Urban communities aid green issues
"We know there will be something important on the ballot related to the environment. We want to get people to vote who are the most impacted and haven't voted historically," said Ian Kim, campaign manager for Communities United against Proposition 23, now Communities United for Clean Energy and Jobs.
Kim and his cohorts are still riding high from the successful campaign to stop Proposition 23, which would have suspended California's Global Warming Solutions Act. Early polling indicated voters of color could be a significant swing vote.
"Because of the way the proponents framed it in terms of jobs and unemployment, people of color would be split 50-50 or maybe even vote yes," Kim said. That possibility inspired organizers to launch an aggressive get-out-the-vote and educational campaign aimed at communities of color. They were haunted by memories of failed environmental efforts with disproportionate negative impacts on poor communities.
"The environmental groups had taken a standard approach with television messaging, and the mobilization networks reaching people of color hadn't focused on environmental issues," Kim said. As a result, voters of color did not receive the pro-environmental message.
Last year, that changed. Communities United against Prop. 23 put together a coalition of more than 130 organizations across the state, including churches and community groups. They sent out 300,000 pieces of direct mail in English, Spanish and Cantonese. They took out 1,000 radio ads with Spanish-language radio and spent $200,000 on ads in black, Latino and Asian media.
A No on Prop. 23 ad ran on YouTube (sfg.ly/gks8EQ); another was featured on a YouTube page (sfg.ly/epb1QS).
"We turned a corner. We educated our network of grassroots allies that the environment isn't just about polar bears, but about asthma and cancer clusters. About green jobs and an attempt (Prop. 23) to take away our best hope for job generation for the next 30 years," Kim said. He and his fellow organizers believe voters of color were a sizable part of the margin that sank Prop. 23, which voters rejected by 61.6 to 38.4 percent.
"The Communities United effort was successful in reaching low-income communities and communities of color," said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California. "Often California environmental groups have had trouble reaching all of California's diverse communities, so it's important to have partners like the Ella Baker Center and others who are already active in those communities." Magavern said he hopes to build on the alliance and collaborate even more closely with these groups.
Communities United Against Prop. 23 also reached out to white rural and working-class voters, other populations that aren't usually targeted by pro-environmental campaigns. Kim said one-third of the households in the coalition are working-class white families.
According to the California secretary of state, the proposition was defeated in several conservative-leaning counties. Communities United organizers are excited about building on the coalition.
Joseph Griffin, advocacy coordinator of Teens on Target in Oakland, said this was the first time his organization had gotten involved in an environmental campaign. Teens on Target focuses on youth and gang-violence prevention.
"When you start looking at the root causes of violence, the environment is one of those issues. Growing up in Richmond, we expected to have asthma. Later you realize this isn't something you have to accept. Also, the young folks see green jobs as an opportunity that Prop. 23 was threatening. It was a natural step for us." He said the organization will "definitely" stay involved in environmental issues.
"We're on the way to creating the state's largest, most-effective environmental network of vulnerable, impacted communities," said Abel Habtegeorgis, media relations manager for the Ella Baker Center.
In fact, recent polls have found strong environmental attitudes among Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans. For example, in 2007, the Public Policy Institute of California found that 45 percent of Latinos and 36 percent of African Americans said regional air pollution is a big problem, and 62 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of African Americans and 46 percent of Asian Americans thought regional air quality had worsened in the past 10 years.
Last July, the institute found that African Americans, Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders supported the California Global Warming Solutions Act by margins significantly higher than whites.
Kim and Habtegeorgis said the experience in California has implications for the rest of the country.
"Looking at election returns from across the country, the conservative Tea Party wave got stopped at the California border. We stopped that wave of fear with a wave of hope. Our organizing efforts can apply to other parts of the country that are diverse. The rest of the country should take a look at what we're doing here," Kim said.
If some progressive organizers are looking toward the 2012 political campaign with trepidation, activists at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are raring to go, eager to put a new coalition into action.
Brenda Payton is a writer in the East Bay.