I came to the realization rather late in life that social justice and environmental issues are intimately related.

I was in the 10th grade at Western Christian High School when the first Earth Day was observed. Each class in our school (9-12 at that time) created a presentation. We sophomores dressed up in full body suits with gas masks to represent the direction we were headed as a nation–and particularly in Southern California. I grew up with regular “smog alerts” when we were not allowed to play during recess due to poor air quality.

Government intervention led to requirements for the use of unleaded gas and catalytic converters for the automobile industry. Air quality is significantly better in Southern California now than when I was a child. The direct result is healthier people.

Until I began paying closer attention it didn’t occur to me that low-income people–disproportionately people of color–also suffer disproportionately higher rates of cancer, asthma and other respiratory ailments resulting from pollution. Those at the bottom of the economy can’t afford health insurance and preventative measures to protect themselves. Their voices are far too often ignored by those in power.

Taking care of our environment IS a social justice issue. A national effort to reduce global warming, end dependence on oil, increase the use of alternative, green, forms of energy will result in more “green” jobs and healthier communities.

If you live near Denver, Chicago, Washington DC, or San Francisco, you can attend a Green Festival this year to learn more. The Seattle Green Festival last month drew more than 33,000 attendees. Writer, educator, and producer Belvie Rooks and I will participate in the Denver Green Festival May 2-3 (less than 2 weeks!). Our workshop is titled “The Green of Black and White: Sustainable Healing from the Legacy of Slavery.”

Green Festivals are a joint project of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic, and environmental justice around the world, and Green America, an organization focused on economic strategies and actions to solve social and environmental problems.

The direct link between social justice and environmental justice is clear. Today is Earth Day. What are you doing?