Justice as a garden
Q: Can you start by sharing your name, title, and where you work?
I live on the land of the Ute, the Cheyenne, the Arapahoe, the Shoshone, the Kiowa, the Comanche, the Xicano, and the 48 tribes that live and travel through this space. I’m Renée M. Chacon and I am Diné, Xicana, and Filipina. I’m the Executive Director and co-founder of Womxn from the Mountain, an Indigenous, woman-led nonprofit that works nationally and internationally with missing and murdered Indigenous relatives and in environmental justice.
We do transformative art education, cultural education, and policy advocacy with the Colorado Environmental Justice Action Task Force. I also served this year as the co-chair of the Equity Analysis Subcommittee for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. We’ve passed several bills to address environmental injustice where we live and work directly in the disproportionately impacted communities of Commerce City. We legitimately show where racism and redlining lead to the cumulative impacts of environmental injustice we see today.
Q: How did you first get involved in the environmental space?
I’m doing the work of my grandmother; we’ve been fighting forms of environmental racism and protecting water rights for so long. I’m from New Mexico and Southern Colorado, where Xicanos were relocated for migrant labor. My grandmother, from a mixed indigenous background, came to Denver, where she owned several different businesses. My grandpa owned a shoe shop; he was Filipino. They’ve been working for years to address various forms of what we now call social justice or environmental justice. We had to learn to fight for our water rights and land usage in southern Colorado, and many movements started there. We are still fighting for the respect of our cultural education and traditions before they’re erased; we protect our way of life. Indigenous communities in Colorado protected our land way before it was ever a state.
Q: Thank you for that background into your history. Can you share more about how you are navigating these racial and environmental injustices today?
It’s every day. Here in Commerce City alone, we don’t just deal with Suncor and fracking; we have over 1780 extractive industries. We deal with benzene, hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen sulfide. These compounds were literally once used in gas chambers against Indigenous communities. I live by the South Platte River, which the Cheyenne and Arapaho called the Moonshell River, and it has 35 to 69 particulate pollutants in it. Every day we fight forms of particulate pollutants once used for the genocide of our communities. We make policies and generate data recognizing Indigenous communities because the census won’t. We support the local MMIR taskforce passing the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives bill here in Colorado. One of the notable things mentioned by elders who testified on that bill is that they might be born Lakota, but they die Latino or Caucasian on the census block, erasing their cultural identity from the beginning. They don’t even ask to see if we exist, yet Colorado still has 48 plus tribes that still live and travel through here. The Ute and the Mountain Ute have reservations here.
We are discriminated against for our connection to the biosphere, how we steward, and how we once stewarded our homelands. That’s why we teach cultural education before our elders are no longer here, especially in light of COVID. Our work addresses the cumulative impacts of injustices affecting Indigenous communities. We have to establish that our communities exist, that we still have ties to our biosphere, and that there are rights of nature you have to respect. Because no treaty was ever honored, we have to do different forms of Land Back equity movements to reclaim our identity through our homelands and the need to protect our Biosphere. Every day we fight forms of erasure in our urban communities.
Even to this day, people get combative. I ran for Commerce City Council, and while talking to neighbors, I’ve been called exotic and sexualized. We know that these projections and biases lead to missing and murdered relatives. It’s no joke. I’ve had people come at me, calling me poverty porn, telling me to shut up while canvassing, and had to tell people that these are my homelands I am fighting for. The things I am fighting for affect everyone; the air, land, and water quality are all connected.
Most people have never been taught cultural trauma sensitivity or to develop emotional intelligence for impacted communities. So when you try to reach them, sometimes they see it as a political agenda or simply can’t see your push for equity as a form of humanity because people are not ready to reproportion certain power dynamics to protect other communities long impacted by the cumulative impacts of injustice.
Q: Can you share some thoughts on how leaders can address environmental injustices with communities in mind?
It’s more than just diversity and inclusion training. We established a whole task force to address the environmental injustice in Colorado to have consistent long-term funding for equity analyses with community modeling and monitoring from disproportionately impacted communities. There has to be an awareness that state and federal agencies have created a status quo and paradigm that creates predatory practices to create data gaps, which eventually lead to gaps in mitigation, rulemaking, policymaking, and protections. There has to be a consistent paradigm shift. It really is about decolonization. We need people in disproportionately impacted communities telling localized entities where communities have been harmed. We need to move towards having long-term funding in our communities so we have transparent processes and consistent forms of equity checked for throughout the process of restoring our biosphere.
In my community, we see this pattern of people coming in to tell us they care, and then they go away, and then they come back a few years later, like a pendulum swinging. We have to stop that if we are really going to address equity for future generations. We cannot keep seeing community work as charity. A lot of federal funding is coming in with the Inflation Reduction Act that could finally establish forms of equity that have never existed for BIPOC. Be mindful of where that funding needs to go to really care for communities’ education, health, and safety in new sectors. There are entire databases of people and programs that can help establish those equity guidelines, people who have always been on the frontlines of addressing community needs but we have to build collaborative and brave spaces so we don’t reinvent the wheel on what has already been learned from past generations.
Q: Do you have any final messages you’d like to share?
To recognize but not hijack other communities’ narratives. Amplify narratives with legitimate ally and accomplice intentions by relinquishing privileges to address inequities. Respect those that have come before, whether in cultural education, trauma sensitivity, Indigenous education, or BIPOC education. If you’re truly going to be an ally, an accomplice, do not parade these narratives, but bring them in and support communities forming their own table calling out where the system is a barrier to long-term justice in disproportionately impacted communities. We’re tired of telling our stories over and over; this is legitimate trauma we’re talking about. We don’t want just to keep retelling our stories; we need change now.
Justice and equity are a verb of living intentions. If you look at equity as a garden, we need to prioritize the weakest communities first, to have the stronger ones grow well too. That’s how you help scientifically, by going to the indicator species in the living environment when there are harmful changes to the Biosphere. When you help the indicator spaces, everything else flourishes no matter what. How can you protect the land, water, and soil and look at communities holistically in the same way? How can you support communities to be in alignment with the rest of the biosphere? How does that community want to be nourished?
We are all connected, so what happens to one happens to the other. If one of us is chained, all of us are chained. We need to remove barriers for those that are the weakest so that all of us can ultimately flourish in a way that can be protective of our health, our safety, and the respect that all of us deserve as living beings now, not just as things that produce and produce. It might be our disproportionately impacted communities, air, land, and water now, but it’s everybody tomorrow.