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Why do we need environmental justice?

Environmental racism: environmental justice is social justice. It’s been proven that redlining, lower income levels, and polluted/ contaminated natural resources are all connected. Whether it’s with pipelines through Native-controlled lands, the contamination of water in Flint, Michigan, or the worsening of food deserts, there’s a pattern here—and it doesn’t impact us all equally.

Define: Redlining & Urban Planning

Redlining is a word that has been popping up more and more in conversation. It’s defined as “a discriminatory proactive that puts services (financial and otherwise) out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity.“[1] A term coined in the 1960s, research has proven that Black inner-city neighborhoods were most likely to literally have a red line drawn around them on a map. Investments in infrastructure, including mortgages, student loans, and the development of a healthy community were denied based on location. This means that specific choices were made in planning out urban areas that dealt specifically with race and many haven’t changed.

Natural Disasters

One bad storm, hurricane, tornado, or flood can cost billions and be detrimental to communities, especially those who live near or below the poverty line. A storm can be detrimental to low-income families who are, because of urban planning, usually living in parts of a city or town hit hardest by natural disasters. And storms are only going to get worse as global temperatures continue to rise.

Commercial Disasters

Commercial disasters are what I’m calling the disasters that result due to human error and capitalistic gains at the environment and local communities’ expense. There has never been a pipeline constructed that hasn’t spilled. Let that sink in. There are fights happening right now against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)[2], which has been operating illegally since March 25, 2020[3] and Line 3 that will run from Alberta, Canada through the Mississippi River to Lake Superior.[4] All the while running through Native land and putting the earth and Native communities at high risk for contamination and death. The fact that this isn’t bigger news is devastating. Major community organizations, such as museums, could lend serious weight to these cases, while providing a space for education, action, and organization.

Define: Food Deserts

Redlining is one major topic of conversation regarding food deserts. Food deserts are considered “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits an vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance."[5] In urban areas the traveling distance is 1 mile, while for rural areas a grocery store must be within 10 miles. Food deserts are “most commonly found in black and brown communities and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars)”. Wealthier, “white neighborhoods have four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones do, and… grocery stores in African-American communities are usually smaller with less selection”. [6]

What this means for museums

It can be easy to think that museums are too far removed from this issue to do anything, but really, the responsibility is on all of us. We can do our part to take care of the planet and our communities; together, we can do some good. If museums are really meant to be these community centers they are so often thought to be, then we need to start acting like we are stakeholders in our community, not just an institution in which our community members are stakeholders. It’s a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship. Remember the bird and the alligator from 10th grade biology? Yes, that kind of relationship. In this miniseries throughout April, I’m going to be breaking down some ideas to make your museum more sustainable, just as starting points for you and your colleagues to discuss. Sustainability doesn’t just mean “being green for the environment”, it also means having internal infrastructure to keep new practices going.

We need to be intentional with everything we do. Yes, it’s exhausting; but we have so much to learn and have so many new areas in which to grow.

Looking to implement sustainable practices in your museum but need sources to back it up? We got you.

Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an emerging art museum curator. Have any questions or comments for her? Email us at and she’ll get back to you as soon as she can.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

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