Building the Beloved Community, A conversation with Dr. Mildred McClain

By Bartees Cox: 

We’re ten days into Black Green History month at Groundswell and excited to share our second post about one of the great leaders of the environmental justice movement. As we continue to  examine the connection between civil rights and environmental justice, it’s important to highlight those who built the foundations of this work. Like my mother would say, “you can’t go far if you don’t know where you’re coming from.” 

Dr. Mildred “Mama Bahati” McClain is an environmental justice pioneer and Executive Director of the Harambee House in Savannah, an organization she co-founded nearly 30 years ago. When the air was thick with pollution from the shipping channels of the Port of Savannah, Dr. McClain convened community meetingsso that people were part of the solution. When nuclear waste made its way down river to the shores of her community, she organized advocates across the state to hold the utility accountable. She’s stood as a delegate at the World Conference Against Racism and the World Summit on Sustainable Development. And her leadership will extend far into the future through the Harambee House’s Black Youth Leadership Development Institute, which has trained over 1500 young people to serve as leaders in their own communities. 

Instead of telling her story myself, it felt right that this come from her own words. Below you’ll find an excerpt from a conversation Dr. McClain and I had last week about her life's work and journey from civil rights advocate to becoming a mother of the movement for environmental justice. 

Q. Bartees Cox: Dr. McClain, for black green history month I want to show how civil rights is connected to environmentalism, specifically environmental justice. As I learn more about these, I see how they’re connected, but I’d love to know how you’ve seen this connection play out through your career?

A. Dr. McClain: First of all, it’s important to define what the “environment” actually means. I think of it as where you sleep, work, attend school, go to the hospital, shop for food. It’s your entire ecosystem! If you see this as your environment, it changes what it means to be an environmentalist. This is how I’ve approached the work through the years, and honestly I’d like to take it beyond civil or environmental rights - at Harambee House we’re fighting for human rights. 

Everyone should have clean water, it should be a given that we breathe clean air, an electric bill shouldn’t wipe out my bank account, and I should have access to wholesome food. Why should black, latino, or poor communities be subjected to exposure from lead, arsenic, dioxide, and carcinogens from industries placed in our neighborhoods against our wishes? This stuff is serious, it’s killing people, and it’s an abuse of our human rights. No human being - and especially no child - should be exposed to that, right? Through years of confronting racism in all of its different disguises, all fights against injustice include calls for environmental injustice. That’s why civil rights is at the center. 

Q. Bartees: Couldn’t agree more, which brings me to my next question - how did you start out in this work? What drove you to join the movement? 

A. Dr. McClain: Well, funny enough I actually started out in the civil rights movement. I attended my first protest when I was thirteen. We were desegregating lunch counters through sit-ins across my hometown of Savannah, Georgia. I never really stopped after that experience. For me, I was always driven by place. I knew that my community didn’t have as many nice things, or as much money as others, but I’m rooted in Savannah, and I wanted to be part of making it a better place.

After college, I returned to Savannah in the late 80’s as a teacher. While teaching I met a man who lived in a neighboring town, he asked if I was involved in stopping the bomb plant, and I thought, “What are you talking about?” I did a little research and was shocked to see how close the plant was to our town. I knew a little bit about radioactive waste from my studies, and I knew that it was dangerous for the plant to be so close to us and the water supply. Four months later the plant had a spill. During this time the first ever People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit was being planned in DC. It being the early 90s, there were very few African Americans in the nuclear space, so I was asked to serve on the planning committee and represent that work. In 1992, I was invited to speak at the World Uranium Forum in Salzberg. The principal at my school allowed me to attend, but when I returned I’d been transferred. So I quit teaching and started working on environmental issues. This was my formal introduction to environmental justice. The 30th anniversary for Harambee House will be this October. Starting it is the best decision I ever made in my life. I think this story also shows how environmental justice was very much a branch from the civil rights movement in a way. 

Q Bartees Cox:  What would you say is the vision or the opportunity you see now through your work? 

A Dr. McClain: It all comes back to Dr. King’s vision of creating the beloved community. How do environmental justice leaders, clean energy creators, and the climate movement position ourselves to build the community we know is possible? We have to try something new. We need to come together and be creative in deploying our expertise to reduce our carbon footprint. We’ve got one planet - and I’m not Beyonce - I can’t afford a plot on Mars. And as we create this sustainable environment, we should also have high quality public education, free healthcare, clean water, and a justice system that centers people who need help instead of preying upon the helpless. This is our environment, our state, our planet. And it would be a shame that it wasn’t fixed simply because we don’t agree on everything all the time. 

Q. Bartees Cox: I’ve read about you, and even from talking to you, it’s abundantly clear that you’ve worked on this issue at every imaginable angle. In what direction do you see this work going for you, for Harambee House, or for the EJ movement? 

A. Dr. McClain: I’ve been asking myself this alot: “What's next?” It’s important that the stories and expertise in this movement are passed down and done in a way that shows our children who we were. We’re warriors who fight to preserve Mother Earth. They should know how our fights crossed civil rights, human rights, environmental justice, clean energy, immigration, and  incarceration. Passing on our stories, the struggles, and the successes are deeply important to building this beloved community.

In the civil rights movement, we were deliberate about passing the baton to upcoming generations. One thing I’m proud of is that the EJ movement was deliberately created to be an intergenerational space, so instead of passing the baton we are finding ways to share it. It takes us all if we want to win. That’s what we need if we want to find equitable solutions and dismantle racism, which is at the center of changing policies, programs, and budgets that keep people subjugated and feed the profits of the wealthy families that control the planet. And for this to happen, all of our work - across movements - needs to integrate. This is how we win at an individual and institutional level. You can’t divest an institution if you don’t change the minds of those running it. 

If you want to learn more about Dr. McClain’s work:

About The Harambee House https://www.theharambeehouse.net/

Video Interview: 20 Years of Environmental Justice at EPA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eF9D5VAGnI

“Can One Organization Change an Entire City?” about Dr. McClain and the transformational work of The Harambee House https://blog.epa.gov/tag/mildred-mcclain/

“No Dream Too Big Nor Journey Too Long” about how Dr. McClain has inspired new leaders https://earthjustice.org/blog/2015-february/no-dream-too-big-nor-journey-too-long

NYTimes Opinion: “Black woman are leaders in the climate movement,” highlighting Dr. McClain among black women at the vanguard of the movement https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/25/opinion/black-women-leaders-climate-movement.html

Climate Platform: Dr. McClain is a contributing author The vision for an inclusive and just climate agenda .pdf