New Orleans native Beverly Wright still remembers vividly the moment she became aware of environmental injustice.
"I was a graduate student, my graduate advisor was working on the Love Canal story," she recalls. The residential community had been built on an abandoned toxic waste site, and the resulting contamination poisoned the air and water and led to a high rate of birth defects and miscarriages among Love Canal families.Wright discovered a similar situation when she returned home. "I began to find out about 'Cancer Alley.' That's the stretch of land between the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge [Louisiana]. It's home to about 136 petrochemical plants, six refineries and every other toxic facility that you can imagine." She was surprised to discover that "the people I loved most were even more exposed [to toxins] than the people were in Love Canal."
Since the residents of those contaminated areas were mostly African-Americans and other minorities, Wright says, she realized race and ethnicity were factors in the environmental situation. And she decided to take action.
"I got started writing about what we call environmental justice with my colleague, Dr. Robert Bullard. I think "The Politics of Pollution" was the first article ever written on race and toxics."
In 1992, Wright helped found the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at New Orleans' Dillard University.
"One of our major objectives was to build leadership within mostly minority communities that were most impacted but were not knowledgeable of what was happening to them," she explains. "They just knew they were sick. Our belief was, basically, that people should speak for themselves and that when a community is armed with information, they can fight the battle once we leave."
Multiple roads to environmental justice
The Center adopted a multi-faceted approach to achieving environmental justice. Documenting the scope of the problem was one of its first projects.
"We were the first to map toxic emissions by race and class in the United States," Wright says. "We worked alongside the Environmental Protection Agency's GIS mapping program and the first maps ever developed were of the Mississippi River chemical corridor."
Public education and training is another important focus of the Deep South Center.
"I guess our philosophy just became, if a community has been impacted by toxins, why shouldn't they benefit from the cleanup of their own community? Why should other people come in making millions of dollars cleaning up sites where people have been living and suffering from the pollution?" The answer, she says, was obvious. "We began developing training programs that were culturally sensitive for minorities and disadvantaged young people so they can be involved in the actual cleanup. So we trained young people in hazardous material removal."
Those training programs, Wright says, not only cleaned up many chemically polluted areas, but also enhanced life in those neighborhoods.
A national movement to transform neighborhoods and lives
"We believe we can transform a community when young people have jobs rather than being unemployed and standing on the corners getting in troubles," she says. "So we've seen transformation of some of our neighborhoods, because we put young people to work."
Wright says the programs get students involved in the greening of campuses. They also connect people in the community with government officials who are responsible for their environmental health.
Wright says she is proud to be part of what has become a sustained environmental justice movement across the United States and beyond.
"We had, over the last 10 years," she says, "two very large environmental justice conferences where we brought together several thousand people from around the country." There were also people from Mexico, Africa and Chile at the conferences, Wright says, "to share best practicies in protecting our communities and to educate and train young people to become active in this movement."
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Beverly Wright lost everything. Her home and her center were destroyed. She says she came back to her city to find the need for her services even greater than before. Wright is now working on reconstruction projects while continuing to advocate for environmental justice.