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Can One Community Organization Change an Entire City?

2013 May 16

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By Dr. LaToria Whitehead

I first met Dr. Mildred McClain as a doctorate student.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the very first conversation that I had with her regarding environmental health disparities in Savannah lead to a five year partnership between the federal government and a community-based organization.  Wearing two hats at that time, I had both a desire to increase lead testing for children in Savannah as a federal employee, and as a student I wanted to understand how an environmental justice organization could accomplish this task. Working with Dr. McClain in this partnership powerfully changed my perspective on how to do both.

Untitled-2Dr. McClain was the founder and director for the Harambee House Inc./Citizens for Environmental Justice (CFEJ). She has been a human rights activist for over 40 years and she initially started the Savannah-based organization as a small focus group in 1991 to fight on behalf of a local subdivision built on contaminated site.  Eventually CFEJ would bring justice and awareness, both locally and nationally, about issues from chemical industries to food deserts to job development.

Like many EJ organizations CFEJ began with a sentiment of moral obligation to the community,  but there is something very special about how this organization works.  As a student, I was a bit naïve about the process of engaging communities. Working with CFEJ, I witnessed how she effectively engaged with the community and listened and responded to their concerns. I was able to see how her hard work and passion led to the trust, respect, and admiration of the Savannah community for Dr. McClain.

She was also very kind and considerate, and brought me along for the journey. I witnessed politicians opening their doors to her, and because I accompanied her, they spoke with me as well. Community leaders and people who resided in these communities their entire lives embraced me and talked with me, a complete stranger, because of her. As a result of the partnership there was an increased awareness about childhood lead poisoning and an increase in the number of children that were tested for high blood lead levels. There was also a new awareness among politicians about a lead ordinance in Savannah, which has been on the books since 1973, and a political taskforce was created by CFEJ to ensure that the ordinance is sufficiently enforced.

As a student, these experiences would forever change my understanding and approach to environmental justice from learning side-by-side with a real EJ champion. There is a multifaceted approach to achieving what we all call environmental justice.  Alongside this approach, comes trust, respect, honor, knowledge, empowerment, long days and long nights.  This description is not only symbolic of environmental justice, but it also embodies the character of Dr. McClain. After interviewing many people in Savannah, the common theme of all of these conversations was about how enlightenment and empowerment from CFEJ helped change their communities.  Among many other lessons, I’ve learned that trust and relationships are fundamental in the EJ world. Thank You, Dr. McClain.

About the AuthorDr. LaToria Whitehead is an Environmental Justice Officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health. She’s also an adjunct professor of Political Science for Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    May 17, 2013

    Yes one community organization can change a city and they do it one neighborhood at a time. Our country has always had those individuals who are willing to step up and help others see that positive change is possible. This is a great video and a powerful story. Keep up the great work Dr. McClain and many others who will learn from your examples.


  2. Devorah permalink
    May 18, 2013

    What a wonderful story. We need more of these positive examples of how we all can do something to make our country better.

  3. RTS permalink
    May 24, 2013

    I agree with Devorah this is definitely an inspiring story. I hope more people get a chance to see and hear them. Congrats to Dr. McClain and CFEJ for your incredible work.

  4. Kim permalink
    June 28, 2013

    All I can say is WOW!!! this video and blog moved me almost to tears. When Dr. McClain began to sing I could feel all the pain, struggle and triumph come flooding through. Thank you for this video and for this blog. I left a message on a previous blog saying how I hope others in the government would follow your lead and begin to create tools such as these with voices from those who are doing great work to help our country.


  5. Jane permalink
    July 17, 2013

    Very insightful video and blog. Keep up the great work.

  6. Cesar permalink
    August 9, 2013

    Great Video with a great message….I met Dr. McClain when I was an intern years ago, it is wonderful to see that she is still fighting for social justice.


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