My goal within the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) union is to bridge the gap between the labor movement and the climate movement. Workers should be front and center of both movements fighting for a green transition, because we have to work in conditions of pollution and extreme weather. It’s not safe for us, and it’s certainly not safe for our communities or our students.
I came from Sioux City, Iowa, in 2016, and moved to the Northside. It’s a place I now call my home. I’m impacted by pollution in my zip code: where I live, where I teach, and where many of my students are my neighbors. You see some of the highest rates of asthma and chronic disease in North Minneapolis from trash incinerators like the HERC plant and metal recycling facilities. These polluting industries impact predominantly working-class, Black communities and communities of color. More people die from pollution than they do by gun violence or police violence, but it’s an issue that people don’t fully see because it’s so normalized. And reconciling the climate emergency and local pollution can take a toll on our mental health, as well.
The struggle for environmental protection is something I’ve always seen as intertwined issues: climate justice, racial justice and economic justice. What I really like about the People’s Climate and Equity Plan is that it recognizes how intersected the movement needs to be. For instance, in the Plan, there is a demand for carbon-free buildings by 2030, but also for affordable housing. There’s an understanding that we need to address systemic racism by providing more opportunities for people of color to be involved in the green economy. We know that people deserve to be healthy and safe in carbon-free neighborhoods, and that there has to be funding to do all of it.
In the MFT, we started an Ecological Justice Working Group, and the People’s Climate and Equity Plan is something we’re really excited to work on. We think it is important not only as union members and professionals deeply entrenched in communities across the city, but because of the impact that climate, economic, and racial justice reform could have on our students.
Schools are natural hubs for building community around climate justice; relationships are formed within the halls, classrooms, gyms, and playgrounds. The physical school buildings and resource networks are often used in times of climate crisis for relief from storms or extreme heat. We now have an opportunity to revitalize school buildings with energy efficiency and create community energy gardens.
Going forward, I hope to see a future in which green energy is in the hands of the community. We need to build worker and community power and a direct democracy that authentically represents our needs and demands. And we need stronger communities that know and rely on each other. People are very isolated today. We can seize the opportunity to strengthen our community out of a common love for our planet and by resisting pollution together.
My experience with climate justice was exemplified in Iowa, fighting a pipeline with the Mississippi Stand movement. It started with many local working class folks who didn’t want Energy Transfer’s pipeline construction to go on, and soon protesters joined from all over who wanted to protect the water and cared about Indigenous sovereignty. It was a clear anti-colonial struggle; the pipeline would go through Native territory, violating treaties.
We undertook actions in which people would lock themselves to equipment to stop construction. One day, I was locked down to a gas truck in order to stop the work. The truck driver and police were shouting at me that the brick holding back the truck was going to give out, and it was going to crush and kill me. I was terrified. But I didn’t unlock from underneath that wheel in the face of the scare tactics. Eventually, I was forcibly detached.
That was the first and only act of civil disobedience I’ve been arrested for. And for me, it was so important, because there were 20 million people who relied on the area for drinking water – 20 million people could be affected in the worst way if that pipeline were to break. It could look like the devastation in Flint, magnified 20 times. We ended up protesting the line as a caravan along the route throughout Iowa and slowing the construction of Energy Transfer’s destructive pipeline. A lot of the relationships built in Iowa were strengthened and utilized in later fights, and the connections between movements cascaded and expanded our collective political imagination.
I’m proud to bring the struggle for climate justice to my union, because polluting plants like the HERC and Northern Metal Recycling impact as many as 16 schools in our area, including a number of elementary schools. Green transition is going to require rapid reforms. To get the changes we need, we will have to build up our movement, and that happens by making demands, not leaving people out. The People’s Climate and Equity Plan is the first of many important steps that need to be taken to dismantle systems of white supremacy and capitalism. It’s a real opportunity for us to create something new in Minneapolis.
Jessica Garraway has worked as an educator in Minneapolis Public Schools for six years. She recently co-founded the Educators Climate Action Network (ECAN) with over 90 educators across the country who are incorporating green demands into union contracts and winning investment into the public school system. Jessica has been organizing and writing on matters such as wealth disparity, racism, colonialism, women’s liberation, labor, and environmental issues for over 10 years.
Portraiture by Ted Hall Photography