Environmental Racism: A Letter From New Mexico to Flint

Dear Families of Flint,

I know that you might be angry or frustrated that Flint’s water crisis is fading from national attention. In this fast-paced news environment, the devastation that families in Flint, Michigan are facing is beginning to fade from front-page news. Yet Flint’s residents are still dealing with the short and long-term effects of contaminated water. Even as donations have arrived to help families, safe drinking water remains a precious resource. It is all too familiar.

I know this story, because I have lived it too. In New Mexico, Native communities like mine have been experiencing a similar problem for months but have not received much attention in mainstream media. As the environmental justice organizer for Tewa Women United, I’ve seen the result of a poisoned water supply. TWU is a collective of intertribal women’s voices in the Tewa homelands of Northern New Mexico.

Last August, the Animas River was poisoned when the Environmental Protection Agency caused a leak while attempting to treat contaminated water in the Gold King Mine in Colorado. That toxic water then tainted the Animas River and the San Juan River, creating lead levels 12,000 times the normal amount, in addition tocontaminating the water with arsenic, mercury and other poisonous minerals. The toxicity of the water in Flint is eerily similar. This spill directly impacted our local Native communities that depend on the Animas for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

To us, water is life. It’s an intrinsic element of our humanity and faith as we are all water beings, and it’s how we survive living in the desert. It is our human right. Our ceremonies depend on clear water and we see the Animas in spiritual terms as a living being. However, the Animas spill is one of many instances in a long history of environmental racism against Native Peoples. The New Mexico state government is more concerned about saving money or making money through oil and gas companies, uranium mining or nuclear weapons production in Northern New Mexico, than in taking care of the people who live here. By turning our sacred water and land into commodities for profit regardless of the cost to the Native communities who live here, the government has done irreparable physical, spiritual, emotional and cultural harm. It’s continuing a policy of genocide, a loss that Native Peoples have endured for centuries and it’s part of a shared history with other communities of color and poor people in the United States. Just like in Flint, just like in Detroit, poor people of color are considered collateral damage for big business.

As someone who has experienced ongoing environmental racism, and witnessed my elders and beloved landscapes survive through the relentless attacks, I want tooffer solidarity and support to our brothers and sisters in Flint. I understand the anger, pain, and hurt of having their children harmed, and the fear of what’s in store for their children as they grow. I know the heartbreak that comes when the people who are supposed to protect you are the one’s who caused the problem. I want the families of Flint to know: You are not alone. Even though we are miles and states apart, we are in community together.

While it’s heartbreaking that there are so many parallels between what Native communities are experiencing and what’s happening in Flint, we have an opportunityto fight together for justice.

Create cross community networks. Through my work with Tewa Women United, we are working with our friends in the Navajo Nation who are also deeply impacted to organize and attend state hearings on the Animas River spill. As part of Strong Families New Mexico, we have been able to share what’s happening in Northern New Mexico with partners across the state and keep this on the radar of our friends and allies. It’s critical to maintain these connections with other communities impacted by government-created environmental racism so we can work together and amplify our voices. We are creating spiritual networks through traditional ceremony and prayers of forgiveness and healing to our shared waters of the world, knowing that water speaks to water, knowing that ancestral wisdom and guidance flows within spirit and offers eternal support.

Build community within Flint. In the coming weeks and months and years to come, we encourage you to depend on each other. That’s not said lightly or to be cliché, but it is clear that we can’t expect the mainstream media or government to create solutions. We have found power and healing in creating our own community spaces to share stories, educate each other and organize. Even in the midst of hardship, we must strengthen our community capacity to find solutions for ourselves by combining our strengths. For us, that’s meant tapping into our cultural traditions and balancing them with current knowledge and technologies. We must follow Creator’s original instructions to love, respect, and take care of one another, and good things will happen. Together, communities have many of the answers within; we can create the future we want.

Continue to support women’s leadership. Another connection we have to Flint is the power of women’s leadership. Many women doctors, leaders and concerned mothers started noticing that something was very wrong and pushed the story of Flint into mainstream conversation. Navajo organizer and friend, Duane Chili Yazzie, reminds us: “Our tribe is matrilineal, so women have always been the guide in assuring our survival as a people. Menfolk say what needs to happen, but women are the power, the force, behind our efforts to live and thrive. They’re the spirit of our leadership. No way we could be where we’re at or where we’re headed without the leadership of women.”

In Native communities, women have the role of being life givers, seed savers and caretakers of the water. Women in Native communities have been the one’s torecognize that rampant environmental violence against Mother Earth is a reflection of violence against women and girls. Since we are most disproportionately affected, we don’t have time to wait for the men in power to realize what’s happening, we must do it ourselves and for our families.

Use your voices in all the ways you can. If the glare from the media lights fades, if the courts find no wrongdoing, if no one is held accountable – we must still use our voices to tell these stories to our families and children. We will pass these stories along – stories of courage, of sorrow, of community, of health. We also tell our stories so that our communities do not forget, so that we don’t get it twisted and think this was our fault, so that we are reminding future generations of their inherent resilience. Whether it’s creating art, lifting voices in song, or using our voice at the ballot box, we must keep speaking and telling our stories. We must nurture our relationships to all that is living with the restorative voice of intention.

Mamas and families of Flint – we see you. It’s up to us to recognize that even separated by geography, we are more similar than different and that we face the same struggles against racism and injustice. Regardless of our identity or where we call home, it’s up to us to stand together, organize, oppose harm and oppression, and continue to create safer, beloved communities for all our families.

Note: Tewa Women United and Strong Families collaborated to develop this open letter to Flint. Tewa Women United is part of Strong Families, a national network of groups working to change how we think, feel, act, and make policy about families. Strong Families is a part of Forward Together.