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Smells Like Progress: Growing Up in Cancer Alley

2013 August 12
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By Dr. Beverly Wright

My journey towards understanding environmental justice began during my early years growing up in the area known as ‘cancer alley’ in Louisiana. After I learned about the disparties of pollution problems in poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, people who looked like me, I dedicated my life to overcoming these injustices. Now, as an educator, I understand my role and its importance in stimulating the minds of young people, propelling them into becoming involved in their own destiny. Exposure to, and involvement in advocacy work does just that. I am gratified to have a hand in nurturing the next generation of environmental justice advocates and professionals.

On the frontlines today, there is no greater challenge to our future, or should I say to our continued existence, than the issues surrounding climate change and global warming. Furthermore, people of color and the poor (specifically where I live, African-Americans) are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and therefore their involvement in the solution is critical. After attending several international climate summits over the years, I found the presence of African-American youth and students to be quite limited, and in recent years I have resolved to change that dynamic.


This is what has driven me to organize a collaborative with the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and to launch the 1st Annual HBCU Student Climate Change Conference held this year. Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice hosted the 1st Annual HBCU Climate Change Student Conference entitled Bridging the Gap Between Climate Change Theory and Experience. Over 100 students from 10 universities, as well as faculty, staff, and environmental leaders from across the country came together to discuss the devastating effects climate change is having on vulnerable communities.

Conference participants toured East Plaquemines Parish, a coastal Louisiana community that has been devastated by four hurricanes and the BP oil disaster since August of 2005. Rev. Tyronne Edwards, President of Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Braithwaite, LA, discussed grassroots recovery efforts that his organization has been involved in since Hurricane Katrina.


One of the sessions brought together a diverse panel of presenters including nationally recognized environmental justice researchers, a hip-hop activist, community organizers, and emerging HBCU climate justice student leaders to address campus sustainability, the socio-economic impacts of climate change, community resilience and adaptation, public health, flood risk management, and mental health implications of disasters.

The three day conference also included an undergraduate and graduate student poster session, and climate change sessions for middle school students from the Dillard University Emerging Scholars – STEM Program.

I’m so proud of the conference and the transformation I saw in the young people who attended. The HBCU students, many of whom are from vulnerable communities, were challenged to become the next generation of leaders in environmental and climate justice advocacy. I wake up each day focused on affecting such transformation. It is my belief that democracy requires an educated populace, and that the survival of the Earth will require an environmentally conscious citizenry. It is our job as educators to make this a reality.

About the author: Dr. Beverly Wright is a professor of Sociology and founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), formerly at Xavier University, now at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. The DSCEJ is one of the few community/university partnerships that addresses environmental and health inequities in the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, known as Cancer Alley. For over fifteen years, she has been a leading scholar, advocate and activist in the environmental justice arena. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. Cesar permalink
    August 13, 2013

    I have been to the Cancer Alley Cooridor and it is unbelievable how close communities live to the giant facilities that surround them, it gives fence line communities a new meaning. Dr. Wright please keep doing the great work you have been doing!


  2. Dr. Regan permalink
    August 13, 2013

    Dr. Wright,

    Thank you for reminding us of the real public health and environmental impacts that continue to happen to citizens in Cancer Alley and that the youth are one of our greatest assets in addressing the legacy of toxic pollution. This is a great video and I loved your blog as well. The EJ in Action Blog as many have stated is the one place you can come to for innovative, meaningful and interesting content.

    Dr. Regan

  3. Carlton Eley permalink
    August 14, 2013

    Wonderful video! As I shared in December when I reviewed Omega Wilson’s video for the first time, I was reminded that I wish we had access to case studies like this (and in this format) when I was in graduate school for urban planning in the mid-1990s.

    It always amazed me that environmental professors would repeatedly lecture about the significance of Love Canal as an environmental milestone and frame it in the context of community planning, yet they seemed oblivious to the relevance of ‘cancer alley’ to course lectures about land use; regional planning; and environmental policy.

    I trust this important series is helping the public to understand that environmental justice is also a city and regional planning issue. In part, the problems described by Dr. Wright reflect a failure to plan and/or a failure to enforce proper zoning.

  4. Sue Briggum permalink
    August 14, 2013

    This is such an important series. EPA has done a wonderful job of getting environmental justice leaders to tell their stories — especially their stories of hope and ways to work together for more sustainable environments.

    Dr. Wright’s remarks on the need to educate on the importance of recycling have real power because they come from an academic leader with a long history of distinction in support of environmental justice and sustainability.

  5. Tim Fields permalink
    August 14, 2013

    I have been a fan of Dr. Beverly Wright for more than twenty years for the great work that she has done in the environmental justice arena. After viewing this video, I learned a lot more about where her strong commitment to environmental justice comes from. She grew up with environmental injustices in her community in Louisiana, and made up her mind to do something about it. Not only did she change things in her community, but she became a tremendous force who has impacted the United States and the world in addressing environmental justice issues! Dr. Wright–keep teaching your students and all of us, who are your expanded study body, what we can do to focus on the important environmental justice challenges of today and tomorrow! Thanks for all that you have done!

  6. Jane permalink
    August 14, 2013

    This blog and video series seems to get stronger each time I view one the stories. I also have to commend the creators of this series from your first video on WEACT and the issues that were happening in Harlem, NY to your latest on Cancer Alley in Louisana. I enjoy your diversity of issues and speakers in their own voice. Thank you for sharing views from community, business, states and youth, it is great to highlight how many different organizations and people are focused on creating healthier communities. Keep up the good work.


  7. Timothy Jakes permalink
    August 15, 2013

    I’m a rising sophomore, and like many students my age have been trying to decide on what I would like to focus on in school. After watching the video and reading the blogs they inspired me to do additional research on environmental justice, and I believe I have found my calling. There are so many aspects to environmental justice that I know I can find one that will allow me to assist in making our country a healthier place for everyone.

    I hope you will consider featuring more stories from and about youth. Maybe one day I will have a story to share.

  8. Jerri permalink
    August 17, 2013

    Dr. Wright thank you for this great blog and for educating the next generation of environmental leaders.

  9. Jason permalink
    August 22, 2013

    Definitely enjoyed this video and blog. Its good to see EPA allowing community leaders to share their successes and lessons learned.


  10. Kim permalink
    August 22, 2013

    This blog almost never let’s me down :) and once again you have shared a story and a video on an issues of national significance because the impacts that are happening to residents in and around Cancer Alley for decades have far reaching health and economic effects.

  11. Leslie Fields permalink
    August 23, 2013

    Dr. Beverly Wright’s life experience, scholarship and leadership of DSCEJ has been an inspiration to countless communities all over the world. This EPA series is an important platform to showcase the amazing range of EJ activism-thank you! The world is fortunate to have leaders such as Dr. Wright leading the quest of environmental justice and sustainable communities. Most importantly, Dr. Wright and DSCEJ are educating the next generation of activists from EJ communities. All the best for continued success!

  12. LaToria permalink
    August 25, 2013

    Wonderful blog and video!! It’s always inspiring to see a historical advocate and scholar in the environmental justice movement, consistently invigorated. Thank you, Dr. Wright!

  13. Jason permalink
    September 6, 2013

    Great video and blog. The scenes from this corridor in Louisiana remind me of areas in Northern NJ when you are going up I95. I often wondered what were the impacts to communities who lived close by and how they dealt with the awful smells on a regular basis.


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