Why MountainTrue Must Fight Racism

Why MountainTrue Must Fight Racism

Why MountainTrue Must Fight Racism

When MountainTrue was formed through the merger of the Western North Carolina Alliance, the Environmental Conservation Organization and the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance in 2015, the organization inherited a broad scope of programs focused on protecting our rivers and public forests, reducing our region’s dependence on fossil fuels and encouraging smart growth to improve the health of our communities and reduce the impacts of development on our natural environment.

In the five years since the merger, the organization has been working on addressing issues of racism and equity: all MountainTrue staff members enroll in the Racial Equity Institute, the Building Bridges program or both; we’ve taken strides to diversify our board and staff; and we’re working to build partnerships with communities that are fighting for equitable access to resources and power.

That process has been coalescing and transformational. If you had asked us five years ago, two years ago or even just a few weeks back about our priorities and responsibilities on race and equity, you would have gotten different answers than today. We’ve been evolving toward a wider focus. Yes to protecting forests and rivers and advocating for better public transit, more greenways, clean energy, and dense development for the environmental benefits, but we are also thinking more broadly about how we can help foster communities where people are truly healthy. And this means communities that are free from racism, and where there is equity in the social determinants of health — housing, transportation, education and jobs.

Racial segregation and poverty are outcomes of bad policy.

Poverty and racial disparities have been sustained through bad policies that have disproportionately impacted people of color. This is clearly evident in the histories of Redlining and Urban Renewal. Redlining was the systemic denial of services, especially home loans, to people in Black communities established by the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 and replicated by private lenders and local governments that established racially-restrictive local zoning ordinances. Through a combination of redlining, deed restrictions, exclusionary zoning and leasing practices, and racism on the part of local governments, Black people were relegated to the poorest neighborhoods with the least public services. And because Black people could not get loans to improve or fix their homes, the quality of housing and other structures in these neighborhoods deteriorated and property values fell such that homeownership for Black families did not allow for the accumulation of generational wealth.

Despite these restrictions, Black communities in Asheville like Hill Street and Stumptown, the East End and the South Side were vibrant, thriving centers of Black life. City planners, however, saw only pockets of urban decay ripe for redevelopment under the guise of “Urban Renewal.” In the years after World War II, the federal government funded a massive building boom through the passage of the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, and the construction of a vast network of highways through the Federal Highway Act of 1944. With federal dollars flowing to municipal coffers, cities like Asheville were free to redevelop their urban cores, and it was poorer Black neighborhoods that were targeted. Much of the East End was razed to make way for South Charlotte Street and MLK Drive. In the Southside neighborhood more than 1,000 homes, 50 businesses and seven churches were demolished to make way for more upscale housing. In the Hill Street neighborhood, entire street grids were erased from the map to make way for Asheville’s Cross-Town Expressway.

In towns and cities across the country, vibrant communities of color were destroyed and their residents displaced. Some were forced to live in public housing communities that became pockets of concentrated poverty. Many others had to find cheap housing in the least desirable areas near highways, factories, refineries and landfills.

Pollution disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color.

These neighborhoods where the air is thicker with automobile exhaust, smog and fumes, and the soil and water are more likely to be poisoned with lead, heavy metals and other industrial pollutants have been dubbed “sacrifice zones.” The higher concentrations of pollution in these areas have an enormous effect on human health and childhood development and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. For instance, generations of poor kids who grew up near highways breathed air thick with the exhaust of leaded gasoline, and, even now, children in these neighborhoods are more likely to have high blood lead levels because the soil near these roads is still contaminated. Lead has been linked to reduced IQs, attention problems and aggressive behavior, and has been identified as a possible cause of the crimewave that besieged the nation from the mid-sixties through the early nineties.

It would be a mistake to reduce this oppression to simply matters of historical mistakes, market demand and geography. Redlining was explicitly racist, as was the targeting for destruction of poor and communities of color by mid-twentieth century urban planners. Similarly, proximity does not fully explain why Black and Brown communities suffer higher levels of air pollution. The National Center for Environmental Assessment finds that Black and Latino people are exposed to about 1.5 times and 1.3 times more particulate matter, respectively, than White people and that emissions are generally higher from factories located in communities of color than those located in wealthier White neighborhoods. Decisions are being made to site more polluting factories in poor neighborhoods than rich neighborhoods, and then to run the factories in Black and Brown neighborhoods dirtier. This is more than economic oppression. It’s environmental racism and it’s a dynamic that has been repeated time and again — famously in the financial decisions that lead to the Flint, Michigan water crisis and the state’s negligent response. Poor people are exploited for profit, and Black and Brown people most of all.

No zone should be sacrificed.

The society that we now inhabit is one where Black and Brown people have fewer opportunities, are more likely to live in areas that are polluted and dangerous, and are more likely to be trapped in cycles of poverty. To make matters worse: layered on top of this structural racism is a brutal criminal justice system, a broken healthcare system, an anemic educational system, crumbling infrastructure and growing food insecurity. In each and every regard, the consequences of these systemic failures fall heaviest on poor Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Set to topple all these fragile civic institutions is the leviathan threat of Climate Change, which, if left unchecked, will flood our lowlands and mountain valleys in wet years and burn our mountaintops in drought years. Already, the outlines of this dystopia are clear: people and communities with resources will be better positioned to adapt, fortify and recover from disasters. Poorer communities will be sacrificed, largely abandoned by our federal government like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the American citizens of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the Black neighborhoods of Houston that were flooded by industrial pollution during Hurricane Harvey, or the towns in Eastern North Carolina where homes were flooded with water tainted by millions of gallons of animal waste during Hurricane Florence.

But acting on climate change is not simply altruism, because the security of wealth will be fleeting. Climate Change is proceeding at a pace that has taken scientists by surprise and contributes to a wide spectrum of related maladies such as water shortages, crop destruction and the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. The climate challenges laid out in the October 2018 IPCC report will be insurmountable for a nation that is depleted and divided. Time is running out: to avoid climate catastrophe, we must stop sacrificing our most vulnerable populations, unite and act now.

Our conscience demands action and unity.

The wider movement needed to repair our country, protect our environment and take on climate change must be multicultural and firmly committed to dismantling racism and all systems of structural oppression. This was the strategic rationale of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign — which he described as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity” — and later of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Both civil rights leaders understood that an anti-racist movement in which White participation is based only on notions of altruism of charity will exhaust itself and fail to create the mass politics needed to win lasting systemic change.

It’s been two years since the 2018 IPCC report was published warning of dire circumstances of not taking bold, swift action to curtail climate catastrophe. It has been nearly 40 years since Professor and NASA scientist James Hansen gave Congressional testimony about the threat of global warming. In that time our elected leaders have failed to meet the challenge head on. Worse, they’ve scoffed at proposals of the magnitude needed to address the climate crisis head on.

We have our work cut out for us. MountainTrue and its members must commit to the work of dismantling structural racism and uniting our communities in the fight for justice and survival in the face of climate change. Neither cause can succeed on its own; all are interconnected. We know that we don’t have all the answers, but we’re ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities fighting for justice.

As an organization, MountainTrue is committed to fighting racism and economic inequity, because meeting our core mission of protecting communities and the environment requires it. This means we must be ready to take on fights that are beyond the scope of traditional environmentalism. We will live our values and use our influence and institutional power to win a more equitable future, and we invite you, as a MountainTrue supporter, to join us.

Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

Where MountainTrue Has Been and Where We’re Going

Where MountainTrue Has Been and Where We’re Going

Where MountainTrue Has Been and Where We’re Going

MountainTrue, like most environmental organizations, has a membership, board, and staff that are largely white. Efforts to diversify, while challenging for any traditional environmental group, are particularly challenging for us given that our mountain region is 89% white. This, however, cannot be an excuse for non-action. It just means we need to work harder to diversify our staff, board and membership and to focus our programs in ways that will particularly benefit people of color and help redress systemic racism.

While we have taken steps to diversify and add new areas of focus to our program work, we have not done enough. We are just now coming to understand and accept how we, as individuals and as an organization, have benefitted from systemic racism – our staff is largely made up of privileged White people and our funding comes from foundations, businesses, and individuals that have accumulated wealth within a system of discrimination and, sometimes, at the direct expense of people of color. Likewise, understanding the role we should play in breaking that system and instead advancing equity has been a slow journey. What appears below is an attempt to illustrate that journey, at least in part, while also recognizing we can and need to do more. We invite our members and supporters to join us in our journey.

Where We’ve Been:

Mayor Bellamy and children of Klondyke helped the Asheville Design Center break grown on a new playground in October of 2012.

In terms of diversifying our program work, we have primarily worked on urban issues that are relevant to Asheville’s African American community, including the following:

  • In the 1990s and the early 2000s, and then again since 2008, we have been a leading voice for expanding transit in Asheville.
  • Since 2009, we have partnered with the Burton Street Community on I-26 advocacy, acting as the fiscal agent for their annual Agricultural Fair, and in developing a community plan in conjunction with the Asheville Design Center.
  • Work with the Burton Street Community led directly to us working with the Shiloh Community for several years to implement aspects of their community plan, particularly their goals related to sidewalks and transit.
  • Our I-26 advocacy has also engaged the Hillcrest community in discussions about designs that would be more beneficial to them.
  • We support a bacteria monitoring site in the creek that runs through the Shiloh neighborhood.
  • The Asheville Design Center has a long history of working with communities of color and has continued that tradition since joining us in 2017. Relevant past projects include: East of the Riverway planning, The Block Report, a playground installation at Hall Fletcher Elementary, playground design and construction at Pisgah View and Klondyke Apartments, installation of the Triangle Park Mural, design and construction of the YWCA Outdoor Classroom and Burton Outdoor Classroom.
  • ADC has undertaken an assessment of land owned by the City of Asheville that could be used for affordable housing.
  • Our energy advocacy and involvement in the Energy Innovation Task Force led to funding to weatherize 400 low-income homes, many of which belonged to people of color.
  • We co-host the Building Our City speaker series, which has featured the work of POC professionals like Debra Campbell (Asheville City Manager), Mitch Silver (NYC Parks Commissioner), and Michelle Mapp (CEO of SC Community Loan Fund), while addressing issues of affordable housing, equitable development and healthy community design.

We have not engaged in any significant work focused on or done in partnership with the Latinx community, save for a bit of work with the Emma community related to I-26 in 2009-2010.

Internally, MountainTrue has also taken a number of steps to expand our understanding and embrace new steps on equity:

  • In the recent past, we had three people of color on staff and as AmeriCorps members. We have also hosted several African American interns.
  • We have been part of Everybody’s Environment since its inception in 2014 and, as a result, we are more intentional about where we advertise open positions.
  • We adopted a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policy.
  • We require and pay for our staff to attend either Building Bridges or the Racial Equity Institute, and staff are encouraged to attend both.
  • Two of our staff have attended two national Facing Race Conferences.
  • We allow our staff to count as paid time, time spent volunteering with organizations focused on equity.
  • We set aside a small amount of funding to sponsor events or programs led by organizations of color.

On the board, we began intentional efforts perhaps ten years ago to diversify. For the last six years at least, we have had one to five board members of color. We currently have five women of color serving on the board (out of 15 board members), including three who serve on the executive committee. We have devoted two board retreats in the last five years to DEI trainings, participated in a Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Racial Equity Training for board and staff members, and we encourage our board members to attend either Building Bridges or the Racial Equity Institute. One of our board members manages a group called Pathways to Parks that is aimed at getting people of color into the outdoors, and we look forward to working more closely with them going forward.

Going Forward:

For the last two years, we have asked the staff to be more intentional about addressing equity in their program work. This has not been as successful as we would like, and we continue to try to be more specific. We are also struggling to include equity issues in our long term goal-setting. Some ideas for more immediate actions that have come forward recently from the board are:

  • Create a page on our website that addresses equity.
  • Move to action on equity issues.
  • Move our members to action on equity issues.
  • Make the connection between our work and equity to help our members understand.
  • Allocate more money to groups led by BIPOC, including those aimed at recreation.
  • Support the Racial Equity Institute.
  • Raise voices of color in MountainTrue U.
  • Develop relationships with HBCUs for intern and employee recruitment.
  • Host a regular radio show on WRES about people of color in the environment and/or write a regular column in the Urban News.
  • Try again to share our power in Raleigh with groups led by BIPOC.
    • Add racial equity, health to our legislative agenda.
  • Create an easy to use fish consumption and fishing access guide for people who fish for sustenance rather than just recreation.

Most of the region’s African American population is in Asheville, while the Latinx population is concentrated in a handful of counties across the region. For this reason, our equity work will look different in different parts of the region as we seek to meet the needs of specific communities.

Again, we acknowledge that we are beneficiaries of systemic racism and that our success as an organization rests on that fact. We commit to use our power and privilege as an influential organization to fight systemic racism and break down the walls of division in all the ways we can.

Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

Harvey’s Toxic Wake

Harvey’s Toxic Wake


Harvey’s Toxic Wake

Hurricane Harvey had another dangerous effect: flooded superfund sites. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson reports back from Houston.

September 15, 2017


French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson and Bayou City Waterkeeper Bruce Bodson (pictured) survey water quality on the Green Bayou in Houston, TX shortly after Hurricane Harvey. Houston is home to many toxic and industrial sites, and the hurricane caused widespread chemical and wastewater leaks.


This tiny jon boat is no match for the waves crashing over its bow. As Tonya and I ponder how much sewage might be in the water, which is now dripping from our faces and clothes, Bruce Bodson, the Bayou City Waterkeeper, says, “I don’t think the sewage should be your main worry — I think dioxins are more common here.”

Bruce and I, alongside Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus, are a last-minute crew assembled by the Waterkeeper Alliance to respond to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We’re in Houston to assess the hurricane’s impact on the many oil, gas, chemical and industrial sites in the region — after receiving over 50 inches of rain in many areas, there is real concern about stormwater runoff, overflowing wastewater plants, and spills and leaks from the massive oil and gas facilities near Houston’s waterways.

The dichotomy of the storm is quickly evident. Our downtown accommodations show no sign of Harvey’s impacts, but as I walk a few blocks to assess the Buffalo Bayou, I see workers hosing off the side of a building. They show me a spot on the wall about 35 feet above the water, where the floodwaters reached during the storm. We witness neighborhoods completely devastated by the flooding, while homeowners elsewhere are planting flowers and mowing their lawns like nothing ever happened. Bruce explains that this storm was “more of a rain event than a wind event, and it was like a lot of floods: you’re either in it or you’re not.”


The Buffalo Bayou overflows in downtown Houston following Hurricane Harvey. Many areas in Houston received over 50 inches of rain during the storm. 

Being “in it” not only meant that your home had flooded and belongings had been destroyed. Too often, it meant the floodwaters brought a toxic stew into your neighborhood and your house.

On one of our monitoring trips, we examined the area’s many superfund sites. Houston has a long history of heavy industry and pollution, and therefore is home to some of the most toxic sites in the country. One of those sites is the French LTD. It sits close to the San Jacinto River, directly next to a low-income mobile home community that was completely devastated by the floodwaters. Trailers there are overturned and cars are underwater. There is no indication that anyone has been here to inspect the toxic water pollution caused by the storm.


This mobile home community next to French Ltd., a superfund site, was devastated by flooding and toxic leaks during Hurricane Harvey. 


The pollution is ironically obvious, as it sits directly in front of a fence with a sign warning that the area beyond it is a hazardous site. A black, oily ditch flows directly into the neighboring community. As I walk through to inspect the damage, some of the residents are piling their flood-soaked belongings on top of giant debris piles. Just down the road from there, a crew in hazardous waste removal suits are using weed eaters to remove the oily grass and hanging a long plastic covering over the fence. I wonder what they’re trying to hide. I hold my phone over the fence to take pictures, which reveal trees and bushes coated in a thick oily sheen at least five feet high. I wonder: Has anyone warned the neighboring residents of the toxic threat the floodwaters pose to their health?


Left: The “No Trespassing” sign in front of French Ltd., a superfund site, warns of toxic waste beyond it. Right: The Waterkeepers discovered a fence outside of Deep Down Inc., an industrial site that saw a large amount of oil wash out of its waste pits during Hurricane Harvey.
Being a Waterkeeper means being a watchdog for your waterway. That can mean monitoring facilities from the air, checking their discharge permits, and getting drenched in sewage in order to make sure industries supported by oil and gas aren’t polluting the area’s waterways. That job is made much more difficult in Houston, because Homeland Security prevents access by water to most of these superfund and industrial sites.

Bruce and I paddle down Green’s Bayou in sea kayaks in an attempt to lay eyes on the impact of the storm from the river. As we ease our way down the Bayou towards the heart of the oil and gas facilities, Bruce says it won’t be long before we get stopped. And we do get stopped — not by the police, but by giant barges tied together to block access to the downstream facilities. We take in toxic smell after toxic smell, some so strong that I get a headache. Bruce calls out the names of these toxic substances as if we are out birdwatching. The smell becomes overpowering as we paddle by Arkema, the same company whose toxic chemicals exploded in another area of Houston. “We probably should have brought our respirators,” Bruce says casually. “This smell could kill you if it were a bit stronger.”

Bruce’s calm response to potentially being killed by toxic chemicals while kayaking comes from a career spent around the oil and gas industry. A career that has seen a lifetime’s worth of oil and gas pollution, lakes of chemicals sunken into the ground, and chemical explosions.

The risk of dying from a toxic chemical exposure is not something I am accustomed to when I go paddling. But in Houston — ground zero for the oil and gas industry — it is a way of life. It’s illegal for these chemicals to leave the property, Bruce says, but there isn’t much incentive to stand up to the multi-billion dollar oil and gas giants like ExxonMobil and BP.

When our boat patrol is finished, we drive through a residential neighborhood bordering the ExxonMobil refinery. Many of these people live and breathe the toxic byproducts of our country’s fossil fuel addiction every day. The scenes we pass of kids riding bikes and playing on swing sets would be totally normal, if it weren’t for the backdrop of methane flares and toxic air emissions just over their heads.

“During Harvey, the released toxins were so intense that a ‘shelter in place warning’ was issued for this neighborhood in Baytown,” Bruce explains. “They even advised against using air conditioners, to prevent toxic chemicals from being drawn into homes.” I fully believe this, because my skin has started to burn from the water that splashed all over us during the boat patrol.

“This looks like the future scene from the Terminator movies, where the robots have destroyed the Earth,” I tell Bruce, only half-kidding.

For a moment, I think that maybe this area should remain a sacrifice zone, so the rest of the country can burn oil and gas. But when I look back at the blue herons taking off from the discharge of oil refineries, and see kids riding bikes under the shadows of methane flares, I remember that this fight to protect the waterways is worth fighting, and that it is exactly what Waterkeepers do best.

Waterkeepers take on David versus Goliath fights every day. This is a fight for the future — not only for the future of the people and waterways around Houston, but for the future of our planet. The oil and gas industries are strangling our ability to develop a clean energy future. A future where people can relax in their yards without fear of toxic pollution, paddle and swim in their waterways, and use renewable energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change. This is a battle worth fighting, and a battle the Bayou City Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance intend to win.


Wastewater from a Houston wastewater treatment plant flows into the Green Bayou. Waterkeepers monitored and documented the pollution to fight for a clean water future. 

Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.