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EJ Clinic Conversations: Environmental Justice Movement Pioneer José Bravo

September 18, 2020

By Sophia Battle JD'21 and Joel Nelson JD'21

Welcome to EJ Clinic Conversations, a series in which Environmental Justice Clinic student teams interview clients and partners from across the country. Today's post features José Bravo, Executive Director at Just Transition Alliance

Jose Bravo headshot
José Bravo

José Bravo was born in Mexico, on the Mexico/U.S. Border, about fifteen minutes from where he now lives. His parents were farm workers in the fields of Southern California, and for the first six years of his life, his parents left him in the care of his godfather in Tijuana, Mexico. He told us that the first five years of his life with his godfather was formative for him: “My godfather, he has passed away, but he was a wonderful person, very patient with me. I was very rambunctious. He and I sold gum and other things on the Mexico/U.S. border to people crossing into the United States.”

Ultimately, his parents brought him to the United States. “[E]ven though my birth certificate was stamped with the permanent residency when I was one month old, they were not able to have me here, in the United States. But everybody from my generation, my age, that grew up in the northern part of the county where the fields are at and avocado groves, were born in Mexico. Our parents would cross back into Mexico to have children. Because one, it was cheaper and if there were any complications, they knew the language as well.”

He went to school not knowing very much English and now says, “I knew border English, like to sell stuff. My first word in the United States was, 'what’s the matter?' I would say 'what’s the matter?' for everything. I confused many people. I entered the school at six years old into kindergarten. I was a little bit bigger than most everybody else.” But he went through the whole school system in the United States.

A core tenet of the Environmental Justice Movement is that people speak for themselves, in their own voice, and we were thankful that José was willing to share a deeply personal account of his experience with us.


Immigration and Environmental Justice

José’s life story is intricately connected not only to the immigrant experience of Mexican-American farmworkers, but also to environmental exposures to toxic chemicals faced by many migrant workers. His father would pull a 500-gallon tank filled with pesticides that was set on top of a trailer: “I remember I would sit on the tank because that was my daycare. I would sit on the tank as my father pulled it. I would act like I was on a horse.”

That was his earliest direct experience with chemicals. He recalled, “None of us knew exactly what we were dealing with. One important thing [is that] we never saw pesticides as dangerous. We saw pesticides as medicine so my father and everybody that worked at the ranch would say, `go get the medicine.’ The `medicine’ was the pesticide or herbicide and it made the plants and trees well after they were infected with some kind of pest. That, for me, looking at it now, was a very interesting way to look at something that was very harmful.”

José’s experience growing up on the farms of Southern California informs his life work combining the interests of organized labor (especially migrant farm workers) and environmental justice. As the Executive Director of the Just Transition Alliance (JTA), he works with a coalition of environmental justice organizations and labor unions focused on creating healthy workplaces and communities for frontline workers and community members who live along the fence-line of polluting industries.


Calling Out Racism

During our conversation José was emphatic about the centrality of race to environmental justice: "I want to be very, very clear with everybody, this is about race." It seemed a truth he held with all his being. He invited us to examine a map of the United States: “you put on that map where the heaviest densities of people of color live and then you take another map with the heaviest densities of industrial pollution, industrial waste, waste dumps, incinerators, other things, and you put them right on top of each other. You see that they are mirrored … So, it is because of the color of our skin that we are in a situation where our environment is disproportionately impacted.”

"I want to be very, very clear with everybody, this is about race . . . it is because of the color of our skin that we are in a situation where our environment is disproportionately impacted"
– José Bravo

In the context of the EJ Movement, the environment depicts home and community and a place deserving of protection from industrial pollutants and other harms. As described by scholar Omar Saleem in an article published at the birth of the formal Environmental Justice Movement in the early 1990s, “environment is where we live, where we work, where we play and where we learn.” It expands on the idea of home. Environmental injustice and environmental racism denote the disproportionate burden of industrial polluting facilities shouldered by African American and Latino communities.

José stated that the top three factors determining the placement of industrial pollution and industrial waste facilities across the United States are (1) race, (2) income, and (3) lack of political clout. The centrality of both race and income is reinforced by decades of studies on the placement of industrial polluting facilities. José explained, “[O]ur communities lack the political clout. That’s why we have zoning regulations in our communities that allow for heavy industry right next door to our daycares. For heavy industry right next to people’s houses. If you go to Houston, you go to Los Angeles, you go down to Cancer Alley, and different places, you will see that there is no separation. If you go to white, middle-class communities, of course there is zoning there, that separates them, that gives them a little bit of a break in regards to how those industries are impacting them.”


A Just Transition

A just transition takes into account labor and environmental justice at every level of the industrial process. This includes every stage of production from raw material extraction to the chemical or production phase and the workers at each stage of that life cycle. To ensure workers and vulnerable communities do not disproportionately bear the burdens of this process, José advocates for a “cradle to cradle” approach, which ensures we, “go into a process making sure that what we make can be recycled back into products so that there is zero waste.”

Consistent with the community-based focus of the Environmental Justice Movement, José points out community involvement is central to a just transition: “[N]ot every just transition is the same. It is not a cookie-cutter approach.” Every community will have to decide what their just transition looks like, and this type of change cannot be made from the top down.

Focusing on just transition is also an opportunity for workers and people living near polluting facilities to recognize common ground. Their commonalities fueled the just transition coalition and are a powerful rallying cry: “[T]here were workers sick inside the plant [and] there were community members who were sick outside at the fence line.”

José takes a holistic view of development and environmentalism. Industrial development has to properly consider all the parties that are benefited and burdened. For too long communities of color have endured the burdens of growth, while the more affluent reap the benefits of innovation and globalization. To address and prevent these inequalities, communities must have agency in politics and environmental advocacy. José advocates for self-determination for all communities, considering the entire life cycle for a particular product and how it affects multiple communities over time. A holistic, cradle to cradle approach is at the heart of the movement for just transition.