Category Archives: environmental justice

Reason no. 2568 why I hate my school

Free tomorrow night? Need some inspiration in your quest for peace, justice and sustainability? Why not head over to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment to join in the accolades for guest speaker Libby Cheney, Vice President of Corporate Support at Shell Exploration?! A peek at Ms. Cheney’s bio:

Before joining Shell in 2006, Libby was the Manager of Non-Operated Global Development Projects for ExxonMobil Development Company in Houston, TX where she managed technical resources and decisions for global projects totaling more than $25 billion in gross investment. She began her career as a Reservoir Engineer in Kingsville, Texas. Her background includes various assignments managing multi-functional teams for producing assets from offshore Gulf of Mexico to West Texas and California. Libby subsequently led an organization of 150 engineers and technicians in developing and optimizing onshore . In addition, she spent time as the Senior Strategic Planning contact for project interests in Russia, the Caspian Region, and the Middle East.

Think Cheney will come prepared to discuss Shell’s numerous human rights abuses around the world?  Not at this school.  It was only a couple of years ago that the Dean refused to allow a speaker from CorpWatch to make a presentation in the building about Coke’s participation in human rights atrocities and environmental devastation in India because a representative from Coca Cola had not been invited to tell their side of the story.  Claimed she wanted to support the “fair and balanced” approach, to have all sides of the story represented (while clearly making exceptions for corporate polluters and potential financial donors to the school).

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Filed under environment, environmental justice, human rights, michigan, truth

Does this happen to you too?

I’m only recently back from a 3 week trip to Belfast, and as is often the case when one returns from a vacation (of sorts), I’ve been asked by friends, family, acquaintances, and workmates what I did while I was away.  So I discuss–or attempt to discuss, as the case may be–exactly what I did.  And about 9.999 times out of 10, the person I am talking to stares off into the distance, their eyes glaze over, and they blink repeatedly.  And say nothing.  No questions, no polite, “oh wow that’s really interesting”–usually no reaction at all.  It’s usually something circumstantial that breaks us out of that temporary standstill, like if I’m at work one of us has to leave suddenly to do something, or if I’m at a restaurant the server comes over and fills up the water and then suddenly there’s the exit we’ve both been waiting for.  “Is it supposed to rain today?”

I know it’s not me.  I’m certainly not a confrontational person, nor am I inclined to boast about much of anything.  This sort of thing has happened before though.  When I first got to graduate school, I can’t tell you how many parties, events, or classroom settings in which I found myself discussing what I had been doing before I came to school.  I’m in an environmental program, so most if not all of my fellow students had worked in the field or a related one prior to coming to UM.  I did what I’ve pretty much always done; I had a job that would pay my bills and then I used my “free time” to do important political work.

Before grad school I was a volunteer caseworker at Centurion Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey. CM is an independent investigative agency that works to get innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of rape and murder out of prison.  It remains the most meaningful, powerful, and inspiring work I’ve ever done.  The most incredible stories of the most amazing, strong, determined, thankful people you’ll ever meet.   I could go on…

So this was the story I would tell when it was my turn to share where I had been before Michigan.  The response?  The same far-off stares, the same glazed over eyes and the same flutter of the eyelids.  (Are there wheels turning in there…or does the brain work overtime so that you do not process my words?!)  I remember only one person in my program who ever engaged me in a conversation about this.

And so I came to the conclusion that the idea of people being wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes and left to rot in prison was something that was just so far out of the frame of (white, middle class) reference of these people that they literally had no idea how to respond.  Or that their minds were working so hard to NOT process what I had said (please don’t mess with my rosy pink worldview), to not have to think about how folks live outside the bubble that their gears just momentarily stopped shifting (hence the glazed over, fluttering eyes) until the subject changed and they were safe.

Come on, people–do you really need to know someone personally who is in jail to acknowledge that this is a serious issue?  Perhaps even a bit more pressing than paper vs. plastic?  So much for your understanding of NIMBY-ism (that’s Not In My Back Yard–and guess what people, it applies to more than dumping).  But I digress.

So when I get back from a place like Belfast and you ask me what I did and I begin to tell you and I see your eyes begin to glaze over, I’ll probably assume you just want to hear about all the Guinness I drank, or about how fucked up I got, or if I went to any shows or sweet parties.  Since I don’t expect you to be fully informed (or even well-informed–or informed!) about the conflict or the peace process (and your eyes tell me you’re not interested in politics), I’ll probably just tell you about the time I went to Dundalk for the night with a bunch of really great ladies to go to the dog races (of all things!), how we started drinking on the bus on the way down, went to the disco (my boobs popped out of my dress, several times, and Linda ended up on the floor trying to recreate a scene during that song from Dirty Dancing).

But boy will you be missing out, because I won’t tell you about the experiences I had that really touched me.  I won’t tell you about the afternoon in the park, eating ice cream cones with my friend, who is struggling for justice for his murdered son, a victim of collusion; about how he reminisced about his childhood, talked about his kids and grandchildren, how we literally stopped to smell the roses.  About how his story is unfortunately one of many.  This is a place where people are carrying so much pain, but at the same time it’s also a place that bubbles over with humor, hospitality, and humanity.   It’s too near, too close to me, and  I’m tired of sharing with people who choose to numb their minds to reality (and it is a choice).  So I won’t tell you about the community organizations that I worked with, and will continue to work with.  I won’t tell you about the amazing, inspiring people I met, how the potential I see fills me with hope.  You won’t even come close to understanding why I might be so drawn to this community, with its painful past so close to the surface as it struggles to make the small portion of the earth that it occupies a better, safer, inclusive and sustainable place.

A word of advice: don’t ask if you really don’t want to know.  Or at least be polite and say something if I tell you and you decide you don’t really want to know.  But from where I stand, you’re missing out.

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Filed under belfast, Centurion Ministries, collusion, environmental justice, ireland, Irish peace process, political prisoners, relatives for justice, UVF, war

Toxic waste and race

Thanks to Michelle for beating me to the punch and posting the recent Metro Times article about the 20th anniversary of the Toxic Waste and Race report.  Overall it was a decent article–really anything that highlights the reality of environmental racism and the work of environmental justice activists is a good thing.   My favorite part of the article was the quote from Rhonda Anderson (the EJ organizer from Sierra Club Detroit, who fucking rules):

There is another issue as well, says Rhonda Anderson, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Detroit. It has to do with the nature of bigotry itself.

“You don’t have racism in compartments,” she says. “Environmental racism is a continuation of a problem that exists in society at large.”

If one group of people is considered inferior and of less consequence, then, she says, “it’s just too damn easy to put a polluting industry in their community.”

Thank you, Rhonda!  I’m an environmental justice graduate student at UM, and I’ve long since become jaded, frustrated, disgusted, and just all-around turned off with the way EJ is both taught and treated by the administration at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.  Sure, there are some great people in the department with politics that are right-on (though they are few), but believe me, you won’t have a discussion in any of your classes about how environmental racism is just one part of our racist society.  The way that it is taught completely compartmentalizes the issue, and if those who are really interested in creating change in this area approach environmental justice issues as separate from the broader context of racism in our society we’ll never make any progress.

As the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo of the UCC writes: “It is ironic that 20 years after the original ‘Toxic Wastes and Race’ report, many of our communities face not only the same problems they did back then, but now they face new ones because of government cutbacks in enforcement, weakening health protection and dismantling the environmental justice regulatory apparatus.”

Sure, it’s the 20th anniversary of an important statistical analysis.  But how do we accurately measure how much progress we’ve made in confronting racism, environmentally and otherwise?  Certainly not by counting our executive orders.

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Filed under Detroit, environmental justice, racism