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Biking Beyond Bigotry: Ecological Problems = Social Problems

Guest Blogger • May 17, 2011

by Jesse Sanes

On the Biking Beyond Bigotry tour one of our main goals was to illuminate the connections between ecological problems and other social problems.

In the United States, for example, immigration status contributes to a doubled likelihood of living close to a factory that produces toxic pollution. Studies have also shown that low income and minority communities are more polluted than wealthier areas, which are generally located further away from heavy industry.

Facts like this show why environmental efforts and activists must address issues of racism and social inequality. That in mind, somewhere around the middle of our trip we experienced an inspiring example of how conservationists are successfully addressing environmentalism in tandem with other social problems in their community.

On Tuesday May 3rd, the riders of Biking Beyond Bigotry were invited for a tour of the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center in south Phoenix.

The Rio Salado Center is located on the Salt River, which was recently an empty river bed, i.e. a magnet for trash, abandoned vehicles and hundreds of thousands of tires. Part of the area even became a federal Superfund site.

On our visit, however, what we saw was a restored 600 acre park covering a lush five mile stretch of the river corridor. Although practically in the shadows of downtown Phoenix, we found ourselves standing in a gorgeous Sonoran riparian habitat that’s housing over 200 species of animals. Walking along some of 16 miles of trails in the park, a jackrabbit even crossed my path. When I stopped on the bank of the river, I could the hear sound of cars crossing an overpass in the distance while I watched a couple of egrets land in the water.

This urban river bed has been transformed from a public health problem into a buzzing, ecologically diverse preserve. But along with this unique success has come other progress. South Phoenix has some of the city’s the highest poverty and unemployment rates.

Not only is the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center is open and free to the public, the center is also offering free adult education and recreation programs on a variety of subjects, which are free all throughout the year.

We were also learned that about 40% of the schools in the district are English Language Learners schools; however, at the Rio Salado Center all the interpretive material is presented in English as well as in Spanish. Which is vital, as the area is also one of Maricopa County’s worst performing school districts. The center has directly addressed this by partnering with local schools to provide opportunities for students to visit with their classes on field trips. The Center also maintains free after-school programs and course series for students. For teens, environmental science career exploration programs are even offered.

In a video on the Rio Salado Center’s website, a teacher/naturalist from the Audubon society explains the Center’s programming message. She says, “the main message we want the kids to have is that this Sonoran desert is part of them, and they are connected to it, and just that the kids feel that they are part owners of the Sonoran Desert.”

This message of ownership of the environment stands directly in the face of anti-immigrant group Federation for American Immigration Reform and the John Tanton network’s message to immigrant children: “you are part of all of our environmental problems.”

Low income communities and communities of color are disproportionally affected by environmental degradation and will be disproportionally affected by global warming. Immigrants do not destroy the environment. It is injustice and racism that provides the conditions for the kind of pollution and ecological destruction that took place in the community of South Phoenix along the Salt River.

Which is to say and to understand that inequality is a serious environmental problem.

The Audubon Society in Phoenix has effectively (and beautifully!) begun to address this understanding with their empowering programming and the opportunities they provide. For more information, visit their website here.

This is the first blog post in an ongoing series written by riders who participated in the recent Biking Beyond Bigotry bicycling tour. From April 28th to May 5th, ten young people from across the nation pedaled over 350 miles to speak out against the greening of hate. Along their route from Flagstaff to Tucson, Arizona, the riders spoke with members of local communities across their route. Their messages included immigration myths and facts around population stabilization, the anti-immigrant movement’s attempts to “green” bigotry, and steps that environmentalists can take to counter such attacks. The initiative of this speaking tour was to directly counter the greening of hate through awareness, education, and the formation of alliances to defeat racism disguised as environmentalism.


Jesse Sanes is a Research Assistant on Carbon Policy at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMASS Amherst.

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