fish out of water. Basically, I did feel clear class differentials. I felt the class difference, and I did feel marginalized.

I wanted to engage people in action for the health of the planet and hoped that they would also include people in that concern. I saw that it was the same basic enemy that we were fighting in both areas. I believed, and I still do, that the people who are racist and who exploit the working people, who exploit black people, Chicano people and Mexicans are the same people who were/are dumping heavy metals into our rivers and our lakes and polluting our air. I saw Earth Day as an extension of my civil rights work and as an opportunity to bring Chicano rights to a national audience. I thought maybe through the lens of environmental action and conservation that we could open the door to a broader discussion about the impacts of exploitation – not just of the planet, but also of people – and to help people see it was basically one in the same issue. That was my hope.

But generally, Chicano activists and black activists were not drawn to the first Earth Day because they were so deeply engaged in their own local issues. They were fighting for survival, so it was difficult for them to add Earth Day activities to their existing workloads.

Arturo Sandoval (3rd from the left) with the first Earth Day organizing team in 1970

ARTY: What do you think needs to happen in the environmental movement today to make it more inclusive?

ARTURO: After Earth Day, there was a succession of a lot of national federal legislation – maybe 20 or 30 federal acts – enacted specifically to protect the environment, Clean Air and Water Acts.  That success in many ways ended up causing a long-term issue for environmental groups. It led them to believe that being primarily composed of white middle-class and upper middle-class citizens was enough to get the job done, that they did not need to change their approach or their tactics. Nor did they need to reach out to working people, to rural people, to Chicanos and Mexicanos, and African-Americans. They really never made it a fundamental value of their work or strategy to try to include these groups. We’re paying the price for that now under the current regime in Washington, because we do not have the connections to the vast majority of these working people to get them to support us against what’s happening right now, which is a complete dismantling of all the victories we had in the 1970s.

I think that was a failure of the environmental movement. I engaged enough with the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and I know enough about national conservation groups to know that they’re still, unfortunately, over 90%-95% white middle-class. They’re a very East-West Coast-oriented culture, and they have done very little to broaden their base to working-class people and to African-Americans and Mexicanos. They have not done enough to get the message out on how the environment impacts us all as humans. That’s why they are really getting hammered in the national political arena at this time. They don’t have the deep, broad based coalition they need to fight off what’s happening in the Trump administration.

ARTY: You’ve said that racism, environmental justice, and colonization are connected.

ARTURO: I work with indigenous communities and Chicano communities in the greater Southwest. I believe that the reason that poor people and working people are poor is because they’re at the center of the current capitalist system. Without them, we couldn’t have extremely wealthy people. They’re not on the margins of what’s happening in this country, they’re at the very center of it. Because we train them through education and we fill their heads with a colonial model that puts them in a one-down position, they come to believe it. They internalize the belief that they are poor because of their own shortcomings.

Frantz Fanon, the French-trained psychiatrist, wrote about this in the 1950’s when the Algerian revolutionary movement was underway. It’s not easy reading, it’s all about colonization and how to decolonize yourself. We were reading him in the ‘60s in the Chicano movement as a way to begin that process of decolonizing ourselves and to understand how colonization works and how colonization also dehumanizes the colonizer.

People of color, working people need to decolonize their minds, and they have to ultimately own their own lives, to take active steps to take control of their own lives. The only way they can do that is through study, reflection, and work.

Education teaches us not to passively accept the current status quo and the economic system,  and to challenge the idea that the political system is the best system in the world. The reality is it’s one of the worst systems because it depends on exploiting the planet and the planet’s resources and ultimately destroying the planet. It also destroys people and cultures while it’s doing that. 

You can’t separate issues of colonization and environmental justice from each other. Everything is tied together. People have to be engaged in these conversations. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. Until people like me, who offer themselves as community organizers, are constantly questioning what we’re doing and until we continue to learn and decolonize ourselves and become better humans, we’re never going to transform our communities, nor the larger society.

ARTY: About 10 years ago, I invited you to address the Bioneers staff on issues of diversity and oppression. One thing that you said that really stuck with me was, “The system is set up for the average white guy to succeed, but not for the average brown guy.”

ARTURO: The system in the U.S. is set up so that within all the systems – the economic system, the social network system, education, the churches –  if you’re a white man or white woman in society and you have average intelligence and you can spell your name correctly, you can have a pretty good life by just being very average. You can have a career. I’ve seen this over and over again where white people end up making really good money with a bachelor’s degree. It’s easy for them to get degrees, they can afford college. Everything’s set up so that if you’re just an average white boy and you’re just average going through the system – you just show up at school, take a bath every day, pack a lunch, or your mom packs you a lunch and you go through the process – your odds of having a very high-quality life and a good life are almost guaranteed.

But if you’re a working class Chicano or an African-American, you have to overcome incredible obstacles that are not there for the average white person, because the system is set up to exclude you. You have to put in extra effort. As a result, we have high levels of failure in our communities, not because we’re dumber, not because we’re inherently inferior, but because the system is set up on purpose to make sure that we don’t succeed and that the average white guy does. That’s still true.

ARTY: Most white people are blind to the advantages the system gives them.

ARTURO: I experience microaggressions everyday and in every way. I’ve had a couple of conversations just in the last two weeks with white friends of mine, who I love dearly. I’ve known them for 30 or 35 years, maybe. But they don’t see me. They do not see what my capabilities are, even when I offer my services to them. They don’t see my talent. They see a Chicano guy that they like and that they hang out with, but is really not serious or does not have enough skills or talents to be taken seriously. And these are people who I consider very good, long-time friends of mine. But it’s that blindness that occurs to middle-class white people. They literally don’t see me. They are examples of a systemic issue.

ARTY: How does your work today integrate environmental and social justice?

ARTURO: We’re working on four major fronts now at the Center. Through our community development center, we’re trying to create economic parity for indigenous and Chicano/Mexicano communities through a number of economic models that don’t require mainstream capital because we don’t have access to it. So, we’ve been doing a lot of organic farming co-ops especially in New Mexico where Native Americans are in a unique position of having aboriginal rights to irrigation, and the long-term Chicano-based land communities are second in line for use of that water. The downside is we’ve let that land go fallow or we’re growing small-scale alfalfa, which will not bring you a 21st century income. So people aren’t interested in doing that work if it’s not going to give them enough money to send their kids to college.

We’re getting them to convert what they’re doing from alfalfa to organic produce because organic produce can generate a 21st century income. That’s number one. Number two, we want them to be healthy. You can’t be healthy intellectually if you don’t start out healthy physically. I read a Harvard study way back in 1967 that stuck with me. It said if the human body doesn’t get the right nutrients in the first three years of life, it doesn’t matter what happens after that, they won’t be able to develop intellectually. Our organic farming co-ops are selling 100% of our produce to local schools. We’re trying to feed our kids to keep the brains in shape physically so hopefully they can develop them academically as they grow older.

We’re trying to create justice by creating income and also by providing the most basic necessity – healthy food. We just started doing some of that work in Northern Mexico in Chihuahua.

The Story Riders program works with urban indigenous, Chicano, and Mexicano fifth-graders. We teach them bicycle safety and repair. We provide bicycles and they ride along the Bosque trail. They meet cultural elders, they meet artists, Latino and Native American scientists from Sandia Labs. They meet all kinds of people that in a cultural context give them STEAM and STEM education programming in the Bosque. That’s a way to build their self-esteem and also start building their capacity to be academic.

I want to make sure that we assume 100% responsibility for our own communities, and that we are responsible for our own well-being. We have to build capacity in a co-intentional way with our community to find our own liberation, to build our own smaller-scale internal structures, and to define our own economic, spiritual, and political independence. I think we can do it through developing co-ops.

Most of the economic models that we use for organic farming are all cooperatives because co-ops are communal models and they spread the wealth out horizontally instead of vertically. I also think cooperatives are really back to the future. Indigenous communities are used to clans and kinship, and that’s how they still operate. In the land-based traditional Chicano communities, land grants and acequias are our communal models. Finally, co-ops are pre-figurative models for a post-capitalist society, if we’re thinking far enough into the future, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

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