By Teri Blanton
The community that I grew up in rural Southeast Kentucky was a federal Superfund site and learning that the water in the community I lived in was polluted was my first experience with the need to advance environmental justice. That was the beginning of my understanding of what environmental justice is and the importance of engaging communities to have a voice in the environmental decisions that affect where they live.
Over the years I have learned a lot of lessons about how to meet with people and educate them about how they can stand up for their right to a healthy and sustainable community. For example, when reaching out to people, you can’t communicate from a place of anger, because it will not reach anyone. Instead, you must be aware of your own feelings and have the ability to control them to interact effectively with others.
Also, when you talk to people about what environmental justice is you need to make the human connections clear. For example, when I talk to people in our rural communities about the effects of mountaintop mining, I remind them that mountaintop mining production has been linked to many possible public health problems that have a direct effect on people’s lives, including a 42% increase in birth defects, according to one study. But, statistics by themselves are just numbers. Effective leaders know that in order to draw out empathy from others, they must focus on the human impacts pollution can have on the places we live, work, play, and pray.
My organization, the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, initiated The Canary Project that aims to expand awareness among Kentucky’s residents about the pollution that can result from coal production in our communities. The project is named after the old mining practice of bringing canaries into the mines to check for toxic gases. When the gases became too dangerous for the canaries, the miners knew to leave the mine. As we say, we are the canaries, warning everyone about the dangers of environmental injustices. We must build awareness, because everyone on this planet deserves clean air, clean water, and healthy communities.
About the Author: Teri Blanton is currently a Canary Fellow, and the past Chair for the citizens group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. A survivor of a Superfund toxic waste site near her home in Harlan County, Kentucky, Teri has worked to educate communities and advocate for pollution prevention across the country for the better part of the last 20 years.