Annenberg Forum overflowed with university students and faculty and members of the greater Winston-Salem community on November 11 for a symposium on environmental justice. The event, “My Neighborhood is Killing Me: Environmental Racism and a Call to Justice,” discussed the effects of toxic dumping and environmental degradation on minority and low income neighborhoods and called the audience to action. The affair was co-sponsored by the WFU Office of Sustainability and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
After an introduction by Wake Forest University Provost Jill Tiefenthaler, the symposium began with an opening lecture by Simran Sethi, an Emmy-award winning journalist and Winston-Salem native. Her exposé on the illegal discharge of toxic PCBs along the roadsides of 14 counties across North Carolina hit close to home for the locals in the audience. Her local example revealed the ubiquitous nature of environmental injustice.
According to Sethi, the cleanup from this dumping resulted in the collection and burning of 81,000 tons of contaminated soil at a price of $18 million to Warren County, where the disposal facility was sited; the citizens of Warren County were not compensated in any way for the damage to the local lands and water supply. “No one wants to live in a place where they have dirty soil and can’t drink the water. This [issue] crosses income and political party lines,” Sethi said.
Sethi broadened her discussion by comparing environmental issues to interpersonal relationships. She encouraged all of the members of the audience to draw connections between what they cared about and our ecosystems. According to Sethi, just as people in relationships take care of one another, we should take care of our resources in the same manner.
Intense silence filled the room as Sethi’s words began to sink in, especially when students realized that our generation may be the first not to outlive our parents. Sethi drove home her point that “environmental rights are civil rights,” by encouraging the audience to be concerned about what is happening to the Earth and all of its inhabitants.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux, President of Bennett College, followed Sethi with a presentation on environmental racism in African American communities — locally in North Carolina — and elsewhere around the world. Her discourse emphasized the disproportionate burden people of color carry in regards to environmental hazards and the consequences of environmental mistreatment.
Malveaux’s discussion of the Bantu word Ubuntu, a South African concept for uniting that translates in English as, “I am because you are,” was particularly inspring. Malveaux urged the audience to overcome class and race differences, to see that having access to clean water and air are basic human rights, which should be met in countries across the globe.
Following their speeches, the women answered a few questions from the audience. Their responses reiterated the call to action, not only in fighting environmental racism and injustice, but in encouraging newcomers to the sustainability and environmental movements to find an issue they care about and to pursue change. Environmental injustice, they urged, doesn’t have to be yet another issue to care about. Sethi urged audience members to start with the issues that are already important to them and to see how solutions to those problems are aligned with solutions to the problems plaguing the environment and the world’s people. “You can’t do everything, but everyone can do something,” Sethi said.
Provost Tiefenthaler asked the duo about the power of the consumer and what that power might mean to members of the audience. Both encouraged individuals to boycott products or companies that are causing harm. Voting takes many forms and one form is a vote at the cash register. “Change begins with conscious consumers making decisions with the strength of their voices,” Sethi said.
By Carrie Stokes, Green Guide Intern, and Holly Fuller, Interfaith Grassroots Support Intern