For Richard Moore, co-director of the Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, the fight for social justice is inseparable from the fight for clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.

Moore has spent decades organizing against major polluters in Albuquerque's South Valley and other low-income areas in the city. It's a fight that has taken him from his own backyard to influential positions advising the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House on environmental policy. Meanwhile, he's never stopped fighting for better opportunities and safer jobs, or equal access to health care and education in the Albuquerque area.

"That's why I don't consider myself an environmentalist. I consider myself an environmental justice activist," he says as he takes SFR on a tour of the institute's community farm. "Somebody would always ask us…'Why are you doing what you're doing?' And our response has always been and will always be: for the love of the people."

Now, he's one of two grassroots organizers from New Mexico who President Joe Biden's appointed to the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a group convened to provide recommendations to the administration on how to deal with a national legacy of concentrating polluting and extracting industries in low-income communities and communities of color.

In January, Biden signed a sweeping executive order to address climate change that put environmental justice front and center. The order mandates that 40% of the benefits from infrastructure investments, jobs and other elements of a transition to a sustainable economy must go to marginalized communities.

The task force must figure out how to make that ambitious goal a reality, says Jade Begay, the other New Mexican on the council. Begay, who has Diné and Pueblo heritage and is an enrolled member of the Tesuque Pueblo, is the climate justice campaign director for NDN Collective, a group that supports the grassroots work of Indigenous communities across North America.

Jade Begay is one of two New Mexican grassroots activists on the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Jade Begay is one of two New Mexican grassroots activists on the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. | Cara Romero

Begay tells SFR the council has just a few months to present its first set of recommendations to the Biden administration.

For Moore, who has served on a similar council at the EPA for the last 30 years, it feels like the culmination of a lifelong fight to bring environmental justice into the mainstream.

In the 1970s Moore joined grassroots organizers in Albuquerque in the effort to improve the quality of life in some of the city's lowest-income Chicano neighborhoods. This included setting up breakfast programs and the city's first community health clinics in addition to protesting industrial facilities polluting the area.

"One thing we would always do, is we would canvass people in the neighborhood to figure out what the problems were," says Moore. "When we asked them, 'what do you consider the top three or four major issues in your neighborhood?' They would say, 'Well, the water don't taste very good. There's a terrible smell from the sewage plant.' They couldn't have barbecues outside the house because there was always these small particles floating through the air from the particle board companies nearby, and so on. So that's how we began to turn our focus on the environmental issues, though no one thought of it that way at the time."

Moore and his colleagues founded the Southwest Organizing Project to address these and other issues, and later founded the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice to extend the scope of their work across the region.

In 1990, when Moore was the co-director of SWOP, the organization sent a letter to the biggest national environmental NGOs accusing these mostly white and male-dominated groups of either ignoring or exacerbating the issues plaguing communities of color.

The letter, which made international headlines, listed offenses including their support of policies annexing tribal lands for "conservation" efforts and their failure to recognize urban contamination as an environmental issue, concluding that "racism is a root cause of your inaction around addressing environmental problems in our communities."

Since then, says Begay, the issues raised in SWOP's historic letter have morphed into what she calls "white saviorism," when well-meaning environmental organizations show up with an agenda instead of letting locals take the lead.

"For me, environmental and climate justice is about tying people back to their land and traditional ancestral ways," she tells SFR. "Indigenous peoples, frontline communities, tribes, they know what's best for them…and they know the best solutions to navigate the climate crisis or whatever challenges they're facing. So what they need is investment. What they need is big NGOs and agencies with massive budgets to share their power and resources and let these people lead."

Recently, she's seen that shift begin to happen. In the last year alone, Biden's climate platform has pivoted to take on a much more direct environmental justice focus and the administration has appointed a slew of Indigenous people into positions of power, including Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo as secretary of the Interior Department, and PaaWee Rivera of Pojoaque Pueblo as the White House director of tribal affairs. Begay attributes this shift to the hard work grassroots organizers have been doing for decades.

"Watching all of these things happen, I just have so much hope right now that our perspectives and our issues will finally be centered," she says.

Moore shares the sentiment.

"I am very excited, because I think this is a moment in history, if everyone is really serious about it, we can really do some things," he tells SFR. But he also warns people not to become complacent just because things are looking up.

"Keep going, sisters and brothers, because the struggle's not over until it's over."

On Wednesday, April 7, the Los Jardines Institute and the UNM School of Law will host a virtual workshop about cumulative impact policies that address the public health and environmental consequences of locating multiple polluting facilities close to one another. The workshop is from 6pm to 7pm on Zoom. The link is accessible through a post on the law school’s Facebook page.