Smells Like Progress: Growing Up in Cancer Alley

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.

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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.

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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.