“Why we should care” – Calling on Asian Americans to demand environmental justice

(Jingzhe (Kelly) Wang/MEDILL)

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Asian Americans are increasingly pushing for environmental reforms to address the issues impacting their communities across the country. A new Chicago advocacy group recently held a workshop on Asian Americans and Environmental Justice to drive home the importance of the community’s political involvement for climate action.

Andrea Chu has been organizing these workshops for the past year. Chu, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, has studied environmental planning and management. She is involved with  Chicago Asian Americans for Environmental Justice (CAAEJ), an environmental group urging residents of Chinatown and Bridgeport to test their garden soil for lead.

Chu said that an overwhelmingly large number of industrial factories are located in the South and Southwest sides of Chicago and it is a matter of concern for immigrant families who grow their vegetables in backyard gardens. “We are encouraging lead testing and trying to figure out what the situation is,” she said, adding that Chinese families may be advised after testing to move towards raised beds for growing bitter melon, bok choy and other garden staples.

Andrea Chu (right front) stressed on the importance of political involvement for action against climate change. (Madhurita Goswami)

Lower-income communities and communities of color have historically been at a higher risk of environmental hazards and disasters. However, there is a lack of racial diversity in non-profit organizations and government agencies working towards a better environment. Groups such as CAAEJ offer Asian Americans the opportunity to formulate actionable ideas in this regard and exert their voices in the decision-making processes.

Chu started the discussion by asking: “Why should Asian Americans care?” On the local level, she said poorer Asian Americans – like other disadvantaged groups in the US – have a higher level of exposure to toxic substances and criticized the model minority myth, which has created a false impression that all Asian Americans are financially well-off. From the global perspective, she said the coastal cities of Southeast Asia are under the threat of being submerged due to rising sea levels and a huge number of people live in these cities, so it is high time to demand for changes.

She also questioned the ethics of individual responsibility. “We now know that the richest 10% are responsible for half of lifestyle emissions,” Chu said. “But we have been going after individual consumption of people who may not have the time or the capacity to think about something like recycling, which we don’t make easy for anybody in this country.”

She said that protests to shut down a polluting pipeline or seeking greener policies will go far and have a more immediate impact on preventing global warming.

At the workshop, participants criticized the current U.S. attitude on
emissions and President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris Agreement on global climate change mitigation. “When I was in school, the American media had this narrative that we are doing the right thing, but India and China won’t play nice and lower their emissions,” said Chu.

However, participants discussed how that narrative ignores that the U.S. has pumped out more carbon dioxide per capita than any other country since the Industrial Revolution. The history of colonization in Southeast Asia has left many countries stuck in time, critics said. They also agreed on the imbalance between the East and the West in terms of population. Chu illustrated this with a study showing that an average American currently leaves more carbon footprint than people belonging to other nations.

Seventeen-year-old Suzy Schlosberg, who participated in the  workshop, moved to the U.S. from China when she was only eight years old. She has been an environmental activist for the past four years. “But, I didn’t identify as an Asian-American environmental activist because I didn’t know what that part of my identity could mean for the movement. As someone who grew up in China and belongs to the immigrant community, I can now work not only for the environment but also for my community,” she said.

Peter Chung, who works for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club,
became interested in the workshop because “I am often the only Asian American in the room and currently, the only Asian American on staff at the chapter level (of the Sierra Club).”

He said he is working on political organizing in the northwest suburbs to turn the tide in favor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a state-level bill pushing for sustainable energy development.

Photo at top: The new advocacy group Asian Americans and Environmental Justice is calling on residents of Chinatown and Bridgeport to have their garden soil tested for lead, one of several priorities of the organization. (MEDILL)