Growing Up in Someone Else's Mess: Facing Environmental Racism First Hand (Part Two)

This is the second half of Katherine Sear's piece. If you haven't read the first half, you can do so here.


Beyond My Neighborhood

Environmental racism is not just a problem where I live. It’s nationwide.

In the Bay Area, the Asian and Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) has been enormously successful in their Laotian Organizing Project in West Contra Costa County (home to more than 350 industrial polluters). They empowered the community to speak for themselves and battle environmental racism. A group of young Laotian girls there took the lead in educating their community about the poisons that were accumulating in their bodies. APEN was simply the vehicle for organizing. Members of the community were trained to lead the project because APEN believes in the principle of "We speak for ourselves." The whole neighborhood gathered in each other’s homes to discuss the problems the people collectively faced, such as toxic spills. APEN also helped to get warnings of toxic spills sounded in different languages to ensure that the non-English speaking community would know about such emergencies.

Environmental racism does not only affect people where they live, but also where they work. Farm workers, from places like Mexico, Jamaica and Peru, pick fruit and harvest things like tobacco and onions that have been sprayed with dangerous pesticides. Similarly, many people from immigrant families work in factories where they handle toxic materials and breath noxious fumes.

"'No amount of money can repair the damage caused by exposure of generations to toxic chemicals.'"
Some communities have taken legal action and succeeded. An environmental task force in Sweet Valley/Cob Town, a largely African American and low-income white community in Alabama, filed suit against a chemical company that exposed the community to biphenyls. (These chemicals were outlawed in 1978 because exposure was proven to damage adult reproductive and nervous systems.) The settlement, announced this past April, was $42, 800,000 dollars, but task force president Cassandra Roberts said, "No amount of money can repair the damage caused by exposure of generations to toxic chemicals."

On the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, Mother Jones reported that a farming company is proposing to build the country’s third largest hog farm on the tribe’s reservation in the name of addressing high unemployment by providing jobs to the tribe members. But Oleta Medansky, a tribal member, believes that the "hog project is merely another attempt to dump a high-polluting industry on Indian land." The hogs would generate about three times as much fecal waste as the entire human population of South Dakota. When asked why the company chose the reservation, it responded, "There are no people here." Medansky was surprised. "What are we?" she asked.



"Asthma" (Espanol) - EPTV
"Asthma" (English) - EPTV


We are people. We may be poor people or we may be people of color, but don’t think for a second that we don’t notice. It’s not hard to figure out what the culprits are; as Bill Clinton might say, "It’s the environment, stupid."

But no, I am not stupid. The people in southeast San Francisco are not stupid. The working-class people around the nation are not stupid. Some of us are unaware, yes. Some of us are frustrated, yes. But we are not stupid. We notice when the cancer rates and asthma rates are the highest in the city. We notice when the issue comes up in city elections. And yes, we do notice when housing companies try to make money off of building homes on the site when the area is still contaminated. Now that is stupid.

"We notice when the cancer rates and asthma rates are the highest in the city. We notice when the issue comes up in city elections. And yes, we do notice when housing companies try to make money off of building homes on the site when the area is still contaminated."
Poor people and people of color are clearly affected the most, but I would argue that ultimately, environmental injustice impacts us all. Chemical pollutants know no borders and just don’t care what race you are or how much money you make. As long as you are alive, be you a plant, an animal or part of the human race, chemically hazardous waste can affect your biological process.

Are We the Lab Rats?

One of the hardest things for me to realize is that it is young people who will be most affected by all of this. We are growing and developing as we come in contact with chemicals that were unknown to the human body just 60 years ago. As the Moyers Report, (which aired on PBS this past March) pointed out, people today are living the consequences of the chemical revolution that brought us plastic. We don’t know what these consequences are, but as Bill Moyers said, "the laboratory mice in this vast chemical experiment are the children. They have no idea what’s happening to them and neither do we."

In 1997 former president Clinton released an Executive Order calling attention to the special needs of children, whose health suffer disproportionately to adults’ because their minds and bodies are still in the developing process.

Yes, we may be treated like lab rats, but we need to be smarter than rats and take control of this experiment. We need to educate ourselves about the environment and realize that environmentalism is more than just about protecting and conserving plants, trees and the natural habitat, but also about protecting people. Fortunately, more and more youth are educating themselves and organizing.

" The government alone cannot stop environmental injustice because we are responsible for ourselves. Its our future and our lives that are at stake, so we must be more than lab rats."
When I spoke to Aditi Vaidya, the director of the Environmental Justice Training Academy based in Washington, D.C., she talked about how important this is. "Environmental justice definitely broadens the definition of environmentalism, making it human-specific, too," she explained. It points out that "there is an inherent connection between communities and their environment."

That is partly why for six days this summer, the academy will train 30 young people of color from around the nation to prepare them to work for environmental justice. Vaidya expressed hopes for expanding the program in the future, as this year they received over 100 applications

Many of the young people have an understanding of environmental injustice, but may not have the skills to take action. The work that organizations like Vaidya’s do with youth is extremely important because it allows us to concretely confront environmental injustice through our own voices. Because after all, if we don’t confront this injustice, who will?

The government alone cannot stop environmental injustice because we are responsible for ourselves. It’s our future and our lives that are at stake, so we must be more than lab rats. We can write letters to state senators expressing our concern about our communities; we can take the lead in educating our parents grandparents, siblings and the generation after us; we can exercise our responsibility to vote; we can stage protests. Whatever we do, we must speak for ourselves.




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