Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Racism is in the Air: Struggle for Environmental Justice
by Qasima Wideman
On Saturday, October 18, NC Environmental Justice Network held its 16th annual Summit at the Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, North Carolina. The Environmental Justice Network is a grassroots coalition of community groups in different parts of the state organizing against the disproportionate impact of pollution and environmental destruction on poor.
communities and communities of color. “Bad air, bad water bad soil,” is the result, said Saladin Muhammad, an organizer with Black Workers for Justice and Muslims for Social Justice. He also noted that those dumping “do not know how to read ‘No Trespassing’ signs and stay out of our communities.” Also, Ruben Solis Garcia, the summit’s keynote speaker, said environmental racism affects all parts of our lives, from the places we work to the places our children play. From his experience; “Growing up,” he said, “a lot of our playgrounds were clay infill placed on top of landfills and contaminated sites.”
Muhammad said the mainstream environmentalist movement does not do enough to address the needs and concerns of people of color. “We operae in an environment where environmental justice is an afterthought,” he said during the panel discussion on Saturday morning. “It’s not integrated into discussions about the extinction of species and global warming.” He urged the environmental justice organizers in the room to take action on multiple and different fronts, and not to focus all their efforts on appealing to policy makers; reminding the audience that environmental justice is literallya life-or-death issue. “As a trade unionist,” he said, “I’ve seen our campaigns in the workplace fizzle out after we make some economic gains, even if real equality and workers rights haven’t been won… If our struggle is solely based on convincing the policy makers to do something, then the time we spend waiting to be heard is time that we are dying.”
Community organizers from the historically-Black, Rogers Road neighborhood in Chapel Hill were also present at the summit. The Rogers Road community was established by free Black people over 150 years ago, and has been inhabited mostly by their descendants and by other poor people of color ever since. Despite the fact that this community has existed throughout the course of Chapel Hill’s development, it has been excluded from basic resources like municipal water, and has been a dumping site for hazardous wastes. Manju Rajendran, one of the conference attendees and a passionate environmental justice activist, spoke of “a time when wagon trails wound through black-owned family farmland and clean streams. Today, some [Rogers Road] residents still drink well water contaminated by landfill toxins,” she said. “The EPA has investigated an environmental racism complaint regarding the lack of basic resources allocated to this area of the county that received all of our county’s trash for four decades.” It wasn’t until October 15 this year (2014) that the Chapel Hill town council voted to grant the Rogers Road community extraterritorial jurisdiction and to releasefunds to build sewer access in Rogers Road neighborhood. These misdeeds in Rogers Road is only one example of a phenomenon that runs rampant across the nation. “When we compare census maps with official EPA data,” said Garcia, another panel member, “we see the intentional dumping of hazardous wastes in communities of color.”
Workshops leaders and speakers at the Summit talked about the importance of building solidarity between Black, Latin@ and Xican@ people, and indigenous people around Environmental Justice. An organizer with Student Action with Farmworkers, spoke about the impacts of environmental racism on migrant workers. “Farmers often require workers to be in fields the day immediately after a pesticide spray,” he said. As a result, migrant farmworkers experience disproportionately high rates of illnesses like green tobacco sickness. Heat stress and heat stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes are a result, he shared. Despite the fact that farmworkers are exposed to the such dangerous environmental hazards, they are denied basic health care which would also help deal with other issues such as HIV/AIDS. One student who works with Farmworkers reported meeting a family this year who said that they hadn’t been visited by their primary care provider since 2009. Documented farmworkers have the right to healthcare access in their contracts with growers, yet less than 20% of them receive anything like proper health care.
Daniel Mejia, who spoke about environmental justice and immigration, traced the origins of immigrant struggles to US foreign policy in their homelands. “Latin American workers have been historically exploited,” he said, “from banana farms in Nicaragua to NAFTA… I was eight years old when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and sent us back to the stone age, and when I came here and saw the immense wealth that existed for some people, I realized the historic and environmental context for my experiences.”
Garcia is the founder of University Sin Fronteras and an organizer with Southwest Workers Union. He spoke about theimportance of relating environmental injustice to its roots in colonialism. He said it was impossible to talk about environmental racism as though it is “disconnected from the lineage of indigenous and Black people. There had been harmony with nature practiced culturally on this land,” he said, “for the 50,000 years before the last 500 years since it has been called North Carolina.”
If the work of the Environmental Justice Network continues, perhaps some day that harmony will be practiced again.
Qasima Wideman is a first-year student at NC State University. She is a member of Youth Organizing Institute and Muslims for Social Justice. A version of this article was published in NC State University based The Nubian Message and on Triangle Interfaith Alliance website (interfaithalliance-nc.org).
at 11:19 PM