HomeNewsSam Grant embraces the intersectionality of social and environmental justice

Sam Grant embraces the intersectionality of social and environmental justice

The Environmental Justice Storytelling Project is a series of stories that aims to spotlight the work of leaders in the environmental justice movement. From educators to owners of nationally recognized social justice organizations, these stories provide insight from innovators in the field of environmental equity. The stories are based on interviews with Eden Lim, the former Environmental Justice Storytelling Lead at the Institute on the Environment, which can be read in full on the University of Minnesota’s Digital Conservancy.

Sam Grant is the Executive Director of Rainbow Research, a national company specializing in social justice research, evaluation, and capacity building. Sam’s work speaks to the intersectionality of environmental justice with other social issues, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, the housing eviction crisis, economic justice, land access for BIPOC farmers, and collaborates with major green organizations to promote reforestation and afforestation following the leadership of Indigenous nations. Sam is in the process of authoring two books, one on the topics of ecological imperialism, and reinterpreting the climate crisis as climate apartheid, dividing humanity from nature and each other, as well as internal divisions within ourselves. Sam has been a faculty member at Metro State University since 1990 and also runs a small worker cooperative called Embody Deep Democracy, alongside his wife and friends.

What inspired you to become part of the environmental justice movement and integrate that into your studies and research?

My inspiration to join the environmental justice movement stems from personal experiences and a deep-seated desire for social change. First, I have suffered from severe asthma all my life, and living across from a polluting plant in Oxford, PA worsened my condition. I consider myself to live in an environmental justice body, which heightened my awareness of environmental justice issues. Additionally, reading a book by Frantz Fanon as a young person, which talked about people living in colonized realities being relegated to the zone of non-being, resonated with me. This essentially means that we are not valued equally. I have felt that this is true in the United States, and I see racism as an environmental justice issue. Eradicating racism is essential for environmental justice.

In 2016 I co-founded an Environmental Justice Coordinating Council in North Minneapolis, and it began after asking people how environmental issues were or were not connected to their primary social justice issues. People did not see the connection automatically, but after some dialogue, everyone recognized that all of our issues, whatever they may be, happen IN the environment. The group developed the mantra “all issues are environmental issues, and all environmental issues are ours.”

In 1983, while I was in college – Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was continuing to build momentum. I was deeply involved in the divestiture movement. My friends from South Africa emphasized that if I cared about addressing apartheid in South Africa, I needed to address it in the United States. This led me to work with Indigenous Nations and the Black community in Minnesota and the Midwest. I focused on what people usually categorize as social justice issues and helped them understand that these are environmental issues as well.

I began my journey in environmental justice around 1983, and this year marks my 40th anniversary in the field. On my 40th anniversary, we have more leaders of color in the legislature, and more environmental justice organizers working diligently to build power to address issues that people were not ready to take responsibility for back then. This year a cumulative impacts bill was passed that moves us beyond thinking about pollution from one company at a time, to considering the collective, or cumulative burden that numerous polluting entities have on environmental justice communities.

What kind of major or minor career-changing moments have you had?

When I started as an environmental justice advocate, I briefly worked as a lobbyist on two bills – one was a community right to know bill and the other was a worker right to know bill. The worker right to know bill was about workers having the right to know the risks of working with dangerous chemicals. The legislature passed this. However, the community right to know bill, which was about the community having the right to know the risks if a company with toxic chemicals is in their neighborhood, didn’t pass. The legislature prioritized the rights of corporations over the rights of people. This shocked and disturbed me. I lost my cool and yelled at the legislature, and that ended my job as a lobbyist. I realized I needed to use my voice where people are willing to listen and adjust my way of speaking when needed.

I am sharing these stories because it is important to recognize that whatever happens in and to our bodies and relationships at all scales, are environmental justice issues. EJ
is not just about who carries the disproportionate burden of pollution. It is just as much about who carries disproportionate burdens of any form of oppression in the world. Environmental Justice is inherently intersectional and seeks to move us toward a world free of all forms of structural violence to any human and other-than-human populations in the world.

Another key moment was when I was a college student. As I walked across the stage to get my diploma, I realized that I am not the kind of person who can be a good employee because I am so independent. At that moment I decided that I would work for myself and with people but not for them. I was clear that if someone hires me, they shouldn’t think of themselves as my boss who can just tell me what to do. I admit I am not normal in that sense, and it has sometimes made the journey of being gainfully employed while doing the work I love harder. But, I learned to get really good at raising money so if I want to do something, I know how to bring money to it instead of needing to ask or beg.

How did you manage to overcome those challenging moments in your career?

Overcoming those moments is an ongoing process. I’m still learning to address conflict and turbulence in a healthier way. Desmond Tutu, a revered figure who has now passed, wrote a book titled “No Future Without Forgiveness.” It highlights the importance of forgiving oneself and others to move forward. This has been crucial in my journey. I’ve realized that instead of being rigid, I have to be adaptable, much like water. There are times when I want to be angry, but staying in that state is detrimental to my well-being and those around me.

Learning to lead with love instead of indignation has been transformative. I’ve found it important to channel the feelings of indignation through love, so that when I communicate my truth, it is perceived as healing rather than harmful. It’s a journey. I am doing better with this now than that watershed year, when my EJ journey began.

Back then, when I was furious about apartheid in South Africa, racism, and police violence in the United States, an Indigenous elder spoke to me. He acknowledged that my anger was justified, but he pointed out that living in rage was harming me more than anyone else. He advised me to channel my energies through through love, which is deeper and more powerful. He offered to mentor me in this journey, inviting me back to the reservation for ceremonies and guidance. This elder’s intervention was a turning point in my life.

I have taken it as an obligation since then to not privilege the skin I am in as my primary identity and source from which I struggle. I think and act in terms of the liberation of indigenous people and Black people everywhere in the world. And, over time, as I have recognized that cis-men need to work to eradicate hetero-patriarchy, and people living in the Global North need to struggle to end the patterns it imposes on the Global South, I am integrating other forms of struggle into my core sense of who I am, and who matters. As an earthling – all people and all places matter – no one is left out of the journey toward an ecologically just society.

How might this approach be related to finding hope and the necessity of taking action?

It’s about nurturing hope and acting out of love and commitment to change. The process involves healing oneself and being dedicated to the healing of relations. It’s about harnessing the positive energies for the causes we care about and moving towards a better future.

What advice do you have for people who might be dealing with emotions like love, rage, or are just generally struggling with their emotions? How can we manifest that into something tangible?

Just yesterday, my wife and I led a workshop on embodied conflict resolution for individuals from around the world. The core concept was that when our bodies perceive danger or feel unsafe due to conflict, our reptilian brains default to four responses: fight, flight, freeze, or appease. These responses are wired into our DNA and into our brain’s functioning.

But by practicing healing justice, we learn to recognize these signals within our bodies and manage them. We learn to calm ourselves and maintain inner peace even during live conflict, and this enables us to make choices that uphold our own integrity while also respecting the dignity of the other party. However, this cannot be achieved if we are always defensive, as it pushes others away and does not encourage constructive conflict resolution. Therefore, learning not to source from a clenched fist, to not be constantly on the defensive, is key.

In the broader perspective, it’s crucial, particularly for men, to let go of the traditional, aggressive approach that has shaped human history under patriarchal norms. It’s time to allow others, particularly women, to lead. Men should be ready to support what needs to happen next. Yet, change can be challenging as people are often reluctant to lose their social standing and are fixated on what matters to them. Intergenerationally, it is also important to honor and braid the perspectives of our elders and our young people. EJ requires us to ask and honor who is at the table and hold ourselves accountable for our failures to include everyone, everywhere.

This work involves a commitment to not “othering” anyone and understanding that if we have been hurt in a specific way and that hurt isn’t healed, we’re likely to hurt others in the same way. This is why it’s important for all of us to be on a conscious healing journey.

Speaking about this brings to mind the concept of lateral violence. This is a common issue in Indigenous communities and among other groups fighting for liberation. The pain and frustration from systemic injustices like genocide, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and xenophobia often manifests in violence against those closest to us – our peers or loved ones. This creates an unhealthy dynamic within the community. To counter this, it’s crucial to foster health in all our relationships, cultivating a harmonious environment like a well-tended, pesticide-free garden. With diversity and cooperation, such a garden thrives, and so do communities. In the struggle against apartheid, Stephen Biko, one of the leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, said, “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I’ve adapted this to include the body. We unknowingly labor to reproduce the systems causing our suffering and the planet’s destruction because of our internalized oppression.

So, people need to stop forgetting and start remembering the original instructions: to be a beacon of health, beauty, peace, and love on this planet. The question of how we do that together is what guides my journey.

What kind of impact do you have or wish to have on the community you work for? Is there a relationship you have with the community that inspires you?

That’s a complex question. Identifying one’s primary environmental justice community isn’t always simple. For some, growing up in a particular location shapes their identity. I have moved around a lot, which has its impact. Part of my identity is what I was born into – a Black male body, and growing up in places, especially the United States, where this body was not respected or valued. As a child, I lived in Tanzania and was inspired by Black leaders there. I partly identify as Pan-African, meaning that wherever you are in the world, if you’re in a Black body, I’m thinking about your well-being and how it’s related to mine.

Additionally, due to an elder who helped me on my journey from rage to love, I made a commitment to always center Indigenous realities in my work. This was rooted in my experiences growing up angry because of racism and the need for healing. I realized that if I want to end racism, I have to work towards ending patriarchy as well. This sense of intersectionality means that I have an obligation to support the liberation of poor women, Black women, Latinas, and Indigenous women worldwide.

Furthermore, my healing journey has expanded my sense of community. Now, I recognize that I have the opportunity to facilitate healing on Turtle Island (or North America), as named by Indigenous people, even with people I might not have enjoyed being around earlier. This has become a growth journey for me. My work, for instance, with the University of Minnesota, working with the Institute on the Environment, was something I initially questioned, but now I see the importance. Engaging with people not in my network opens my perspectives and allows me to learn. My sense of community is ever-evolving, like a flower opening, or a stream emptying itself into the vast ocean.

When I think about what most inspires me…I feel two things are equally energizing for me. First, my work is looking at and supporting the intersections of indigenous, peasant, and Black liberation struggles – both urban and rural. Seeing the many movements grow and connect is inspiring. Secondly, I am really inspired by the awakening of young people taking up leadership in EJ work and learning from the failures of this and earlier generations of struggle. People are more ready than when I was young for enduring inter-generational leadership for mutual liberation – lets go!

What kind of advice would you give to rising leaders who come from your background? What would you say to them?

The first thing I want to do is just listen. Listen to what they can tell me about what matters to them and if they have a sense of their dream and purpose. I want to hear the story of that, and see if there’s anything I can offer as a good relative to support them, help them make connections, or build new skills. However, there are many who don’t know what their dream is because they’re busy surviving, and that feels brutal. I talk to young and old, some who are 50 and never thought about their dream. They feel it’s too late. I tell them it’s never too late to dream and get support to manifest those dreams. One of the most important things is to live a life grounded in love and radical imagination. Ask yourself “what can I do today” to foster the well-being of the entire planet and everyone on it. Figure out an answer and do it. Reflect on how it was and decide if you want to continue or try something different. Claim the freedom to be an innovator, an artist, and a disciplined scientist in your own life. That’s my basic advice.

Wow, thank you for sharing. That made me rethink who the rising leaders are. I used to think of them as young people or those my age deciding their path, but this brings a new perspective that anyone can be a leader, bringing peace and love to their community, and it’s never too late. We are moving so fast, forgetting the important things.

Yes, our era can be termed the great acceleration. Things have been getting faster since World War II. When the internet came out, a seven-year-old was said to experience as much information as someone who lived to be a hundred years old before the internet. We didn’t evolve our brains, hearts, and relationships to be ready for this. Young people are living in a digital world, but not necessarily in a healthy relational one. I wonder if this is why we are seeing school shootings and mass shootings. People are living in painful isolation. We need to return to a healthy practice of living in high-quality relationships, supporting every human being. No one should feel that they are suffering, and no one cares, yet we have created a reality where many feel this way all the time. We have a lot of work to do.

To learn more about Sam Grant’s work, visit rainbowresearch.org.

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