A conversation with the environmental justice activist Kari Fulton.
Kari Fulton: My name is Kari Fulton, I am an Environmental Justice Advocate and I’m also the National Campus Campaign Coordinator for the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative.
Question: How did you break into the environmental justice movement?
Kari Fulton: If you want to go back to like my family’s size, my… mom does a lot of… she did a lot of non-profit work around conflict management and arts and social justice and my father actually cleans up environmental waste. He works for the government but I didn’t actually build that connection in between the social aspects that I was working on and what that might be doing to my father and to some of my relatives who also have cancer or dealing with respiratory issues until I had the opportunity to go volunteer in the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina. So after Hurricane Katrina, that first spring break I was in a group of the first students from Howard’s to go and volunteer. So, since then there is been a lot of different alternative spring breaks through Howard University but when I went, it was really, really eye opening experience because I was working and the Gulf Coast predominantly and Biloxi and Mississippi and other places that have been impacted but it was the first time that I saw like wow, how much of a connection our environment plays to all the social justice issues that we are having in. And so for the first time I looked in I said, well, this storm just exacerbated all the other issues that were going on and when I went down there, it was very interesting because people were barbequing and grilling and they were so happy to see us. Like, honestly they were happy because Howard is a historically Black college and university and before that, there were lot of kids coming with Americorps and Red Shield and from Brown and Yale and all this different places but the people in that community, they all mentioned, they said, “We are so excited because this is the first time that we’ve seen our people come down to help us.” And so that meant a lot to me and then… so they celebrated that, they really honoured a… they… you know, even though they were in such struggle and strife, they barbequed and they were grilling and I was thinking like everybody seems to be barbequing and grilling and it’s just March. But I realized the reason why they were doing that was because the electricity hadn’t been turned on since the storm happened in September and we were talking about March. From that I had this… one of the first of my A-ha! moments and I was sitting there talking with my friend and she was crying because we had just last night [IB] New Orleans and we just looked at like people’s houses on top of the other people’s houses and listening to all the different legislative in policy, situations that were really harming the people that used to live there, where people were being told that they had move in to their homes but it’s like how can you move in if your home is on top of someone else is. So they where taking land, it was all types of things. And so she was crying and she was like I just feel so overwhelmed and at that same moment I was saying… I want to do something and it gave me this [IB] on myself and I said, I want to bring that spirit of community service back to DC. We don’t have to always go down to New Orleans to do good in our community. So, I ended up getting a fellowship with Young People for People for the American Way and they gave two other Howard seniors and I… a fellowship and they awarded it to us and they gave us some seed money and they said do whatever you want to do with it, any type of progressive campaign you want to do and we will help you through it, we will help you develop a blueprint for success and make it happen. So we did that and we decided that we had all these different things we wanted to do. One person really was interested in HIV/Aids, one person wanted to continue building up advocacy around Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast and I also wanted to do that but I was like I want to do some sort of community service. So we decided to put together a block party, we were real like how are we going to meet people where they’re at, we can’t just continue to have the same boring forms and panel discussions but let’s build it up and let’s bring people where they’re at. So we hosted these block parties, we engaged the community, we tested throughout those black parties, I think we tested over 250 different people for HIV/Aids, we brought out different community service organizations and non-profit organizations and government organizations to help bring out resources, we had the employee van coming out to offer help in getting jobs for teenagers in the area. So that was kind of what sparked it and from that and people started looking and so [IB] who was the former Campus Climate Challenge Coordinator for EJCC so me working, she sad hey, I’m transitioning and you will be the best person to take my spot. And it was great because I was just graduating from college and so it’s been show in the road ever since then.
Question: What does a national campus campaign coordinator do?
Kari Fulton: I have a very unique position. So, I worked through the Energy Action Coalition which is a coalition of 50 diverse great organizations including EJCC, National Wild Life Federation, League of Young Voters, Green for All, lots of really great groups and when we started, we saw that there was a need to draw attention to these issues on HBCU campuses and we also know as a HBCU graduate, there are some HBCUs who are definitely behind as far as the Greenhithe Agenda goes on campuses and campus sustainability. So that’s what I did so I took a unique task of saying, I want to take a lead in mobilizing students at historically Black colleges and universities. So, what I do in a daily basis is I go out and I start the conversation and when I first started it was very much like, we’re just going to throw you out there, do whatever you want.
Go, figure it out, bring the people it, that’s kind of what I did. So, I’ve just been gradually cultivating other strong leaders and some people take it from the perspective of how many can you bring, what can you do, how much can you do and I’m looking at who more than how many? Because the people that I work with and the people I’m connected to, I know that they are going to do even more than what I’m doing all ready and I’m just waiting to see the next political analyst that has such energy savvy, agenda and also comes from a perspective of living in an Environmental Justice community. And that’s definitely going to happen with the young people that I’m working with today so I do lot of that, I do a lot of phone calls, sometimes I act as a mentor for some of my young students that I work with, I connect them to other opportunities and I really like I said just like with the block party, I work to try and meet people where their at. So 80% by 2050 is not the rhetoric, that is going to bring the people that I work with on my team.
But when I bring people in, I meet them where they’re at, if you are interested in fashion, let’s talk about how you can bring your fashion and we’ve have that, we have students like Amel who hosted a ECO fashion show during Power Shift 2009, which was our large conference where… it was largest climate conference, youth climate conference ever largest lobby day. So getting students out to do stuff like that or if you are into business, let’s talk about sustainable business programs. Let me help you research sustainable MBA programs. If you are journalist let me connect you to other ECO journalist or give you opportunities to showcase your work whether is on new media sites or in real publications. So that’s kind of what I do.
Question: How do you help people see their impact on the planet?
Fulton: Well, one thing that I really do is… I’m really inspired by one of my mentors, Dr. Robert Ballard who is considered the father of Environmental Justice and one thing that he says often is that if you live on this earth, if you breath this air then your are an environmentalist and so I come from that tactic and that school of thought where everything that you do has… is connected to the environment in some capacities. So one of the trainings that I liked to do the most is that I will ask people what they’re interested in already and then give them case studies directly connected to what they’re interested in and show how Environmental Justice impacts that specific situation and most of the time, unfortunately, I can use real life situations.
So for instance it might say like what does you might be interested in gingification, that’s your issue that you are importing in. So I’m going to give you a case study directly connecting gingification to Environmental Justice and urban sprawl and access to resources like transportation and jobs because those are Environmental Justice issues, the ability to get from point A to point B in your environment, that’s an Environmental Justice issue or where you’re placing people when you deal with gingification. Often times people go from one Environmental Justice has in a city to another Environmental Justice has where it’s suburban area that was built for new home owners or low-income residents and it is build on top of a land fill or on top of another environmental hazard.
So that happens a lot and we just try and connect it directly to what they’re interested in and it doesn’t even have to be a cause, it could just be like you like riding around in your car, bumping your music. So let me connect this to the environment and when we do that, that training I really like doing it because even the people who would not be engaged are engaged when you do that training.
Question: What is the difference between coalition-building and organizational leadership?
Kari Fulton:The difference is consensus takes a long, long time. You may never actually reach it. So, there is always… even it is very interesting because I worked with… in a coalition within a coalition. So I have to manage 2 different coalition strategies. So, you have EAC which has a lot of more main stream organizations and then you have EJCC which has a lot of Social Justice and Environmental Justice organizations. So, at times the EAC might want to move on a legislation or supporting something or calling for something with our lobby days or whatever and so we have to make sure that we are going back to the EJ community especially our elders and the community and listening to them and saying okay, what do you all think about this situation.
So for me as someone who was young and coming into this ride out of college, it was the best experience because I was able to get broader perspective of the environmental movement because I have my EJ folk over here who are in the trenches, in the grassroots and then you have your policy [wonky-like] alliance for climate protection Apollo like those type of groups that are really into policy and debate and stuff like that and I can see it from both sides. So… but one thing I think is interesting is that often times that voice of the grassroots person isn’t heard, is not heard but then gradually later on, that policy person will retract what they said and go right with what the grassroots person was saying and so as my duty as a young leader, I feel like having the opportunity to work with so many grassroots organizations and EJ organizations, makes me realize the relevance of listening to these different groups and I think that every movement should start from the people who are impacted and then listen from… to them first before they decide on policies and agendas that are going to set the future for everyone.
Question: What is your leadership style?
Kari Fulton: Well, on different days, it takes different roles, I would say. Some days I feel like I’m the mother hen or the ethical leader. So, at times people comes to me like this is going on, this is going on and like oh, aaahhh so sometimes I feel like I have to… I feel more comfortable defending the rights of others than I do myself. So, when that happens I’m like I need to go, we need to rush, we like… you don’t feel supported? What am I going to do to make sure you feel supported and that’s what I think what type of leader I’ve had to be and I’ve been for awhile and now I’m just kind of looking at it like… along with the ethical aspect of wanting to do right by my people and knowing that that is my goal of any work that I do is to support my people, my family, my community, my culture. I think it is very important but I also realize that if I just stood on my ethics and didn’t have a strategy or a vision, I won’t be anything and people need more than just someone to ra-ra for them.
They need also someone to build that mission in and invigorate them to actually want to go on it and have a broader vision. So, I think that’s where I would like to see myself and I don’t want ever loss my ethical ways or my ability to be a process leader. I think those are very, very important skills to have but right now I think I’m sitting, just sitting around meditating on this bigger vision that I have and this bigger strategy and so I want to use all these lessons that I have had to really build that up.
Question: Where do you see the movement in ten years?
Kari Fulton: In 10 years, I believe, that you’ll still have an Environmental Justice Movement because the Environmental Justice Movement is your ethical leader and Environmental Justice issues are going to continue regardless. We are the check and balance system of this Environmental Movement. So even if got wind farms and solar panels everywhere, there’s still going to be environmental ethical issues that are going on that needs to be addressed whether it’s equity or whether it’s where you’re actually placing this wind farms because you could have a situation where instead of placing low-income communities near power plants, you got them right next to the wind farms. Who knows?
So that voice is still going to be there but I think that it will be more empowered and we’ve had a long struggle that started before I was even born. I’ve just advocating for Environmental Justice so it is my goal to see it something where people know what it is, know what it means, it is a kitchen table conversation and with the work of people like Lisa Jackson, with the work of people like Dr. Ballard, with the work of people like Dr. [Wright], even the work of people like Van Jones and Majora Carter coming out and just sparking a massive publicity string around that, I think it is important. So the goal is that Environmental Justice, people of color in the Green Movement, it’s not going to be a trend, it will definitely be something where it’s going to be a more strategic and unified movement where we’re placing stronger leadership on our environmental boards, on our policy agendas so that our communities are represented but it’s still going to be there just hopefully more supported.
Question: What is the hardest part of your work?
Kari Fulton: The struggle starts to me the thing to be honest with you, the saddest part to me is that you watch communities, advocate and fight for people to clean up their communities and then like the best example to me is Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and you work so hard to advocate to get your community cleaned up, to get a power plant or oil rig or whatever close in your community and it’ll finally get done and then developer will start showing up and gingify the community and the people who fought for decades just to get something out, can’t even afford to live there anymore. And to me that is the most frustrating part of all these work is like, why are we fussing so hard just so you can move us out, just so that you could live in the good air and the good community that I strived so hard to get. So, in that whole strategic vision the bigger plan of things is that EJ is not just about the struggle. I don’t want to think that but is the most frustrating thing to me is that people think that it’s just a struggle but you… I don’t need comrades in the struggle, I need comrades in my bubble and we’re going to blow until we pop.
Because this is way bigger than a struggle, this is a strategic vision for how we can embrace and build up our communities and that’s why from Jump Street, I was like, “We need to just clean them up,” because when I went down to Gulf Coast and when I was in Gulf Coast I said, “Yeah, a storm had hit these houses but these houses weren’t weatherized in the first place. These homes weren’t prepared for a storm in the first place and now you have people who got their payment cheque and they got all kinds of new brand new cars and the only people who has set up shop was the dope boys,” and to me that is not the way.
Environmental Justice is not about that, Environmental Justice is about reclaiming our communities, not just fighting to save them, it’s about building up a real community and building up that idea of collective responsibility for your community. So, in that aspect, that is the most frustrating is that people spend so much time just fighting that they never see past that fight, they never see the day after the fight has won. So, hopefully, out of that frustration comes true action and true change so even though a lot of us have been displaced from or from our communities and these urban cities like Harlem or U Street Corridor of DC or all these different places, we can still build up that Environmental Justice issue and we can still reclaim the suburbs or wherever we’re being displaced to and make it our own and make it even better.
Question: How green is the capital?
Kari Fulton: Fenty is doing, he is doing good their… they’ve just put out their Green Agenda similar to Mayor Bloomberg coming out with Green NYC. But I think that DC has a strong… just like many other urban cities. There is a very strong push to Green in an aspect but it is coming from a perspective of various consumer type of thought about it. So there is the idea of we need to have this and that. But out of some major cities, I think they are doing better than most and so yeah, there is definitely lots of work that needs to be done but with the right people who know about these issues, guiding him, it could be good. But there is a lot of green washing wherever you go. So that is something I’m very nervous about.
There is a lot in DC, there were a lot of debates or lots of protests because Exxon Mobile was advertising at the baseball stadium and the baseball stadium is supposed to be like this, first Green baseball stadium, it is all new and shiny but it is like Exxon is a huge polluter. So how are you going to say this is Green baseball stadium when you have one of the hugest polluters advertising and then not only that like the people that were displaced to make that baseball stadium is another whole big controversy. So as people were displaced they closed down a lot of different stuff to even make that and the team sucks. So, honestly the national [IB] step your game up because we put a lot of money on you all so that is my Green agenda. If we are going to have a really great Green baseball stadium, they need to win some games, it’s just ridiculous.
Question: What is greenwashing?
Kari Fulton:So I went to Whole Foods the other day, maybe a few weeks ago and it had organic apples on sale for like 99 cents like a pound or something crazy like that. And that’s like great because if you go to Giant or any regular grocery store, it’s going to be at least 169 per pound.
That’s the real issue is that for the grocery stores and this is an issue, I was just down in New Orleans and I was talking to some people down there and they were talking about the East Bank where most of the Black folk live and they are saying how there is no real grocery stores and the price is… of the grocery store that is in that area are at least like 2 or 3 dollars higher for things like milk. So, it’s the placement for certain things like organic foods can be affordable but a lot of times they won’t sell in our neighbourhoods because they’ll say like, “Oh well, there is a high crime rate in that neighbourhood,” or “The economic demographics aren’t what they need to be,” so that we can actually sell our products here. So people who live in this low income communities are paying more for this worse stuff than people who lived in more affluent communities. So that kind of… is irritating, I think that groups is like Whole Foods and other organic grocery stores should be working to put more grocery stores in low income areas to benefit from that. One thing though about DC is we have the highest number of farmer’s markets per capita for that area which is really good because a lot of the farmer’s market takes wick in EBT which is important but they only happen like every weekend and it’s seasonal so… but as far like things like Patagonia, stuff like that, all of that is green washing to me because yeah, you… it’s good that you made the clothes with organic cotton but people of color had been Green from Jump Street, a lot of the things that people have been talking about like, oh, I’m shopping vintage so I’m green now. I wish I had been at the thrift store before you like we didn’t necessarily shop at a thrift store but I definitely was shopping at the thrift store as a little kid and so were a lot of people.
So a lot of people were conserving energy because your grandmother trusts you to turn that damn light off. So, it is not a case to me of to spend… to be Green you have to spend lots of money. I think the biggest thing is to be green, you have to go back, think about what your grandparents were doing and how they were saving money because a lot of that stuff of saving money is also green when you think about it.
Question: Is the environmental movement too privileged?
Kari Fulton: The environmental movement is really a movement of privilege more than anything else like there aren’t too many advocacy progressive movements where you can say, “Yes, I am privileged enough to care about polar bears and arctic sea change,” because first of all the people I worked with on a daily basis don’t, number one, probably are n not going to see a polar bear outside of a zoo and number two, if you tell them, a lot of them, if you tell them, “Yeah, we want to reduce carbon 80% by 2050,” they are looking at you and they’re thinking, “I don’t even expect to live to 2050.”
Question: Are green jobs having an impact in Washington?
Kari Fulton: Yeah, I have a couple of different friends, nationwide, actually, who are now… who are doing work around stuff like bringing energy efficiency to low income communities and now through the stimulus plan they are getting money to actually host those programs. So NDC, Mayor Fenty had a Green Summer Job’s Program and a lot of different things. So I definitely think it is moving very well and definitely think that more people are getting involved, more people are starting to see it as a real agenda. So, I really hope that… one time I saw Van speak at… he was at Morgan State in Baltimore and so I went there and this lady stoop up and she was like, all the stuff you’re doing is great but in the 70’s we already had those programs and then when the government changed over so did that program and there was no more funding for the Environment Steward Programs that where going on and that’s what I hope doesn’t happen and that is why it’s good when you do have your consumer market that’s thinking green just as much as the government is and I hope that we continue building that up because the government cannot hold these programs themselves and a lot of the work that is going on with Green Jobs is stuff that’s kind of temporary, to be honest with you, once you install those energy efficiency products and install those solar panels and all those different things, what is next, what is next? And that is really where I think we need to remember is that and building up that strategy like I said is that we have to build up that infrastructure that doesn’t kill off all these jobs that we started once a new administration comes in or once we figure out, we don’t have enough money to support that.
Question: What did Obama’s election mean to you?
Kari Fulton: It means a lot. It definitely means a lot because I think there are so many people who doubt it that it will actually happen. There are so many people who said, yeah, it’s cool but it’s not going to happen or he’s going to get assassinated or I was watching the Inauguration and watching him getting sworn and I was like, “And there’s going to be shot now.” Like I was so scared and so it meant so much, I think, to our generation and I’m coining our generation, generation why not? Because I think that he exemplified all the possibilities of what you can do if you just believe and try hard enough. He is the most relevant Horatio Alger story that we have had in this country in a long time and for young people especially young people of color who didn’t think that that was possible, that meant a lot.
And I think that that motivated so many of us, there is a series of events that have motivated our generation to be one of the greatest generations since the Great Depression generation and one of those was Hurricane Katrina, one of those was having a dick in the office for 8 years who hung out with the Bush and then after that it was getting to that point of so much frustration that that the audacity… that we actually had the audacity to go outside of our box and elect a young African-American president. And that is what’s redefining our generation and not only just the economic situation but I think that we were so complacent during Bush’s term, we were so overwhelmed by how ridiculous it was that we didn’t feel like we could do anything about it and Obama’s win shows that we can if we put our minds to it. And I think that’s what it meant to me the most is that it was very motivating of my own personal role.
Question: What are the most obvious indications of racism to you?
Kari Fulton: It’s kind of funny because after the elections I was at this press conference for Black Power Vote and I was talking about all the work that we did with our Campaign Power Vote. And so this article came out with… in the associated press and basically I had said this statement, I was like, “Well…” and this really happened, after the elections, Fox News and White people I just knew where like, “Yeah, this is great racism is over now that we have a Black president,” and it is like first of all your statement in of itself shows that racism isn’t dead because if it was, you wouldn’t acknowledge that he was Black in the first place and so it gotten like 200 different papers like randomly, it was like really strange but I got these… like face… like this blogs, these conservative bloggers like attacking me and that was the first time, I was like, “Whoa,” like Googling my name, finding images and putting it on blogs so they could talk stuff about me and that was like crazy to me but it was like they were upset because I had the audacity to say that, No, racist is dead and even though Obama won, we still have to work like it’s just not going to be up to Obama, he is not a super hero, he is super motivator and he has motivated our generation to say why not? Why not create change?
Why not be the best generation we can be? Why not stand up for what we believe? Why not just be more successful? Why not just try harder? Why not just advocate? Why not just go into Congress and to Capitol Hill and lobby our Congress people? It’s not that hard. And he has done all that. But like I said he is not super hero and so it is funny to me because they were mad that I said racism isn’t dead but it was like in their statements, they were racist too. Like one was like, “Niggers are still whining,” and “You are only 23, what do about racism or…” all these different things and it’s just… it’s very interesting to me so I think even with Obama in office, we have a long road ahead of people… of having to just build intercultural politics and intercultural communication that is more uplifting and uniting and I think that as a coalition energy, action coalition has been working really, really hard to try and develop that as a goal, as a true strategic goal because
Question: What policy recommendations do you have for Obama?
Kari Fulton: Well, the brother is moving really hard like, he’s being, like, working non-stop since day one. So, I’m really inspired by that but I think… I think they are some bills which I need to look into around housing rights and around tenant’s rights and around home ownership, the rights for homeowners. Especially with all these forclosures going on and quiet as it is, EJ plays a lot and Environmental Justice Movement has a lot to do with home ownership because if you don’t own your home, you don’t have the same rights to the land, to the places that you live in, you have slum lords who let allow apartment buildings to dilapidate and that is a really huge problem because people will be living with lead in their homes and lead in… all these different things that are going on. So homeownership is important and so there is so many people who lost their homes.
Right now my landlord is losing all four of his homes so we are just trying to figure out our tenant rights at this moment and I think that, the more that we support people when they buy homes and we don’t just set them up for failure, the better. The more that we support, helping people, especially, in urban communities and supporting them to build co-ops and to really get that I think that will good, more tax breaks for co-ops for intentional communities for home ownership in general because the more people who own their homes in the neighbourhood the more that you can… the more people will be engaged and active and the more invested they’ll feel in their community. So that’s to me is where I think is a really strong connection to Environmental Justice and where I would like to see more work being done.
Question: How would you advise groups working toward progressive change?
Kari Fulton: I would suggest that they look and see what else is going on and how they can work with other people especially in the progressive world, I think our biggest short fall is that we have so many chiefs and not enough Indians. I hope that wasn’t racist and… but anyway, but I really think it’s like there’s too many people trying to be the leader and not enough people trying to sit on the bench and just root for the team. Okay, like some people just need to root for the team and there’s already stuff that’s going on, I think, we should try and work better together and I think that’s the beautiful part about working in coalitions is I get to see the good and the bad of working together.
And so hopefully as I grow as a leader I can start my own coalitions and continue building on the work of this phenomenal organizations that I’ve had the opportunity to work with thus far but that I believe is what is going to make this progressive front stronger, if we are more unified. Because people will scratch and scratch at our diversity and that’s how the conservative agenda wins every time because they can just go on straight up values issue where people would just jump on it because it is hot at that moment like no gay marriage and there is a lot of people regardless of race or culture that’ll say, “Yeah, I’m down with that, no gay marriage,” which is messed up but we have to figure out our agenda, what we stand for and not from a perspective of, “This is my circle of what I do,” or this is what my circle or this is my circle,” and that is what the Environmental Justice Movement is about, just like I said with that training, everything is connected back to your environment and so if we looked at this environment as the main agenda for our progressive movement, right?
Because without our environment we can’t do anything we can’t fight for any of this rights, if we don’t have our environment together and we look at that, we do research and we do real discussions with the grassroots and we take their insight and what they are working on and we build that up and we cultivate it into a stronger policy on stronger actions then we can make real change. But if we continue to divide ourselves, we are just going to be divided and we are going to allow the next Bobby Gendal or Matt whoever to come in and possibly win the presidency in 2012 and so… and the Mayan calendar is coming up very quickly so I definitely think we should be thinking about that as well and figuring out a plan of action because even if it’s not real, it should ignite a fire to say, “Let’s get this together.”