Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit

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by Joel Mandella


The opening ceremony of the 8th Annual Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit truly began with a bang. I stood entranced as feathers of maroon, violet, and auburn blended into a warm fiery plume. Headdress feathers twirled around and quivered from side to side at each thundering crack of the drum. Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc (, a community of individuals dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Mexica or Aztec culture, began this year’s Environmental Justice Summit with an invigorating participatory dance that had everyone moving. The leader of the dance called on those willing to follow him in movement, and participants attempted to imitate his quick feet. I found others and myself hopelessly panting to keep up, which soon devolved into laughter at our own exhaustion and newfound admiration for the stamina of the dancers. It served as a good introduction to the summit: everybody had something to learn here.


The Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit was held at the Wellstone Center for Community Building in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 29, 2012. For most individuals at the summit, this was the first time they had participated in an environmental event. Jerry Lopez, the Executive Director of the Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit, was especially pleased that the event drew heavily from communities that are underrepresented in the environmental movement yet greatly affected by environmental issues. “Native American communities and people of color are not only underrepresented in the environmental movement, but they often do not participate in the environmental movement,” said Lopez. “That is the target of the conference. Our goal is not only to bring together those working on environmental issues, but to inspire and connect participants to their community.” With three sessions of classes throughout the day, and various classes to choose from at each session, there were plenty of opportunities for inspiration and involvement.


In the seminar “Beyond Activism: Environmental Justice in the Age of Inaction,” guest speaker Chris Silva presented a seven-step plan towards creating a truly transformative grassroots environmental movement. Addressing the entire room of people, Mr. Silva asked, “What is the most significant environmental challenge facing the Twin Cities?” Responses ranged from the damaging impacts of road salt on snow in the winter, to the lack of meaningful involvement and activism concerning environmental issues. “The biggest problem is that when people leave this workshop, they forget about what we talked about and won’t do anything further,” responded Mr. Silva.


It was an astute observation that transcended specific environmental issues, or any single branch of the environmental movement. He was addressing the fact that most people can be stirred or inspired to action momentarily, yet will soon allow that fervor and activism to fade. Mr. Silva introduced the seven tasks of the Mexican rebel Zapatistas as a guard against this ennui. Translated from Spanish, the seven tasks are: Lead by Obeying, Serve and Don’t Serve Yourself, Convince and Do Not Conquer, Build and Do Not Destroy, Represent and Don’t Replace Ideas With Your Own, Go Down and Don’t Go Up, and Everything for Everyone. (To learn more about the “Lessons of the Zapatistas” and the details and significance of Silva’s work, follow this link.)


The next seminar I attended was a hands-on workshop held outdoors in the sweltering and humid summer weather that Minnesotans have come to endure and eagerly complain about. This was the 

“Youth Organizing Through Gardening” seminar led by Youth Leader and opening ceremony dancer Elizabeth Neubauer. Along with other young adults, Elizabeth taught the gathered crowd how to plant their own bok choy, zucchini, and sage using Aztec agricultural techniques. This was a step towards creating sustainable local food economies through autonomous food production. Elizabeth also held up a number of plants known to me simply as “weeds.” However, she demonstrated that some of these customarily despised and misunderstood plants were actually edible, and added an interesting tangy spice to any garden-variety salad!


As part of a growing environmental awareness, action, and movement, this year’s Chalchiulitcue Environmental Justice Summit attracted many newcomers, including youth and immigrant participants. “There were more first-timers at Chalchiutlicue this year than any previous year,” said Executive Director Jerry Lopez. “We really did reach a new audience this year. Our hope is that those who attended the summit will pay more attention to what happens in the community, and get more involved. Our hope is that as a result of being at the summit, they take action.”


“Environmental justice does not have to be contained within the environmental movement but rather, both may want to be in relationship with the other,” he further explained. “Environmental justice exists because people decided to stand up against an injustice. When we work to protect the earth it is because we value the earth.  When one group of humans poisons another group of humans, we should speak to each other about protecting all living things because we value all living things. One movement should not be valued more than another. All should be valued as critical and neccasary parts of the larger whole. The challenge for the environmental movement is to find a way to be an ally for the growing environmental justice movement, by sharing resources and building genuine relationships. It allows more leadership to come out of these communities and more progress to be made in struggling for justice in these communities.”


When asked to describe a great moment in his eight years organizing and coordinating the Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit, Lopez said, “It is a beautiful thing when your entire family, your friends — people you know — come together around something they believe in and value both culturally and politically.  When it is part of our political consciousness, it is something we can act upon. When it is cultural, we can bring our community together.  It is beautiful and powerful to see many cultures come together. For me personally, to be able to experience all this with my daughters, son and wife makes this work even that much more special.”


Attending the Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit was one of the most powerful experiences in my work this year with the Sierra Club. Energy and dynamism abounded from hundreds of individuals gathered, each person eager to learn from others and proud to share their own experiences and expertise in creating a truly transformative environmental justice movement. It was a testament to the fact that humans and the environment are completely interconnected: neither social issues nor environmental problems can truly be addressed in isolation. It was an affirmation of the transformative potential of environmental justice, demonstrating that marginalized communities bearing a disproportionate number and severity of environmental risks can work together to achieve self-empowerment through knowledge and community engagement. Moreover, the Chalchiutlicue Environmental Justice Summit was a beacon of hope. It demonstrated the profound power and transformative potential of individuals from innumerable backgrounds, cultures, histories, stories, and experiences coming together over the shared interest in improving our own lives and the lives of those around us.

All photos by Keri Pickett.


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