Burning Questions Part III: Racial Justice and Climate Justice
On June 19, 2020, Sharon Lavigne woke up with victory in hand. She and the grassroots organization she founded, RISE St. James, would be able to gather at a burial site near her home in St. James, Louisiana. There, they would consecrate what is believed to be the final resting place of their enslaved ancestors.
Wearing masks and using umbrellas to block the sun, they carried bouquets of roses and baby’s breath to honor the gravesite. Then, RISE St. James and local community members opened the ceremony in song. In the livestream of the event, a petrochemical factory can be seen looming over the gathering in the horizon.
“We are here today to acknowledge the evil of slavery and its aftermath,” Lavigne said, greeting guests. She spoke firmly but concisely. “I’m very cautious about saying the wrong things,” she told me a few days after the service. She knows people look to her for direction, but she also realizes she’s up against experts and institutions, and she is constantly learning as a result. “That’s why I don’t say too much,” she added, “because I want to make sure I have it right.”
Few words were necessary on that morning of Juneteenth: “Formosa’s not going to come here and dig up our ancestors and put them in a new location. That’s what their plans are. But we are going to stand together!” Cheers erupted.
“I could feel their spirits,” Lavigne told me over the phone. “[Our ancestors] were rejoicing in heaven that we did this in their honor.” Two days before the ceremony, District Judge Emile St. Pierre approved a temporary restraining order against Formosa Plastics, a Taiwanese company that plans to build a $9.4 billion dollar industrial complex in the community, which encompasses the burial ground in question. For now, St. Pierre’s order granted Lavigne and RISE St. James the ability to gather in prayer on the site, citing the need for healing among the community.
Beyond the RISE gathering, the land is desolate. Tall, yellow grass sways in the stale wind, and you can almost see the heat reverberating off the nearby chain-link fence – notably topped with barbed wire. It may not look like much, but the burial site and its surrounding acreage is a linchpin to history. This land was once known as Buena Vista, a former sugarcane plantation. Today, under the ownership of Formosa, one of many petrochemical companies finding a home between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the land has been taken from the community yet again. This stretch of the Mississippi River is now known as “Cancer Alley,” where the concentration of chemical plants has increased cancer risks to up to 50 times the national average, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. However, Lavigne prefers to call it “Death Alley” – an effort to speak bluntly about this industry and its impact on her community.
Ethylene glycol, polyethylene and polypropylene are just a few of the petrochemicals produced by Formosa, which will eventually expand its facilities and dot 2,400 acres of rural land with smokestacks, utility plants, tanks and more. The first product is used as a raw material in the manufacturing of both polyester fibers and for antifreeze; it can take days to weeks to break down after entering the air or soil and can cause kidney and nervous system damage. The second is used primarily for plastic bags and films; and the third is used for packaging and labeling.
According to an analysis by ProPublica, the emissions from Formosa’s new plants will expose residents of St. James to up to triple the amount of cancer-causing chemicals once the new complex opens in 2022. When referring to Formosa, pollution is an inevitable part of the conversation. Lavigne’s work is bent on ensuring the discussion includes the truth: preventable deaths are tied to pollutants.
The Fifth District of St. James Parish, where Lavigne lives, has 2,822 residents, 86.3 percent of whom are Black. Other communities within “Cancer Alley” have a similar composition. St. John the Baptist Parish has a population of 5,619, 70.5 percent of whom are Black. Iberville Parish has a population of 33,159, 49.2 percent of whom are Black.
These realities are hardly coincidental. Like Flint, Michigan, and Standing Rock, North Dakota, St. James is the target of environmental racism. As activist Yolian Ogbu, 21, defines it, environmental racism encompasses both the disproportionate impact of climate change and related policies on Black, Indigenous and communities of color, as well as “people being deliberate in our environmental shortcomings, and making sure that [they] affect certain communities rather than others.” While some industries take advantage of these communities, many people within them are not aware of the dangers at hand until it is too late – which is part of the system of oppression in practice – as was the case for Lavigne.
“For years we didn’t know, and our sickness was coming from the chemicals and from the water,” Lavigne told me. “For years, we didn’t know that.” Lavigne and I spoke on a day that reached well beyond 90 degrees both in St. James and in Atlanta, where I was calling from. As cicadas sang outside my own window, I could almost hear the ones that I imagined once sang outside hers. She painted her memory of the St. James she knew growing up: her neighbors all had gardens, chicken and cattle. She recalled the fresh fish these same neighbors would catch and sell nearby. “Some people would bring ‘em to your house and give you some,” she said. “It was neighborly.”
Now chemical plants are next door. “Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” she explained, “I think it’s a hundred and something within an 85-mile radius. But where I live, there’s 12 in a 10-mile radius.” Lavigne worries about eating anything that comes from the earth around her – that is, if it will grow at all. She worries about her grandchildren playing outside for too long because they develop rashes from the chemicals. She worries about one daughter’s chronic sinus infections, and the other’s frequent headaches – both have now left St. James Parish. She worries about the astronomical cancer rates in her community, which also makes the area more at risk for COVID-19.
She worries so much that she left her career as a special education teacher to found RISE St. James and fight the petrochemical industry full-time. Lavigne says she felt called by God to do so after asking him whether she should stay and fight for her right to live in the community where she grew up.
Still, the joy from the ceremony RISE St. James held on Juneteenth reverberated through Lavigne’s words when we spoke. Formosa fought Lavigne on the ability to hold the ceremony all the way up to June 18, the day before the one-hour service took place.
The corporation’s attitude is reflective of its greater stance towards the residents of St. James. Lavigne does not use the words “Death Alley” lightly; she knows 30 people in her community who have died of cancer in the last five years alone, according to her interview with Rolling Stone. Nevertheless, Formosa and similar companies continue to build facilities in the area (Formosa plans to build 14 more in the next 10 years), and the parish council thus far has not stood in the industry’s way.
Climate change is already a reality in Louisiana; flooding continues to become more extreme and average temperatures could rise 10 degrees by the year 2100, according to the Climate Reality Project. St. James is already on the frontlines of climate change, and environmental racism has fast-tracked its situation from critical to deadly in a matter of years. According to Lavigne, plants like Formosa offered no buyouts and no warnings; they only leave wave after wave of toxic chemicals in their wake.
Despite the dire situation in St. James and similar communities, the narrative of climate change within the United States often fails to bring these testimonies to light. Some activists and scholars have been calling for greater representation for frontline communities within the climate movement from the beginning. Until racial tensions reached a new high after the murder of George Floyd, these calls were often ignored.
Ogbu told me she quickly came to a new understanding of the climate crisis after she joined Zero Hour in 2019, a youth-led and women of color-led climate justice organization: “I had this realization that the communities that will be hit first and that will be eradicated first are communities like mine – the Black communities, impoverished communities and other marginalized communities.” Ogbu’s realization leaves no room for hesitation: “If we don't do anything about it now, they’re going to come for us first.”
Modern environmentalism has been subject to criticism nearly since its inception. Some call out the white-washed composition of most environmental organizations, while others criticize the prioritization of animals or plants above human rights. The Tylt asked its audience whether or not they believed environmentalism was “elitist.” Nearly 40 percent agreed: yes, it is. Ogbu says this was how she understood the climate movement before joining Zero Hour.
“I had a very warped idea of what environmental justice, or the folks that are involved in that movement, looked like,” she said. Growing up, Ogbu believed the stereotypes: white people trying to save nature for the sake of nature. If not for Zero Hour, an organization founded on the principles of intersectionality within the climate movement, Ogbu believes she already would have left.
Ogbu is hardly alone in her preconceived views of the climate movement. On a humid Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina Kaylah Brathwaite, 19, told me she felt the same. “I came into this movement not knowing anything, and you learn as you go, and I’m still learning,” she said, “but I think the average person kind of understands what the media shares, which is [the climate crisis] is killing the polar bears and the ice caps are melting.” According to Brathwaite, this perception of the climate movement has yet to be broken by advocacy organizations, as they often fail to bridge the connection between climate change and the people already impacted by it.
As the Director of Operations for Zero Hour, Brathwaite plays a large role in facilitation and training. She sees centering the people on the frontlines of climate change as her responsibility: “If you're not listening to people from frontline communities, if you’re not listening to Black and brown environmentalists, and if you’re not listening and reading those stories, then it would be very difficult to understand the complexities of our system and understand the intersections of those things.”
According to Joseph Wilkanowski, 18, a founding member of the Re-Earth Initiative, a fairly new climate justice organization calling for a global, intersectional and intergenerational approach, the climate movement is behind when it comes to calling for reform versus calling for community protections for those already suffering. Racial injustice has accelerated the consequences of climate change, and as Wilkanowski said, “You have to tackle both at the same time.”
The premise of climate justice is that climate change is a human rights issue: Those who suffer most are often the least responsible for its existence. Lavigne’s experience in St. James is a key example, but so are the fathers of both Ogbu and Brathwaite, both of whom have worked in the fossil fuel industry out of necessity.
After Brathwaite’s father was laid off from the Hovensa Oil Refinery in St. Croix in 2012, her family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. The refinery had filed for bankruptcy, but in July 2018, the plant would reopen as the Limetree Bay Refinery – a sprawling complex with oil terminals that jut into the blue waters of the Caribbean. As Reuters details, the facility would create 1,000 construction jobs, 700 on-site jobs and 750 jobs at a nearby oil terminal site. According to Reuters’ Collin Eaton, Limetree also purchased 225 acres and over 100 homes near the refinery. As Eaton puts it, “Reopening the refinery will be a boon to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has struggled economically since Hovensa closed in 2012.”
The Limetree Bay Refinery is an example of environmental racism in its exploitation of competing vulnerabilities: a struggling economy versus a fragile ecosystem. Even as it risks a toxic hazard, many in St. Croix see the refinery as a revenue-maker for an economy still recovering from the 2017 hurricane season, which included the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria, unprecedented storms that are themselves attributed to climate change. Even as they risk exposure, workers are forced to choose between paychecks, protecting themselves and their families in the short term, and protecting their community and well-being in the long term.
The principles of climate justice, as outlined by the 2002 Bali Principles of Climate Justice, affirm “the right of all workers employed in extractive, fossil fuel and other greenhouse-gas producing industries to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood based on unsustainable production and unemployment.” Those fighting for climate justice – Lavigne, Ogbu, Brathwaite, Wilkanowski and thousands of others — aim to make these principles commonplace around the world.
Each of these activists underscored the importance of education when it comes to achieving a common understanding that climate justice and racial justice are one in the same, particularly among the climate movements in the United States and Europe. For its part, Re-Earth is hosting regular webinars featuring both experts and on-the-ground organizations to address topics relating to climate justice, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and access to clean water. Zero Hour is also using its platform to educate followers on the relationship between racism and climate injustice. This summer, the group launched its largest campaign yet called #Vote4OurFuture. A joint venture with the National Children’s Campaign,#Vote4OurFuture will focus on increasing voter turnout among first-time voters while also encouraging all voters to vote on “behalf of young people.” According to Brathwaite, the campaign will involve grassroots organizing starting in Pennsylvania and Michigan and will address social justice at large through the lens of environmental justice.
Both Re-Earth and Zero Hour make clear that fighting for communities on the frontlines of climate change requires prioritizing the testimonies from within those communities. However, these groups are the exception rather than the rule. Although many youth-led climate organizations, such as U.S.-based chapters of Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion Youth, have prioritized and promoted the Black Lives Matter movement since racial justice protests swept the nation in late May, Ogbu worries it won’t last. She said she is “baffled” that for a lot of people, “fighting for racial justice still doesn’t seem to link to fighting for climate justice.”
Furthermore, activism is only one part of the climate movement; it is fueled by the world of academia. “Listen to the scientists” is a common call among activist groups, particularly from Time’s 2019 Person of the Year and renowned youth climate activist, Greta Thunberg. Ogbu, Brathwaite and Wilkanowski all agree representation is a major problem in activist spaces, but in the classroom, it is an even greater hurdle.
Lauren Ritchie, 19, is a rising junior at Columbia University in New York City. As a Sustainability Development major and Political Science minor, Ritchie wants to go into environmental policy after she graduates. In the meantime, she’s running a climate justice-focused Instagram profile known as “The Eco Gal,” which has gained over 40,000 followers since she launched it in May. “I might hire my mom to be my manager,” she joked from her home in Freeport, Bahamas.
Ritchie is an international student at Columbia. Within her major, she says, she is typically the only Black student in the room. Furthermore, in textbooks, lectures and all academic materials, she rarely sees texts written by Black or brown authors. “It doesn't make sense to me why there was so much great work out there and I had to try so hard to look for it,” Ritchie said.
In reality, environmentalism was founded on principles of white supremacy. As Wanjiku Gatheru puts it for Vice, “It is no secret that the environmental movement’s history is red with the blood of Indigenous genocide.” Gatheru recently graduated from the University of Connecticut and is the recipient of the Rhodes, Truman and Udall scholarships. According to the Rhodes Trust, Gatheru has tackled food insecurity in her state, implemented an environmental literacy education requirement at UConn, and plans to study the intersection of race, environment and policy at Oxford. Despite her many accomplishments, she writes that white-centered environmentalism has led her to consider leaving the movement altogether.
Gatheru lists Madison Grant, John Muir and Aldo Leopold as some of the modern environmental movement’s “founding fathers.” In The New Yorker’s landmark piece, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” Jedediah Purdy names both Grant and Muir. Grant is both a “celebrated zoologist” and the author of a “pseudo-scientific work of white supremacism.” Muir founded the Sierra Club and also played a key role in establishing the trend in environmentalism that places animal life above human life.
As Gatheru points out, twentieth century environmentalism can be characterized as a movement stolen by and propagated by white people aiming to maintain the environment for white people. Today, this legacy continues.
Ritchie expects professors at Columbia and elsewhere to make mention of environmental racism and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on Black and brown communities, but not much else. “I haven’t had any classes talk about environmental racism at all,” she told me. In reality, Ritchie says when environmentalists perpetuate the idea that people are the problem, that the global population is to blame, they succumb to white supremacist ideals. She characterizes this section of the movement as eco-fascism and says this group ignores the most important aspect of environmentalism: caring about people.
While academia grapples with both its legacy of white supremacy and its present reality, those on the frontlines of climate change still battle for their safety, livelihood and shelter. In 2000, farmers, workers, indigenous people, students and more from Bolivia, Canada, the U.S., India and Brazil united to create The Cochabamba Declaration, which establishes water as a “fundamental human right,” claiming it cannot be subject to privatization, commoditization, or trading for commercial purposes. Ritchie cited the Flint Water Crisis as one of the biggest examples of environmental racism within the U.S., and she agrees, “[clean water] should be a human right.”
Five years after the start of the Flint Water Crisis, the city with a majority Black population still does not have access to clean water.
According to Ogbu, the climate movement has an ethical imperative to reevaluate how it goes about fighting for climate justice, both in a world grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and as a movement that recognizes its own internalized white supremacy. “But,” Ogbu paused, reflecting on herself, “I understand that as a Black person, you’re facing multiple wars in regards to the disease itself and racial justice.”
Ogub shared her own experience attending a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest a few nights prior to our call. “It was kind of euphoric,” she told me. “I mean we were all there. And we were there for each other. It was this amazing sense of unity.” Without pausing in her retelling, she shared the moment that joy came to an abrupt end: “I mean until the police came and tear gas, rubber bullets, and all the horrible things happened.”
Although she attended the protest with a group of six friends, Ogbu’s group was separated in the chaos. The friends didn’t expect to encounter violent police officers; the protest was peaceful. “Police forces literally lined up all around us. We felt surrounded,” she recounted. “Truth be told, I literally thought I was going to die. I had no idea what was gonna happen, and I was scared.”
Holding her friend’s hand, Ogbu ran from the tear gas, rubber bullets and crowds, repeating “please, please” in her head. Unknowingly, the friends fled to a nearby highway, where they were picked up by two women who pulled over after seeing them run.
“As soon as tear gas was fired...I reached a new low with my disappointment and true disgust with the state of this country,” Ogbu said. Nevertheless, the action of the two strangers who drove Ogbu and her friends to safety affirmed her faith in her community. She believes the country is returning to a time where people thrive off of communalism – on “living and growing with people, rather than competing with a system that was not designed for a lot of us.”
In doing so, Ogbu summarizes the future of the climate movement as many climate justice advocates see it: “It’s never been about the system, it’s never been about the country, but about the people who make it up.”
But the climate crisis dismantles communities. Lavigne’s own children, members of RISE St. James, were still forced to leave their home in the interest of maintaining their health and their children’s health. “This is my home and this is where I want to stay,” Lavigne told me. “I want to be able to live here without being in fear of losing my life, losing my health, losing my family, losing my home.”
On Juneteenth, as the sun beat down on members of the St. James community, Pastor Gregory T. Manning stood beside a sign that read “ST. JAMES IS OUR HOME.” He asked how much time he had to speak, drawing a laugh from the crowd as he approached the mic. “Here’s what I want you to know," he began, "if somebody truly want to get free, they’re going to get free.” He speaks of the enslaved people buried there: “They got free, and we’re going to get our freedom too.” As the Bali Principles of Climate Justice outline, “Climate Justice insists that communities have the right to be free from climate change, its related impacts and other forms of ecological destruction.” That right and that freedom has yet to be realized within the United States, and once again, the burden of fighting for it has largely been placed on the oppressed. “I’m only here for an hour,” Manning said, “but they were here from sunup to sundown, working these fields in this arid, humid heat of southern Louisiana. Black lives matter, but they didn’t matter to those who enslaved them.”
The ceremony closed with another hymn, one that Lavigne said is the “RISE St. James theme song,” “Victory is Mine.” Consecrating this sacred burial ground was certainly one victory, but there are many more to come before climate justice, racial justice or true freedom is realized. On Juneteenth, victory indeed was theirs, but every day after, that victory hangs in the balance.