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Sullivan, L., Jones, M. S., Jimenez, M. F., Dodgson, K. R., & Storrs, E. L. (2022). Justice discourses in the mainstream environmental movement, 30 years after the SWOP letter. Environmental Justice.


Calls for the mainstream environmental movement to engage more closely with the work of social justice have been pervasive for over three decades, marked by demands for large environmental organizations to diversify their staff and center the voices of those living in frontline communities. These calls, first made prominent by the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) in 1990, have grown in intensity in recent years as rampant inequalities compound environmental crises, illustrating that environmental protection cannot be decoupled from social justice. In this paper, we draw on public statements released by large environmental organizations in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to examine how their use of language around racial and social justice today reflects early calls for the environmental movement to address its own problematic legacies and align its aims with the work of environmental justice. Our findings suggest that organizations are leaning into four distinct discourses around justice that evoke ideas of solidarity, heroism, internal reform, and redress of problematic legacies, but also indicate a relative lack of attention to ideological or structural change within the movement. We explore the historical context of these findings, paying particular attention to the ways in which the neoliberalization of the non-profit sector over the last 30 years may have limited opportunities for more emancipatory discourses to emerge. We conclude with a call for mainstream environmental organizations to revisit the SWOP letter and explore new ways to couple internal cultural change with deeper institutional reform.