By LaKeshia Myers
I will admit it, I do not consider myself an environmentalist. I have never marched for cleaner air, I don’t know how many species are on the verge of becoming extinct, and my first and last attempt at planting a tree was in fourth grade when we received saplings for Arbor Day (it didn’t go well and my little tree eventually died). While I don’t consider myself an environmentalist, I do find that I am growing more cognizant and concerned about the earth and our (human) interactions with it.
Having grown up in Milwaukee, I remember vividly the cryptosporidium outbreak of 1993. It was the first time I learned that there could be parasites in my tap water. It was the first time I understood that toxic water could kill a person, and it was also the first time I could remember being afraid to drink from the tap or my school water fountain. These thoughts dissipated over time; I grew up, and I moved on with my life. All of those feelings rushed back when I learned of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis of 2014.
I, like many other Americans could not fathom how a government could knowingly poison its own people, allowing individuals to consume dirty, lead contaminated water.
It was during this time that I first heard the term “environmental racism”. According to Texas Southern University professor Dr. Robert Bullard, environmental racism is used to describe environmental injustice that occurs, “in practice and in policy within a racialized context” (Bullard, 2001). In a national context, environmental racism criticizes inequalities between urban and exurban areas after white flight. Charges of environmental racism can also prompt usages of civil rights legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prosecute environmental crimes in the areas in which racialized people live.
Only after hearing and reading about the trend of communities of color having issues with pollution from large companies, small towns being deemed “cancer clusters”, and understanding the role lead played in the drinking water in urban cities did my eyes begin to open and I began to ask questions did I truly understand I could no longer sit on the sidelines and not delve deeper into environmental issues. Because they mattered to me and my community.
When I began connecting the dots of the numerous stories I had heard over the years, I recalled the story of Sugar Ditch Alley, a poor section of Tunica, MS, where families lived in rented shacks, some without indoor toilets. The ramshackle row was tucked away from public view, half a block behind the downtown business district and next to a stagnant ditch where residents flushed or carried their waste just yards away from their homes.
I also remembered the outrage of the residents of Crossett, Arkansas, a small southern company town where the local employer is Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific Paper Company. For years, it was alleged that the paper company had polluted the town. The section of town closest to the manufacturer has been deemed a cancer cluster.
It took me opening my eyes to the things that were happening around me to realize that environmental justice is a human right. I am forced to think about these issues when I legislate and make decisions on behalf of my constituents. I hope more Wisconsinites take the time to educate themselves and use 2020 as a time to really see clearly that environmental justice is a responsibility that we all share. No one deserves to live in hazardous conditions, because our environment also affects other aspects of our health and wellbeing. It is time for us all to find our inner environmentalist—wherever we fall on the spectrum and do more to help our state thrive.