Let’s start small. While it’s nice to think about doing our part to save the planet, adopting a workable sustainability agenda for the Memphis region isn’t really about that, it’s about doing our part to save our city—ecologically and financially.
If we are to make Memphis a community of choice, we cannot ignore the importance of environmental amenities in location decisions. Our civic commitment to environmental stewardship is a reflection of our commitment to a high quality of life. And we cannot ignore development and infrastructure decisions that allow our urban footprint to expand at a rate that exceeds our population growth, and which allow us to treat our inner city neighborhoods as disposable.
As we face these challenges, I am hopeful that we can make inclusivity and broad grassroots participation a priority, especially among minorities and poor inner city residents who are often overlooked in the environmental movement, but who are disproportionately affected by environmental injustice and the negative consequences of sprawl. Our efforts to build a greener, more sustainable community should benefit those residents with the greatest needs.
According to recent Census Bureau estimates, the Memphis metropolitan statistical area is the first major metro area in which minorities make up the majority of the population. This unique attribute brings unique opportunitiesincluding the opportunity to set a green agenda against a multi-colored canvas. Accomplishing this would establish Memphis as a trend-setter. Statistics regarding minority involvement in setting the environ-mental agenda are bleak. Minorities make up only 11 percent of the staff and 9 percent of the boards for organizations that are members of the Natural Resources Council of America. And according to a survey conducted by the Minority Environmental Leadership Initiative, 33 percent of mainstream environmental organizations and 22 percent of related government agencies have no minorities on staff.*
I hope that Memphians will take inspiration from Majora Carter (Sustainable South Bronx) and Van Jones (Green for All), who offered the following challenge while speaking at the Dream Reborn conference in Memphis in 2007:
Billions of dollars are pouring into the solar, wind, geothermal, and other clean industries. This so-called ‘green economy’ will generate thousands of business opportunities and millions of new jobs. We must guarantee equal opportunity in this growing green, clean and renewable economy. We must insist that the coming green wave lift all boats. Those low income communities that were locked out of the pollution-based economy must be locked into the clean and green economy. Our communities—especially our children—deserve green collar jobs... We must link the solutions of social justice, peace, and ecological sanity. Our new dream must uplift the people and the planet, too. The Memphis community has the chance to lead by developing a multiracial civic agenda with a commitment to environmental stewardship and quality of life issues that will help attract talented people of all races, while providing pathways to lift inner city residents from poverty.
*Bonta, M., & Jordan, C. (2007). Diversifying the American Environmental Movement. Land Trust Alliance: A Report on the Future of Land Conservation in America , 13-33. Dorceta, T. (2005). Diversity in Environmental Institutions: Summary Results of the MELDI Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.