Empowering Communities Through Grassroots Movement Building

At a time when environmental injustices like the disproportionate siting of incinerators in marginalized areas continue to undermine the well-being of vulnerable communities, grassroots organizations play a pivotal role in galvanizing local efforts to fuel a larger movement. Driven by education, youth engagement, and alliance-building, these groups dismantle injustices and build on a broader movement toward climate justice. These organizations are often led by those directly affected by injustice who have leveraged their knowledge of the local community to enact real change. With our planet’s many interconnected challenges, grassroots organizations are the backbone of transformative efforts. They go beyond their environmental focus to engage in cross-movement building, fostering a web of collaborations that extends their impact into other spaces like housing and human rights. Collectively, they reshape narratives, challenge systemic disparities, and collaboratively bring about lasting transformation in the realm of environmental justice.

One example of cross-movement building is the work of KT Morelli, Organizer at Breathe Free Detroit, who is involved in anti-gentrification efforts to ensure that community members are not pushed out of their homes. Successful environmental justice campaigns, such as shutting down the Detroit Incinerator in 2019, can also lead to “environmental gentrification,” in which a neighborhood becomes more attractive to developers. In collaboration with local housing groups, Breathe Free Detroit developed “Rooted We Rise: A Resource Guide to Help Detroiters Stay in our Homes and Strengthen our Neighborhoods,” an anti-gentrification guide with resources distributed through door-to-door outreach in areas near the incinerator. 

Similarly, the South Baltimore Community Land Trust spearheads efforts to halt evictions, establish affordable housing, and introduce sustainable waste practices through Community Land Trusts (CLTs). With the second-highest eviction rate in the US and burdened by long-standing racial and economic inequalities, Baltimore’s vacant lots bring over 10,000 tons of illegally dumped trash annually. Though the city has committed $20 million into a trust fund for CLTs, residents are already taking proactive steps such as reclaiming lots, initiating community composting, and drawing up plans for affordable housing units. As noted in GAIA’s Zero Waste Master Plan: “Anti-displacement efforts are key to making sure those who successfully fought against environmental injustices are able to remain in their homes, reap the benefits of their victory, and continue growing power in their communities.”

The essence of movement building lies in uniting individuals and communities to strengthen their collective power, a principle embodied by initiatives like the Failing Incinerators Project (FIP). Through FIP, grassroots organizations from all over the country coalesce to share insights and practical strategies to shut down their respective incinerators and make a just transition to zero waste. GAIA offers these organizations capacity-building support, including communications, research, and technical assistance. By forging these collaborative bonds, frontline organizations in the FIP cohort reinforce each other’s campaigns, build shared momentum, and strengthen the larger environmental justice movement.

In Newark, the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance (NJEJA) and Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) synergize their efforts to shut down incinerators in the Garden State. As a result of their collaboration, both organizations engage and educate legislators and public officials who may not be familiar with the language and policy concepts related to “chemical recycling” and Extended Producer Responsibility. Both organizations have deepened their collaboration through the continuation of Incineration 101 workshops for communities in Newark and for ICC’s staff. Last year, NJEJA held its Second Annual Waste Justice Assembly, which brought together many EJ groups from around the state to discuss a just transition to a waste-free New Jersey. In collaboration with EJ Communities Against Incineration Coalition and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, the event explored topics such as the impacts of waste in EJ communities, the harms from the petrochemical industry and their responsibility for the plastic crisis, and organizing tools and advocacy to support communities in a just transition towards healthier waste management systems. 

NJEJA brings grassroots perspectives to the forefront of every plastic reduction policy proposal through its work with the NJ Plastic Coalition. NJEJA has held firm to prohibiting “chemical recycling” or other false solutions within a proposed Extended Producer Responsibility state bill. Most recently, NJEJA has been involved in state-wide advocacy and creating a space to include the engagement and participation of informal waste workers in the discussions, development, and proposal for a New Jersey Bottle Bill. Building powerful movements requires the tireless work of strong leaders who bring an authentic perspective to these conversations informed by the lived experience of those most affected. All of this involvement working alongside other EJ groups in New Jersey, NJEJA’s Statewide EJ Organizer Chris Tandazo was able to bring all of those perspectives to Washington, DC, where they testified before the Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight. In this hearing, Tandazo advocated for implementing laws to reduce plastic use. Such regulations would play a critical role in minimizing the volume of plastic waste potentially destined for disposal in any of New Jersey’s three incineration facilities, all situated within marginalized communities.

Moreover, community involvement is a cornerstone of effective movement building, particularly in the transition toward sustainable zero waste practices. ICC uses “Toxic Tours” to effectively raise community awareness within their community and educate residents on sustainable alternatives, serving as a compelling method for spotlighting the practical implementation of decentralized zero waste systems. Composting at ICC’s urban farm has been the organization’s most tangible zero waste education effort during these Toxic Tours, and staff work with youth and adults to develop composting programs that divert waste from the nearby Covanta incinerator. It has also proven effective for engaging policymakers, advocates, and journalists to explore zero waste solutions that move away from waste incineration.

South Baltimore Community Land Trust has also achieved remarkable success by engaging youth in tackling climate and waste issues by collaborating closely with students, including potential summer hires. The organization has partnered with Clean Water Action to build significant momentum for reintroducing the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act, which would remove trash incineration, factory farm gas, and woody biomass from qualification in the state’s renewable portfolio standard. Notably, this collaboration extends to impactful campaigns to advocate against incineration subsidies and rally various associations and groups to endorse the bill in the upcoming legislative session. Shashawnda Campbell, an organizer of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, is a prime example of a young activist leader who became involved in her community as a high school student. She notes that seeing these students’ impressive growth and advancement, from their initial involvement to their current proactive initiatives, underlines the tremendous impact of involving youth in movement building.

The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table (MNEJT) has exemplified the power of cross-movement collaboration by forging dynamic partnerships with various organizations. MNEJT Environmental Justice Organizer Akira Yano emphasizes that their collaboration with local unions, including the Teamsters Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in a concerted effort toward zero waste initiatives has proven to be mutually beneficial — creating a solid working relationship between MNEJT and these labor groups. The ability to stand in solidarity for each other’s causes strengthens their respective movements, helping them achieve comprehensive and lasting change.

Similarly, MNEJT and CURE have worked in tandem to shut down the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) incinerator. With MNEJT at the forefront of the campaign and CURE as a supporting ally, their organizing efforts gained traction when the incinerator lost its renewable energy designation after passing a recent law that represented a major win for the city’s environmental justice movement. Now, MNEJT, alongside community members and organizational allies, is pushing for the incinerator’s closure by 2025. CURE and MNEJT are also partnering to build on the success of the HERC campaign to build opposition to Minnesota’s other large garbage burners. Additionally, a GAIA member, Florida Rising, is working with MNEJT and CURE to bring awareness to the renewable energy credits (RECs) generated by Florida’s Pinellas County incinerator and being purchased by Great River Energy (GRE)—a Minnesota-based rural utility. In essence, this scheme allows GRE to offset dirty megawatt-hours generated from fossil fuels by using RECs coming from the polluting “renewable” energy from Pinellas. The latest law passed during the state’s last legislative session prohibits Minnesota’s HERC incinerator from generating and selling RECs. However, it still allows Minnesota utilities to use RECs from other incinerators like Pinellas to meet their renewable energy obligations.

Across movements and state lines, Breathe Free Detroit demonstrates how thoughtful collaborations can also lead to global movement building. Three years ago, GAIA connected Breathe Free Detroit with the Mother Earth Foundation, a GAIA member in the Philippines. Both organizations formed a collaborative relationship over regular virtual meetings as the Mother Earth Foundation shared their expertise on composting systems. Detroit Composting for Community Health launched a multi-scale citywide composting policy and program development in Detroit due to the success of three community composting pilots. Their ongoing partnership brought Breathe Free Detroit’s KT Morelli to the Philippines in January to see these systems up close and share her story with decision-makers on the decades-long effects incinerators can have on a community. In April, Rap Villavicencio, Program Manager, and Zen Borlongan, National Coordinator from the Mother Earth Foundation, visited Detroit to see first-hand how an incinerator can have lasting damage on a community as residents work to rebuild it. During their visit, they also shared their knowledge of the success of decentralized composting systems in the Philippines with the Detroit City Council’s Green Task Force. Having learned from Detroit’s experience, this partnership comes full circle as the Mother Earth Foundation organizes against an incinerator from being built in Metro Manila.

The journey to rectify environmental injustices demands a multifaceted approach that involves education, alliance-building, and meaningful engagement with the youth. Education and awareness campaigns, vividly demonstrated by activists in the FIP cohort and environmental justice organizers, cast a spotlight on the struggles faced by marginalized communities. As seen with ICC and the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, the growth of young activists from initial involvement to proactive leadership underscores the potency of involving youth in the battle for a cleaner future. Initiatives such as toxic tours and student collaborations educate and empower the next generation to champion environmental justice. Finally, developing collaborative relationships between grassroots organizations is equally important since these groups can inform and build on each other’s movements by sharing strategies. 

The Failing Incinerators Project connects geographically diverse grassroots movements, all sharing a common goal. By strengthening connections across people and organizations, investing in movement building supports local-level campaigning and helps local organizing transcend one community to bolster other movements nationally and abroad.