Working Equitably With Nuclear Frontline Communities
Updated: Jan 17
Nuclear Frontline Communities: those who are most directly impacted and harmed by nuclear weapons, especially through weapons production, testing, and waste clean-up/storage. They generally have faced, and often continue to face, the highest levels of exposure to radiation and other toxins, and will suffer disproportionate health, environmental, and cultural harms.
Building relationships and collaborating with frontline community groups is an important goal for nuclear policy organizations and others, for many ethical and strategic reasons. However, without proper consideration and preparation, outreach can be offensive or tokenizing, exploitative, and can even cause harm to communities. This post is meant to serve as a guide to avoid these pitfalls. A key point to remember is that the process itself can be just as important as the outcome or product of work together.
This document is only meant to be a starting point. In the long term, all groups hoping to work with frontline communities should undertake a deep analysis of how their work perpetuates systems of oppression and take steps to address this.
We are always open to feedback and suggestions for this guide. If you have edits or additions, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We offer our sincere thanks to the many people who have already provided input, thoughts, and inspiration for this guide.
Plan to build long-term relationships. If you are only seeking a one-time collaboration, either make that very clear or consider not reaching out. Think through from the beginning how you will continue this relationship going forward.
Consider why you are reaching out: is it only in support of your own work or policy goals? Is it to support a frontline community’s work or goals? If it is not at least 50/50, consider not reaching out.
Be willing to listen to what frontline communities need and are asking for, and take your cues from them. You may have ideas about what work would be most helpful or important, but that should ultimately be decided by frontline communities themselves - directives for work should come from them. Be open and receptive to their expertise and lived experience, acknowledging that knowledge and expertise comes in many forms.
A single person or group in these communities is not necessarily representative of or speaking for that community. Like any community, there are a variety of perspectives, needs, and goals, including ideas about what work is most strategic or important. When reaching out and working on these issues, it is helpful to take the time to understand the complexities of the issues, how perspectives may differ or even contradict each other, and how you may be able to find common ground. Accept that as with any nuclear weapons or social justice issue, there are no easy answers or “one-size-fits-all” solutions.
Be open to collaborating on and offering resources (money, tools, volunteers, office space, etc) for projects that may not fit your existing framework of “nuclear weapons work.” Tewa Women United, an indigenous-led group near Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) offered some examples of ways to support restorative work with impacted communities:
Indigenous women and those who give birth are the most vulnerable to nuclear toxicity, yet the least protected. Supporting the training of Native birthworkers and birth centers in impacted communities can help minimize this harm.
Recently, a forest fire was diverted from LANL and instead burned sacred, ancestral Tewa land. The tribe is currently working to re-plant trees in this area, and needs support in planting trees and restoring their land.
In many cases, oral histories and testimonies are powerful tools for advocacy and awareness, and many frontline community members want to share and publicize their stories. However, be cognizant of the burden you may be placing on frontline community members when asking them to share their stories. For some, continually educating others about their history, the harms they have suffered, and re-living these traumas can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Be intentional about your conversations when you ask people to share their stories or talk about their work. Ask if they have the capacity to do this, or if they would prefer that you reach out to others or use other resources.
Understand different experiences of nuclear weapons issues. Most in the nuclear weapons policy space will never understand the deeply personal and visceral experience of harm caused by nuclear weapons production: of seeing your family and loved ones die, seeing your community destroyed, or your environment poisoned. Be sensitive to this and take the difference in perspective into consideration when approaching groups.
Check your own biases and cultural assumptions, and think in advance about building cultural sensitivity among staff and volunteers. Being self critical is essential when building new partnership with communities who are already marginalized.
Long Term Considerations
Is your organization committed to addressing its own systems and patterns of oppression? How are you addressing that? Doing this work will help inform your work with frontline communities.
Do you have time/resources built in to your staff time/budget/program work for solidarity with other groups? How do you measure success in this area?
Does your organization have a member of an impacted community within its ranks, as either an employee, board member, donor, etc, who (if they have the capacity and interest) can serve to educate the organization about the group, provide unique perspectives, and help build connections with impacted communities?
Be prepared to be turned down or be told no, especially in the short-term. This doesn't always mean future engagement or collaboration is not possible. Be willing to build trust and relationships for the long term without expectation, and offer unconditional support in addition to leaving a door open for future opportunities or requests for your groups' support.
Are you willing to sacrifice some of the time, money, and resources spent on your own nuclear policy work to support the goals of these communities? Justice requires sacrifice on the part of those with privilege, in order to change the status quo. In the long term, we won’t be able to work towards justice without nuclear policy groups being willing to sacrifice something.
Specific Tips & Best Practices
Compensate frontline community members for their time, travel, lodging, and other expenses incurred because of any work you’re asking them to do. Don't make the assumption that people will or are able to do this work for free or in a volunteer capacity.
If planning an event or project, be sure to include frontline community members from the beginning, not as an after-thought. They should have an equal say in decision-making and establishing the scope and logistics of the project. They should not be approached once all of the major decisions about the project have been decided.
Do not try to dictate what frontline community members say or do at an event. If you want to work with them, you should respect their contributions and trust them to say and do what is most important for their work, even if it doesn’t fit with your preconceived notions. That being said, training sessions, resources, and guidance on effective and persuasive public speaking and writing may be a welcome and helpful form of support.
If the project is focused on the frontline community’s goals, make sure you are seeking their leadership, not just offering your own thoughts on how to approach the work. They are the experts in their own lived experience and issues they are facing.
If the project is focused on your policy goals, what is your plan to give equal focus to their goals outside of this event?
Put frontline communities first whenever possible. Ideally, they should be first in the line-up of an event, first to testify at a hearing, first to speak in a meeting, etc. This honors and respects their personal experience and unique expertise on the issue.
Be conscious about the accessibility of your event. Think about timing, childcare resources, interpretation/translation resources, other cultural commitments (eg: church in the mornings on Sunday) and ask about these factors while planning events and projects.