Strength in Numbers: Tackling Environmental Challenges By Collaborating with the Neighbors Next Door

by Johnny DuPree

Rural communities in Mississippi face a seemingly insurmountable number of challenges to gaining access to a variety of resources. Access to healthcare and infrastructure is particularly difficult. In 2009, nearly one in five Mississippians lacked health insurance.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Mississippi has the highest rate of heart disease and cancer deaths in the country, and also ranks among the top for stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease related deaths.  Mississippians are extremely vulnerable to environmental and public health issues, and are at high risk for going without the basic necessities required for healthy lifestyles. Furthermore, the wide range of extreme weather events, most notably Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2008 flooding of the Mississippi River, has compounded the difficulties many individuals already face throughout the state.

Affordability is the main issue that plagues most rural Mississippi communities.  Community projects that require hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars are challenging at best, nearly impossible at worst. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that members of communities where the median income level for a family of four barely reaches $25,000, do not have the ability to meet the basic needs required for healthy lifestyles. Healthy food, access to health care, updated infrastructure, and uncontaminated water supplies are essential to every community, but are also very costly for many small Mississippi towns to tackle on their own.

The Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors has committed to the cause of environmental protection and economic stability for all communities. The formation of a network of more than 40 mayors with health care providers, private businesses, entrepreneurs, local legislators, and community members, has created an atmosphere of collaboration that promotes innovative ways of dealing with these challenges.  The backbone of this regional collaboration is that there is strength in numbers – that the issues facing these communities cannot be solved by a single town alone.

Our regionalized approach has allowed for the swapping and sharing of ideas, practices, resources, and strategies across communities.  Communities are beginning to pool resources that provide water, waste control, food, and electricity resources to all residents.  Take for example my city, the City of Hattiesburg, where we have agreed to share trucks and other similar resources with neighboring towns to facilitate the transport of needed materials. Other towns have committed to sharing water infrastructure to serve areas that are particularly isolated.  The Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors created Surplus Donation, a new initiative that allows for donations of surplus items between “active member mayor cities.”

Part of our action plan focuses on increasing community awareness and education about environmental issues in the state of Mississippi.  Others have taken notice of our successful collaboration. In 2014, the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors received a $1.4 million EPA grant to reduce lead exposure and mitigate the negative impacts of old, inadequate housing stock for low-income, minority families and children throughout the Mississippi Delta.  With the funding provided by EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreements Program, the MCMB will create a network of African American mayors, health care providers, and community members to develop a “Lead Contamination Action Plan” that will help to identify the homes that have significant exposures, work with area health care facilities to test children’s toys and clothing for lead residue, and develop and implement lead abatement measures.

This effort includes identifying and reducing sources of environmental health and safety risks across rural Mississippi communities. One well-documented example stems from the clustering of Mississippi’s swine concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) in low-income, minority communities—and the negative health impacts that accompany them. The waste from large-scale industrial hog farming can contain pathogens, poisonous heavy metals, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can reach nearby homes and drinking water sources. To make matters worse, the odors and fumes from the hog waste often drift to nearby communities, carrying with it respiratory and eye irritants including hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

Location and demographics should not prevent anyone from gaining the same access to important resources.  Rural Mississippi towns have found that resource pooling enables small, rural communities the opportunity to receive the utilities they need at a more reasonable cost.  We believe that if you can help people in Mississippi, you can help anyone in the United States. We have all of the issues here in Mississippi, if you can solve them here, you can solve them everywhere.

About the Author: Johnny Dupree, President of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, has served as Mayor of the City of Hattiesburg, Mississippi since 2001.  Prior to that, he served 10 years as a member of the Forrest County [MS] Board of Supervisors.

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