Communities Rising Up to Demand Environmental Justice & Protection Using Art, Advocacy, Inspiration, Generational Connection & Dedication.
From the desk of Maya van Rossum
My journey to film Part III of Here’s The Story: the Green Amendment, focused on New Mexico, has been nothing short of amazing. As powerful as my trip started off (you can read my first reflection here), the richness and diversity of conversations and perspectives were inspiring and sometimes heart wrenching, and only grew as time went on. I began part two of my trip with the visionary dedication of Sally Rodgers.
Throughout my efforts to share the Green Amendment message in New Mexico, I have found myself confronted with the assertion that the state already has such a constitutional amendment in Article XX, Section 21. The pronouncement is often made defensively and defiantly coupled with a backdrop of hope that this was in fact the truth. I respond as respectfully, but also directly, as I can. The fact is that there is a world of difference between the language of Article XX, Section 21 and a Green Amendment. While Article XX, Section 21 recognizes that “protection of the state’s beautiful and healthful environment is … of fundamental importance to the public interest, health, safety and the general welfare”, it does not provide self-executing, constitutional bill of rights protection to the rights of all people to pure water, clean air, a stable climate and healthy environments, nor does it enforceably recognize the duty of all government officials at every level of government to protect the natural resources of the state for both present and future generations. Instead, Article XX, Section 21 simply recognizes the existing duty of legislators to legislate, and protects government action even when it devastatingly degrades our water, air, climate and environment.
With this as a backdrop, I was nervous about reaching out to Sally Rodgers, who is among the founders of Article XX, Section 21. I remember calling Sally to talk to her about meeting up for an interview. I was in New York walking along a forest path and was sure I was going to have to explain and defend how a Green Amendment was different – I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sally immediately saw the deficiencies of Article XX, Section 21 and the powerful difference the proposed New Mexico Green Amendment would make for New Mexico’s environments and communities. It was with her words of excitement and support for a New Mexico Green Amendment ringing in my ears that I traveled to her New Mexico home as the first interview of the second half of my trip.
Sally’s amazing energy, dedication and youthful exuberance for advancing environmental protection was immediately palpable as I got out of the car and approached her standing in her doorway to greet me. Given her age of 80+ years young, we had agreed in advance that we would double up on our COVID-19 precautions: increasing our social distancing during our outside interview and agreeing that I would keep on my mask throughout the entire interview so she could feel extra confident about removing hers. Joined by her beautiful and affectionate German Shepard, Sally recounted her efforts to secure Article XX, Section 21, her hopes for the increased protections it would give for New Mexico’s environment, and her disappointment as she watched it be used by industry as a justification for their polluting operations while it failed to provide environmental advocates the tool they needed for better environmental protection. When we turned to the idea of advancing a New Mexico Green Amendment Sally was all-in with her support and enthusiasm. As a long-time environmental advocate, and endearingly known as “Mother Green”, Sally quickly saw the power and potential of a New Mexico Green Amendment. I knew then and there that we would succeed – while I am hoping that success will come with the 2021 Green Amendment proposal Senator Sedillo Lopez, Senator Soules, and Representative Ferrary are planning to advance, even if it takes a little longer I know we will succeed because leaders like Sally see the need and are committed to success.
As I was getting into the car Sally came rushing out of her home. She had a dish of the most sumptuous tomatoes she had grown in her garden and wanted to share. I so wish I could have hugged this amazing lady for her leadership, dedication, and kindness but the better way for me to express my admiration, gratitude and loving care for this incredible leader who has spent her life fighting for our communities and earth was to stay at a distance and try to express my thanks through my words and a warm smile of affection. And by enjoying those delicious tomatoes on my salad that evening – which I most certainly did!
The second half of my trip was going to be amazing – that was clear.
It has always been my habit to get up early, do my kettlebell exercise or a morning run, look at my calendar for the day, and plow through some email while I enjoy my morning coffee. On this particular morning an amazing flurry of emails were coming through. The founder of FinalStraw had read about our work in the Santa Fe New Mexican and was interested in learning more and talking on camera. I was thrilled. When I first heard about FinalStraw years before I had immediately purchased one for every member of my family. Having such a visionary and dedicated business leader would be a great addition to the documentary and so we immediately worked to schedule an on-camera interview. While that was happening in the background, I kept on with my planned interviews.
Artemisio Romero y Carver
Next Stop? The emotional and inspiring poetry of Artemisio Romero y Carver. I had read about Arte in the press – an amazing young artist who was using his art and vision for change in defense of the Earth, communities of color and younger generations that our system of government is so quick and willing to sacrifice to pollution, degradation and the ravages of climate change. It was clear from all I had read and heard that Arte was a powerful voice – I wanted to hear his thoughts about environmental protection, I wanted to learn his story, and to see what he thought about the idea of a New Mexico Green Amendment. I have to say, I was truly honored by Arte’s excited response to our having a conversation on camera and our shared enthusiasm to meet one another.
Arte and I talked about environmental racism, what it would mean to have true racial and environmental justice, and the important role of young people in environmental advocacy given that they are the ones facing such an uncertain future. Arte talked about his frustrations with traditional education and how art helped him find his voice, along with his passion for activism and championing justice. When I asked Arte if I could hear one of his poems, I was graced with a big smile and one of the most powerful pieces of poetry I have ever had the honor to enjoy. The creativity of Arte and the group YUCCA, in which Arte is an active leader, is really inspiring and on point – such as their living art installation outside the Roundhouse (the New Mexico capitol building), where a diverse set of young people had their heads literally placed in a guillotine that would fall when big blocks of ice, representing the impacts of the climate crisis, melted away. How visual, demonstrative and powerful is that?!
I don’t think I can fairly share the power of our conversation or Arte’s vision for justice. And I certainly cannot do justice to Arte’s amazing poetry. But I am thrilled to say that I don’t need to find the words because you will be able to experience it yourself when the NM documentary series is released.
As Arte and I walked through the little park in Santa Fe to see the art installation that he and some fellow artists had installed – it was a place to show respect and honor for others, to leave messages of hope, and where people could leave remembrances of loved ones lost and tragedies experienced — the sound of music grew louder and louder. Two gentlemen had set up some instruments by the installation and were playing their music – the park was pretty empty and so they weren’t playing for an audience, they were just playing for the joy of making music. It was beautiful – the art installation, the uplifting music, and another powerful voice who had expressed support for the idea of a New Mexico Green Amendment.
The next day I found myself off-roading it a bit as I drove the unpaved route up into the mountains to visit with the well-renowned expert Norm Gaume. While Norm’s technical expertise and his government service, including as the director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, is impressive, it is his life experiences enjoying and fighting to preserve the Gila River and wilderness that most impressed me. This is a man that is dedicated to science and truth and to using his knowledge for the betterment of all. In my 26 years of environmental advocacy I have so often come across experts who will share their knowledge and the truth it speaks about environmental issues when behind closed doors, but as soon as they have to put their expertise and knowledge to work in the light of day suddenly they equivocate, use wishy washy language, and simply are unwilling to put their science and expertise to work for people and the earth.
Norm is NOT that kind of expert or person. Norm has put his technical expertise and his personal experiences about the values and importance of the Gila River and wilderness together and as a result has helped secure an impressive track record of environmental protection – protecting the Gila River from major water diversions that would have devastating impacts on the Gila Wilderness. It’s good to know that Norm will be there when the next inevitable effort to dam the Gila comes along – a battle Norm says he is ready for. And it is amazing for me to hear that Norm agrees that having a New Mexico Green Amendment would help.
Before heading out, Norm shared his goal of becoming carbon neutral, and took me up close to his unique system of solar panels that move to track the location of the sun, and shared with me the beautiful nature that surrounded his home.
Richard Moore and Sofia Martinez
My drive to Los Jardines Institute to meet with environmental and community leaders Richard Moore and Sofia Martinez was a wonderful surprise. As we drove through Albuquerque, turning here and turning there, I wasn’t sure what to expect – how could a farm garden exist in such an urbanized area? But when I arrived at the gate the positive community energy rose up instantly and overwhelmed me. There were beautiful murals on buildings and fences, an abundant vegetable garden being lovingly tended, and an outside vegetable wash and kitchen area that is used to provide vegetables to volunteers and communities. The warm and positive energy enveloped me as soon as I entered this amazing space.
Talking with Richard and Sofia was a personification of the respect and loving care the Los Jardines Institute nurtures and shares. Our conversation embraced the importance of generational learning, respect and sharing; the values of a well-rounded community that focus on and nurture every aspect of a community from the relationship between elders and children; to learning about culture, history and legacy; to providing nourishing food and nurturing the healthy nature we all depend upon. In the day I spent with Richard and Sofia I found myself educated by facts, but more importantly by generational experience, knowledge and sharing. I found myself wishing that my children had the opportunity to participate in the children’s book club, gardening programs, education opportunities and environmental protection and justice initiatives that were part of Los Jardines Institute and such a clear and honorable part of who Richard and Sofia are. I was sad to leave the grounds of Los Jardines, but I knew I was a richer person for having spent the day there.
After leaving each of my visits I wondered how the next introduction, meeting and conversation could be on par with what I had just experienced, but time and time again I was honored by another meeting and conversation that helped to shape my world view and helped me think about my Green Amendment movement from a new perspective.
I had spoken with Beata Tsosie-Peña from Tewa Women United on the phone. We had talked about the Green Amendment concept earlier in the year and how it might be beneficial to Native American Communities. When we ended the call, the only agreement was that ongoing conversation would be of value. Beata’s strength and leadership had flowed through the phone lines. When the time came to meet with Beata at the Española Healing Foods Oasis I was excited, but also a bit nervous about how her thinking had evolved on the idea of a New Mexico Green Amendment. Within moments of meeting it was clear that Beata had done her research into the Green Amendment concept but it wasn’t so clear what she thought about it. I was excited, but also a bit anxious, to hear what she would say.
Our conversation began with the power of water, of community, and of the leadership and strength of women in advancing a community’s voice and securing meaningful protection and change. When I asked Beata about her “Water as our First Environment” initiative I was deeply touched and inspired. Beata talked about how all of us begin our lives in water, the water of the womb, and how that water nurtures, supports and helps us to grow. It is this start of all people in water that, for her communities, sets the stage for a life of loving care for the precious waters of the Earth that support and sustain us throughout our lives. I had never thought about the powerful role water plays in our lives before we are even born, and how the waters of Mother Earth take over once we exit the womb. It was a powerful moment of awakening and thought for me. And it was a moment complemented and punctuated by Beata’s support of the Green Amendment concept for declaring and protecting the rights of all people to pure water throughout their lives, as well as clean air and healthy environments. When Beata looked me in the eye and thanked me for the work, I was deeply and emotionally touched – this woman of strength, honor and dedication is an inspiration and to have her support for a NM Green Amendment and a sense of camaraderie in working to protect our communities and the Earth was a true and deep honor.
Before we parted, Beata shared with me the story of the Healing Garden – how the garden soils and area began as a sacrifice zone to the neighboring parking lot and its polluted runoff but was transformed by the community using native, edible and medicinal plants that have been used throughout history to provide food and healing to Native American people. Beata shared the sad story of how Spanish colonizers would cut off the hands of Native American people who sought to harvest Amaranth — an appalling demonstration of colonialism and domination. But Beata’s spirit, the healing garden, and the work of Tewa Women United provided a powerful demonstration of the power of Native American beliefs, strength, commitment to community and the rights of all elements of nature to live and thrive.
It was with the ringing words of Beata, about the power of rising up in the face of the many injustices her community has encountered, and yet their enduring efforts to rise up and seek justice in response, that I went into my conversation with Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center. Kyle had kindly driven down from Taos so we could have the time to talk in a lovely little park in Santa Fe.
It was almost as if Kyle had joined me in all of the interviews we had done during our time in New Mexico because he quickly, passionately and powerfully weaved together many of the strands of conversations we had been engaged in. Kyle provided facts, figures, history and context regarding New Mexico’s extractive past and present, he talked about the many New Mexico sacrifice zones and sacrificed communities, he shared his experiences in how New Mexico’s environmental laws were not providing justice and the protection needed by all communities, and how New Mexico’s current constitutional language about the environment was not a meaningful tool for environmental protection. Among the most important messages Kyle delivered was that we don’t have time for incremental steps if we are going to protect a livable planet for future generations. Kyle repeated this message throughout our conversation – both when speaking about the communities he represents in court and when talking about his own children and their future here on this earth.
It is interesting to me when I watch lawyers in action. There are many lawyers who are good at their job, they get up before the court in overpriced suits that match their overpriced hourly rates; they know the facts and the law and they can stand before the court and weave an effective line of argument. While these attorneys are good at their jobs there is clearly something missing that you can’t quite put you finger on. There are other lawyers that are really good at their job, and when they are in front of the court they clearly care but somehow their representation seems to miss the mark in some indescribable way. And then there are those lawyers who transform how we think about the law and its powerful importance for protecting communities, including our environment – they know the facts and the law and have an amazing way to weave the two together in a way that changes the way you think about the issue at hand; they are clearly in the courtroom because they believe in the cause and communities they are there to champion, they are seeking justice for their clients not a paycheck for themselves; they inspire us, convince us, and help us see that there truly is truth and justice in this world and people who have unselfishly dedicated themselves to seeking that better path for all of us. Kyle is that kind of lawyer.
From there I drove to the home of Mariel Nanasi, the leader of New Energy Economy. In my own years as an environmental activist I have often been intrigued by the wide array of very strong reactions I seem to inspire – love, hate, joy, anger, but never indifference – the same seems true with Mariel and that is how I knew I was going to love her, and I do! In keeping with its leader, New Energy Economy is a powerful advocacy organization focused on building a sustainable, carbon and pollution-free energy future using advocacy, grassroots organizing, education and … when needed … strategic litigation. Before we sat down to talk about her work and dedication to environmental protection, Mariel was eager and excited to share with me the amazing art she has decorating her home. We began in the living room with a piece made by a friend of Mariel’s that included nestled elements about the life of Mariel and her husband battling for civil rights – it was truly the most amazing piece of art I had ever seen with pictures, news headlines, and other elements of Mariel’s civil rights work and history integrated throughout the piece. Mariel then led me to her bedroom where she shared a provocative piece of art she had bought while a law student – it was a picture hand drawn by John Lennon. Mariel’s whole house is filled with amazing art representing all aspects of her life – her battle for civil rights, climate justice, and environmental protection. The tour ended with Mariel delightedly telling us about a special edition release of a book her husband had authored – The Assassination of Fred Hampton – a powerful story about the murder of the Black Panther leader and the role Jeffrey Haas (Mariel’s husband) played in uncovering the shameful truth about his death.
From there we sat on Mariel’s back patio and talked about how she transitioned her focus from civil rights to one of the most powerful environmental and justice issues of our time – avoiding a climate crisis that will devastate future generations. As described by Mariel, once she became aware of the size and scope of the climate problem and the injustices being perpetrated by industry and our government, she felt morally compelled to re-dedicate her life to this existential threat. Mariel’s passion for environmental protection shines through in her words, her body language, and her enthusiasm for securing unyielding protection for communities and the Earth. It was a delight to hear her reflections on how a Green Amendment could help transform and strengthen the obligations of government to protect New Mexico’s communities and natural resources. Given Mariel’s civil rights history, there was a special camaraderie and shared understanding when talking with her about how a Green Amendment transforms environmental protection to a constitutionally enforceable civil right.
Representative Angelica Rubio
After Mariel I traveled to the New Mexico Roundhouse, truly among the most attractive state capitol buildings in our nation. I had a wonderful moment of peace and reflection as I enjoyed the amazing sculptures at each of Roundhouse entrances. I was waiting for my opportunity to sit and speak with Representative Angelica Rubio – a recognized champion for social and environmental justice. Much to my surprise and delight she didn’t walk up or drive to our meet up spot, she rode up on her bicycle. A true leader practices what they preach, and Representative Rubio is a true leader. It was great to hear about her annual “Outside the I” bike tour – a bike ride hundreds of miles long from her home in Las Cruces to the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, with stops all along the way to hear the concerns and hopes of New Mexico residents, while at the same time demonstrating the wonderful values of biking and engaging with the outdoors. Representative Rubio spoke about her environmental values, the importance of environmental justice and why she values a Green Amendment that would add constitutional environmental rights to the New Mexico Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The most striking moment for me was when I asked her what she would say to those that might oppose the idea of passing a Green Amendment – Representative Rubio looked very serious and said: you must come from a place of privilege if you are opposing the right of all people to clean water and air and healthy environments, we don’t all have access to those fundamentals of life but we should. I had never had anyone frame it that way — that only those with privilege would oppose the constitutional right of all people to clean water and air, a stable climate and healthy environments, and would fail to understand that not all people have these basic fundamentals of life.
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You must come from a place of privilege if you oppose the right of all people, including future generations, regardless of race, ethnicity or income, to clean water and air and healthy environments. This simple and clear observation eloquently emphasizes the power of Green Amendments for addressing the tremendous environmental inequities experienced across our nation and in New Mexico. What a powerful way to end the week.