“Your liberation has to be tied to their liberation”: An Interview with Leslie Fields

The Sierra Club’s Director of Environmental Justice describes her team’s model of supporting local communities who are fighting injustices, and gives advice to white groups working alongside groups of color.

Photo:  Sierra Club

In this installment of our interview series, we sat down with Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s Director of Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships, to discuss how her team boosts the efforts of local communities as they fight pollution, environmental racism, and corporate greed, particularly in an era when union strength has declined. Mx. Fields, a lawyer, has worked in environmental justice for decades. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Sam Zacher (interviewer): Can you describe what your job entails, and in general the work that the Sierra Club’s EJ team does?

Leslie Fields: What we're trying to do is work with all kinds of communities to push reducing carbon emissions and remedying in an equitable way, not just marketing solutions that are going to leave communities of color behind. We've got all kinds of problems, food justice issues, gentrification—all the stuff in this direct line. We can’t create any kind of solution without dealing with the legacy pollution. We can’t expect [EJ] communities to be with us as an advocate for solar panels when some still just have water cisterns and no real infrastructure for their sewers.

SZ: When you say you work with communities, how exactly does that work?

LF: We have these organizers who have been with us, but we also work in a lot in networks. We have 63 chapters, they're all [involved at] different levels on these things.

We want to make sure that the just transition from extractive industries to clean energy includes family wage, good-paying jobs and benefits. That's the economic justice part. So we work with a lot of union affiliate organizations: Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), Blue Green Alliance (BGA), black worker centers, etc. We've done a lot of work on the Fight for 15, a lot of solidarity work with the public sector unions, and border wall solidarity work with our chapters and activists down there. 

Our organization has a great Democracy Initiative program. We also do a lot of great electoral solidarity work with civil rights groups. I'm still very close to the NAACP, for example, having worked at the Washington Bureau and now collaborating with their excellent Environmental and Climate Justice Program. With all the congressional seats, we want to make sure that the people can vote for them, so we work very hard with the civil rights community against voter suppression, and all that good stuff. I [personally] do voter protection every cycle.

SZ: How would you describe the role of the Sierra Club EJ team members in those networks you describe? Are you primarily facilitating relationships or helping with policy development or helping plan actions, or other things?

LF: We do all of those things—we support [our partners] with whatever they want us to do at their request. We really ascribe to the Jemez Principles. The two main principles for me are: 1) communities speak for themselves and 2) commitment to self-transformation. The Sierra Club is an old, predominantly upper-middle-class white conservation organization, so we still have a lot of self-transformation to do. Our EJ team devised the dismantling racism training. That effort has grown into what we call “Growing for Change”, a mandatory training led by our Equity Department. 

We're working with a lot of groups on the Green New Deal issues. We [recently] did a huge convening in New Orleans led by black and indigenous organizations. One of our organizers helped put that on, and now there's a  team planning a Green New Deal [proposal] for the Gulf south, led by the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy. We help with that, but they decide what it’s going to be.

We [also] just finished [celebrating] the 30th anniversary of the Great Toxics March. There was a march in 1988 along the Mississippi River where petrochemical and chemical facilities are sited in the black community, the 50 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It’s still an incredibly contaminated part of the world to be. People are getting sicker, and there's very little economic development. The worst thing now is that it’s unlike 30 years ago, [when] there was actually more contact with the workers there, the unions. The workers used to live in the neighborhood, and [although] the unions were segregated, there has always been a fight to get more black folks in the union, and the workers still organized together. But now, because of contract work and outsourcing, the new workers drive in from other places. The companies don't even employ the local people anymore. 

So that connection is broken. And the state gives [companies] permission to pollute and tax abatements, so there's no money going into these communities in terms of revenue for roads and schools and infrastructure. Facilities expand, but these communities just get the pollution. The schools are a mess; they're very bad at location attainment. So it's a vicious cycle. And then, of course, they’re tearing up the wetlands and marshes. Without them as protection, one storm happens and exacerbates all the existing inequality.

We spent a lot of time and did a lot of work post-Katrina to promoting solar and wetlands restoration in the Lower Ninth Ward. We got a tax credit through. So there's now a large number of solar on homes, one of the largest in the US, which is all African American. Lots of volunteers got involved. Foundations like the Make It Right Foundation and Global Green provided funding, and most importantly local organizations like the Center for Sustainable Economic Development and Common Ground. So it is possible to do this—to help people in their communities to do this.

SZ: How does your team decide what regions what communities to work in?

LF: We decide based on where originally requested and by the issues.

The most effective solutions are coming from the ground that we're trying to lift up, and those are the [places] that we are working in solidarity with, in allyship. I don't work in California, for example, because California has a lot of robust EJ groups since there are more resources there and an environmental ethos. We’re in networks with California groups, but we don’t focus our work there.

I like to say that I know when we're successful when I can't tell where the Sierra Club begins and ends in the community—where it’s not as if the Sierra Club is parachuting in. It’s when we have members who are in EJ communities.

 The EJ work is driven by community requests. And it’s international, too. It’s all the same corporations bedeviling the same people—people of color and low-income folks. Royal Dutch Shell is doing the same thing in the Louisiana Delta as it’s doing in the Niger Delta. BP, same thing.

SZ: Of all the environmental justice problems that exist in specific places, I imagine you observe different levels of community mobilization. Why do you think that certain communities mobilize better than others?

LF: Well, some people have a lot more practice than others. Some people have been doing this their whole lives, and all these skills are transferable. Some folks started out having to advocate and [racially] integrate when they were teenagers. And then came voting rights, then came housing, then came jobs, then came the environment. It was always there. So these are the same people, usually great older women who have been doing this for a very long time. They just don’t get recognized for it. They have been advocating for everything. We say, “This is where you work, live, play, and worship.” Some people have to fight for everything.

SZ: You’ve mentioned a few cases of success. I'm curious if you can think of one or two that stick out in your head to describe some of the tactics that you think have worked the best.

LF: One of my favorites was in El Paso. There was a smelter that we helped bring down with the community, and it took a long time. This was a really egregious case because it was a lead smelter, and they would do their [polluting] releases at night, when the wind is blowing southerly [towards] Juarez, Mexico. So basically, the community in that part of El Paso and folks in Mexico couldn't do anything about it. They got poisoned. That's truly environmental racism. It was a huge coalition for many, many years.

SZ: What do you think it was that finally brought the smelter down? What caused the pressure to be strong enough?

LF: I think it was just good old-fashioned organizing. And getting some studies done—we got the data. You get enough people involved. And it just takes a while. It’s about not giving up. You have a good organizer, support locally and nationally from the Sierra Club, but most of the work was coming from the local community. Getting kids involved is key. They make it fun. And there should be some joy to this work, right? You can’t be grinding all the time. Doing it around cultural events is very important. Helping preserve the local culture is very important. That's part of the environment, too. The elders can pass on their knowledge, and the young folks can bring their new ideas. 

SZ: About the Green New Deal and electoral organizing going on right now: What do you want to say to groups organizing behind the Green New Deal? I’m specifically thinking of the Sunrise Movement, but also other local political groups and big green groups?

LF: We work with Sunrise. I'm excited about it because it's bringing [in] all these new people. I think it’s important to be strategic, that the voices of the most affected are part of the strategizing. It's not just enough to say [you are inclusive]. You have to make space, and you have to hold the space, meaning that if [your allies] don't have a job doing this work, and they’re doing this work after hours once they get their kids to bed, you're gonna have to make sure that there are meetings after hours, [or that] these meetings have childcare, if you’re serious about bringing everybody in. Language access is also very important. 

There are networks like the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) and lots of groups. They’re all involved, up there with AOC and everybody, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. They’re having a convening right now, with lots of groups. What happens is you start galloping along, but you have to pull back sometimes to ask, has anybody, for example, talked to CJA in a while? And then you find out, oh, CJA doesn’t like some things. Go find out what's going on! Go ask how you can help. And then when there’s a conflict, you’re going to have to figure out how to compromise. You may not get everything you want.

I'm very excited about our recent convening into New Orleans with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy—pulled together with black and indigenous groups, talking regularly about the Green New Deal and what it means for that part of the world, being specific about that part.

SZ: You've been working in the EJ space for a long time. How you would say that groups that are predominantly white can best work as accomplices alongside groups of color?

LF: Well first, you have to get over yourself. You've got to be in allyship and become accomplices. You have to be in solidarity. Your liberation has to be tied to their liberation. It can't just be a nice thing to do.

Be humble. Be open to learning new ideas, and be open to taking direction from an older woman of color—for example, Mrs. So-and-so, who maybe finished high school, has lived in the community for 60 years and can tell you anything you want to know, but because she doesn't have capital letters behind her name, [some might] ignore her.

And I also think it's important to make sure you define winning as what the community defines as winning, because that's the solution that's going to last.

If you just want to say, “Hey, I went to Standing Rock!”...Ok, they needed people to go up there, but are you part of the solution? Be clear about what you want to do, and to be clear about what you can offer, when asked. And then do it! It may be hard if they say all we want you to do is, when we hold a press conference, we don’t want you guys to take all the credit. That’s really hard for some white groups (laughs). It really is! You gotta tie them down with duct tape.

Just let people speak for themselves. Just be a good human being, and open your heart, and learn about what the community is doing because it’s not just environmental stuff. There might be some other criminal justice crisis going on. Be intersectional. There may be a reason why they don’t want to meet across town near you because that library used to be segregated. That's not where they're comfortable. You gotta learn that stuff. Ask people, and don't assume anything.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups influence policy, particularly on issues like the climate crisis. He tweets @samzacher.

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