'Building Power To Effect Change'
On the first day of Julian Agyeman's Environmental Justice course, he points to the cover from his book "Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World," which depicts a woman in Johannesburg, South Africa, sitting on a pile of trash. He tells his students: "She lives like she does because we live like we do."
The key issue here, and the focus of Agyeman's work, is 'just sustainability'—the idea that environmental quality and human equality are closely linked and the former cannot be sustained until there is the latter. As the Tufts associate professor of urban and environmental policy and planning puts it, "Countries that treat their environment badly, generally treat humans badly, too."
Our society, he contends, is rife with inequities—take, for example, the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. While the storm afflicted areas both rich and poor, Agyeman observes from a recent trip to the region that impoverished areas like the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans have been much slower to recover than wealthier parts of the city.
For a community to be truly sustainable, then, it must also be just. 'Just sustainability,' he says, must be pursued collectively. It's a lesson he wishes could have been learned by modern civilization earlier.
"You think about our model here in the United States, it's survival of the fittest really," he explains. "What if that other message that Darwin gave, that species that could live in communities were also selectable, what if the Victorians had picked out that as the take-home message and used that as the organizing concept for our society, not dog eat dog? What if it was 'cooperation is the highest form of advancement'?"
Agyeman believes the level of cooperation needed to truly bring about just sustainability in a community must be attained by empowering the disempowered.
"One of the issues about gaining equity is building power in communities to be able to effect change," he says. "Power in that sense means getting resources, getting the advocacy channels to work."
The best policies can only be gotten by maximizing participation, but too often, Agyeman argues, the people who would be most directly affected are closed off from the policymaking process, rendering them powerless.
Agyeman cites the Boston-based group Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE) as an example of a community organization that has seen success in gaining the political power needed to make change.
As detailed in his book "Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice," teens angered by the poor air quality in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood—where buses idled long past legal limits, filling the air with toxic exhaust—demanded that the Massachusetts legislature hold the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority responsible. The new fleet of compressed natural gas buses navigating city streets today is partially due to those teenagers' efforts, which included tactics such as a march to the State House.
He says that ACE succeeded by having staff who could negotiate the city's power broking channels that could solicit resources, as well as staff in the community to distribute those resources. "Building power is about building coalitions," he observes.
One community he recently examined, with a grant from the National Ocenographic and Atmospheric Agency, is particularly vulnerable. Agyeman studied the thousands of Guatemalan workers in the fishing community of New Bedford, Mass. As mostly illegal immigrants working gritty jobs in the fish processing industry, the population "fell below the radar of most immigrant support agencies," he explains, leaving them with few resources and little support to call their own.
For Agyeman, the situation recalls the woman on the cover of his book. "We live like we do because there are people who will perform services way below what we would perform those services for." But his commitment to empowering these populations extends beyond the words in his books.
"I want to use my power and my advocacy and my ability to bring resources to them to help them build power," says the Tufts professor, who has worked with several organizations in the Boston area and in his native England on issues relating to just sustainability.
Agyeman is uniquely poised to study these topics. The child of a white English mother and Ghanaian father, he says he has always existed—even thrived—at "the interface of worlds, where boundaries meet."
"That's what my mother always said about marrying my father from Ghana: 'I was young I was impressionable and I just thought I was bringing the world together,'" Agyeman recalls. "In a sense, I'm just carrying on what my mother tried to do in marrying my father."
Profiles written by Georgiana Cohen
Photos by Alonso Nichols for Tufts University
This story originally ran on Feb. 19, 2006.