City Environmental Activists Tackle Racism Through Art and Action

By Jade Lozada

Aug 2, 2019

Dior Doward stands in her garden on Hoe Avenue in the South Bronx with her daughter. Photo: Jade Lozada

In early 2013, a few months after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast, Miranda Massie, a successful civil rights attorney from Detroit, sat in her apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, incredulous. Under the imminent threat of climate change, she had recently shifted from social justice law to environmental law, but the change was not enough to sate her need for action. Massie scrolled through her laptop’s search results — nothing but a small project out of Hong Kong appeared for the phrase “climate museum.” Not even the domain name was taken. How could this not exist? Massie wondered. In the following weeks, she found herself quitting her job to challenge that scenario.

Massie approaches the fossil-fuel industry as a “caste system,” just as civil rights. It “is a system that continues to produce unequal conditions based on race,” Massie said.

In determining who would visit the museum, Massie confronted that system. Her target audience became those who were aware of climate change but were still not taking individual action. Massie knew that the demands of the environmental movement isolated those who lacked both the financial means to accommodate green living and the time to join activist groups, particularly people of color who want to be involved.

Three in four Latinos are “very worried” about climate change, and this demographic is more willing to get involved politically than other Americans, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication. Yet few do. People of color comprise only 12 percent of environmental organizations in the U.S., although they make 36 percent of the overall population. Since the Green 2.0 report’s release in 2014, the stats have worsened.

The lack of diversity in the national climate movement is only one facet of environmental racism. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by climate change for decades. “The environment is where civil rights play out,” said Massie.

One of the most consequential byproducts of environmental racism is air pollution. Black and Latino Americans are exposed to a respective 56 and 63 percent more air pollution than their communities produce. According to the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, this results in 138,000 asthma attacks among black school children each year. Latino children are twice as likely to die from asthma as their white counterparts.

The pollution originates from the disproportionate number of oil refineries set near communities of color. Ninety-one counties in the United States expose 6.7 million black Americans to emissions from nearby oil refineries. A report by the American Public Health Association noted that over 1.8 million Latinos live within a half-mile of these structures. Neither group can afford to leave. The average per capita income within three miles of an oil refinery is $18,400, compared to the U.S. average of $21,587.

In the South Bronx, an urban heat island, and the city’s epicenter of both wholesale produce and waste management, neighborhoods are crowded with diesel transport trucks emitting hazardous exhaust.

When Dior Doward, owner of the sustainable Bronx waste management company Green Feen Organix, asked her students if they knew someone who suffered from asthma, hands flew up. Eight percent of children in the borough are asthmatic, with black and Latino children being the most susceptible.

Doward’s after-school workshops teach students why the Bronx suffers from unwanted trash and air pollutants. At the end of a session, Doward threw scraps of paper etched with vocabulary into a hat. Students formed rap songs using the word they drew. “We use rap as a tool of resistance, as a tool of healing, but also as a tool of learning,” Doward said. “We’re not here to entertain.”

For Doward, the inclination towards hip-hop is natural, just as it is for her students. Arts will not solve the issues of environmental injustice, she nonetheless noted. The crux of the problem “lies in the way we distribute power,” she said. Doward is currently planting an urban garden in the South Bronx to compel neighbors to rethink food sustainably. “We’re hoping that instead of a crisis, it becomes a culture,” Doward said.

Camille Seaman, a native Shinnecock and African American photographer who captures portraits of Arctic icebergs, agrees that “resistance takes many forms, but it’s based in creativity.” Her work rejects “Western values of ownership over nature” in favor of a conversation between humans and earth. Like Doward, Seaman believes people of color must pursue sustainable lives in order to claim positions of power. “One of the most powerful things you can do in resistance is learn to grow your own food,” she said. “If you can feed yourself, you have time to protest.”

Massie hopes both the public perception of environmental activists and the reality will change over time to include communities of color.

NBC News Young Leaders in Journalism

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Annual, two-week workshop that exposes New York City public high school students interested in journalism to the inner workings of the profession.

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