“Not in Anyone’s Backyard”: People of Color and the Environmental Movement – Part I

The following is part of the Moving Forward Initiative blog series.
By Allison Puglisi
Ph.D. Candidate, American Studies, Harvard University


The 1960s and 1970s were a vibrant time for both the civil rights and environmentalist movements (among many others). At that time, people of color were not well represented in mainstream environmental groups, but that does not mean they weren’t environmentalists. To the contrary, people of color practiced their own kind of environmentalism, linked to the structural issues their communities faced: residential segregation, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, and others. This two-part series explores the hopes, concerns, and activism of environmentalists of color. Part one, below, discusses their work in the 1960s and 1970s. Part two addresses the 1980s and beyond.

In 1993, Robert Bullard, who is often described as the “father of environmental justice,” described some of the key differences between mainstream environmentalists and environmentalists of color. He wrote that mainstream environmentalism has often taken a “NIMBY” approach: “Not in My Backyard.” Residents take note of an environmental hazard in their community and demand its removal. In response, the industry that caused the hazard simply moves its waste, processing plant, or other issue elsewhere, often to a low income or nonwhite community.  Environmentalists of color took a different approach: “Not in Anyone’s Backyard” (NIABY). Environmentalists of color, Bullard says, “refused to say ‘not in my backyard’ without questioning or caring about whose backyard the problem ended up in. In addition to asking ‘why in my backyard?’ they insisted that such hazards should not be located in anyone’s backyard.”

Historically, environmentalists of color were vocal activists, but they weren’t always welcome or listened to in mainstream environmental groups. Instead, they often organized in their own networks: their civil rights groups, houses of worship, neighborhoods, and labor unions. One of those labor unions, the United Farm Workers, led the fight against pesticides.

United Farm Workers (UFW)
Farmworkers knew the dangers of pesticides firsthand. Every day they handled produce sprayed with hazardous chemicals, and many fell ill or died. The UFW’s founders—Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and Philip Vera Cruz—linked these cases to the structural issues of pollution and poverty. To them, pesticides were both environmental poisons and “economic poisons”: in threatening their health, pesticides also threatened workers’ abilities to organize. The UFW wanted growers to restrict pesticide usage, raise wages, and establish a “hiring hall,” a system through which the UFW would provide growers with job candidates who were union members.  These demands were intertwined: as historian Robert Gordon points out, “Restricting the use of chemical pesticides was both a workplace health and safety issue and part of the union’s fight for social justice.” Gordon, p. 59

When the growers would not address their concerns, the UFW went on strike and urged a consumer boycott of grapes. Critics dismissed their tactics as too extreme, but Dolores Huerta reminded them that restricting pesticides was a life-or-death matter. During the boycott, Huerta told one crowd, “90,000 people were poisoned last year. 1,000 people were killed last year. And then people say, ‘Where at? In Vietnam?’ And I say, ‘No. In the fields of the United States of America.’” A few years prior, Huerta had left home and moved her family to Delano, CA, to build a union with farm workers. She later served on the UFW’s executive board. For most of her tenure, she was its only woman member. [~20:00, 35:00]

In 1962, the same year the UFW was founded, pesticides became a topic of conversation in the mainstream American discourse thanks to the publication of Silent Spring, a book by marine biologist Rachel Carson. In the book, Carson showed how the pesticide DDT damaged wildlife and the earth and asked, as historian Linda Lear puts it, “whether and why humans had the right to control nature.”What the book missed, however, was the perspective of those closest to pesticides: farm workers.

The UFW’s perspective differed from Carson’s in that it saw environmentalism and workers’ rights as inseparable. To them, the health of farm workers was, by definition, an environmental issue.

In that spirit, the UFW reached out to environmentalist groups, hoping they would support the boycott and strike. After all, Cesar Chavez had urged that the “unity which the union movement can have with the environmentalists is crucial to our survival.” Smaller environmental groups did endorse the UFW, but the larger national organizations did not.  [see PDF. Gordon, p.  53]

DDT was ultimately discontinued in 1972 and, for many in the environmental movement, this was enough—but the UFW continued to challenge DDT’s dangerous replacements for years to come.

Despite their differences and tensions, both the UFW and mainstream environmentalists like Carson wanted pollution regulations for big industries. However, the U.S. government did not take serious action until 1969, when disaster struck the town of Santa Barbara, CA.

Santa Barbara
In January 1969, just five miles off the coast of Southern California, a Union Oil Company oil well ruptured. Three million gallons of oil spilled toward the coast and flooded Santa Barbara’s beaches, killing local wildlife. At the time, it was the country’s worst ever oil spill. The news coverage was graphic: polluted beaches, animals covered in oil. As more and more Americans acquired color televisions, they could see the devastation from their living rooms.

The press coverage of Santa Barbara awakened many Americans. The Los Angeles Times reports that within two years of the spill, the Sierra Club doubled in membership. Some even joined the effort on the ground: they went to the beach to rescue and clean animals. Americans who had not paid attention to environmental devastation before were watching now.

Richard Nixon, who had been president of the United States for barely a week, was watching too. Following the spill, he told reporters,

It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people. What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.

Nixon followed those words with legislation. Less than a year after the spill, he signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under NEPA, federal agencies had to submit an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for any project they wanted to pursue. To make sure those agencies adhered, NEPA also established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

At around the same time, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin teamed up with a young activist named Denis Hayes to organize the first ever Earth Day. It took place on April 22, 1970.

Perhaps the most dramatic change during Nixon’s term was the founding of a new federal agency: the Environmental Protection Agency.  He named Indiana lawyer and politician William Ruckelshaus as its first head.

After these and other changes, many were relieved that the federal government would finally take conservation seriously—and regulate industries for their ecological impact.

However, some believed that only a disaster in an affluent, mostly white beach town could spur change. Santa Barbara was, and still is, home to diverse wildlife, but also resorts, vacation homes, and other expensive real estate.

In communities less white and affluent than Santa Barbara, residents had yet to feel the benefits of NEPA, the EPA, or Nixon’s other reforms. They still lived next to toxic waste dumps, oil refineries, and other hazards. Theirs were the neighborhoods corporations moved to when whiter, affluent towns said, “NIMBY.”

The UFW and groups like it were fighting toxins at work. In the 1980s, activists would soon begin a grassroots, residential movement to fight toxins at home.

As a reminder, this blog is Part I in a two-part series. Part II will examine the role of people of color in the environmental movement in the 1980s and beyond.


Reflection Questions:

  1. The UFW felt environmentalists could play an important role in workers’ rights. What other issues can environmentalists help address?
  2. The Santa Barbara oil spill coincided with the rise of color television. What role do you think the media played in this issue? What role does it play today?
  3. Learn a bit more about the first Earth Day. How is Earth Day celebrated in your school or community? What would a more inclusive Earth Day look like?


All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.