Politics of Poverty

Nothing New Under the Sun: Southern Black Women & the Fight for the Soul of Climate Change

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Vessel Project of Louisiana
Roishetta Ozane, director of The Vessel Project of Louisiana, speaks to visitors at the Industrial Girls Softball Complex. Thanks to the petrochemical refineries that surround it, the air at the complex is severely polluted. Photo: Dãnia Davy

My recent time spent with the Black women environmental justice leaders of Lake Charles, LA helped me better appreciate the similar struggles and solidarity between climate defenders in the Global and US South. This Earth Day, more urgently than ever before, Black communities in the US South need our attention and support against the disproportionate burdens of climate change.

The sun is shining brightly, the birds are singing their little hearts out, and, in the distance, I see plumes of thick gray smoke completely blocking out the beautiful blue sky I am enjoying as I sit down in Downtown Lake Charles, Louisiana to write this post. My Oxfam colleagues and I are in town to support our partner, The Vessel Project of Louisiana, with environmental justice powerhouse, Roishetta Ozane, at the helm. My colleague informed me that I had selected an Airbnb on the “White” side of town – a far cry from the built environment of the Westlake, Mossville, and North Lake Charles communities we toured yesterday. Having grown up in a hurricane-prone state in the US South, I quickly recognized the tell-tale physical degradation – the caved in roofs, boarded up windows, and abandoned-looking streets of predominantly Black communities bearing the disproportionate burden of extractive industries.

“If you feel dizzy or like a headache is coming on, you are not being a hypochondriac,” Roishetta advised as we stepped off the bus at the Industrial Girls Softball Complex. The 13 or so petrochemical refineries built the softball fields as a so-called community benefit to offset companies’ known pollution of the air, soil, water, and even the bodies of the local residents. As the mother of a ten-year-old “athlete,” this ballfield looked virtually indistinguishable from the many fields where I spend my weekends bribing my daughter with ice cream to at least pretend to be interested in the outcome. The most noticeable difference is that this sports complex faces a huge, hideous series of smokestacks churning out completely odorless air that made me reflexively want to hold my breath.

After the tour, we sat down with community leaders, residents, and the sole elected official to attend, despite the invitation Vessel Project extended to all local area elected officials, for a screening of Oxfam’s short film, Hold the Line. The screening itself was delayed by an hour-long power outage caused by a rainfall so light that given Louisiana’s history of record-breaking hurricanes and floods, one would think the community’s power grid would not be so susceptible to failure. Undeterred, the community leaders powered forward using the darkened room as a learning opportunity for non-residents informing us that unreliable electricity was a regular experience for their community. They attributed the normal occurrence to another broken promise from the extractive industries, the monumental energy needs of the surrounding extractive industries, and insufficient investment in power access caused by institutional racism.

While not my first time enjoying the film, it was the first time I was in a room with the Mossville community’s human rights defenders who appear in the film—Carolyn Peters and Stafford Frank of the Concerned Citizens of Mossville. Environmental justice champions Debra Ramirez of Mossville Environmental Action Network, Lois Malvo of Fisherville Environmental Action Now, each with over forty years of environmental justice activism, and Michael T. Smith, District 2 Police Juror, also participated in the afternoon’s panel. Sharing stories of surviving various cancers, pregnancy loss, the loss of relatives and community, the passion and pain felt palpable during the screening and throughout the conversation I was fortunate to facilitate afterwards. The decades of dedication on the part of Black women environmental justice leaders, whose legacies far too often go unsung and unhighlighted in climate activism spaces was powerfully present throughout the day.

For over four decades, the Black women environmental leaders of the North St. Charles have tirelessly advocated for justice and the restoration of their communities. Inadequate political and financial support has multiplied the physical and emotional toll of supporting families while navigating corporate and governmental policies that have allowed the community’s living and working conditions to deteriorate. The Black women of Louisiana are united in struggle with all communities in which high concentrations of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-wage earning women live – in both the US and Global South. Persistent, colonial-legacy institutional policies, including rubber stamping permits for extractive industries, has sustained community degradation both at home and internationally. The disproportionate burden Black women and girls face in the US has been documented by virtually every conceivable metric. Approximately, half of the US Black population resides in the Southeastern US making them almost twice as likely as the rest of the US population to be impacted by severe hurricanes and flooding. This fact alone makes Black Americans more likely to experience power, gas, and water shortages in the short term. In the long-term, severe weather spurred by climate change makes Black Americans more likely to be displaced impacting economic stability and mobility, causing property damage and the loss of significant cultural and social ties.

In 2021, EPA Administrator Michael Regen toured the North Lake Charles community as part of the rollout of the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative which has dedicated billions of dollars to improving disadvantaged communities. This once-in-a-lifetime investment could increase good, clean energy jobs, build infrastructure for clean water, expand access to renewable energy, and transform historically excluded communities. Against the backdrop of the legal attacks on established civil rights case law and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, each of us will be responsible for helping inform and support Black, frontline communities as they compete for these resources against local governments, well-resourced universities and non-profit organizations. The community leaders we met with expressed disappointment that three years later, significant change feels as difficult and illusive as the decades before the Justice40 billions were announced.

For Oxfam’s part, we are committed to investing financial and other resources to this and other disadvantaged communities in the Southeast weathering the worsening storms of climate change. This post is the first of a series of three (3) blogposts through which we will explore the actionable steps we can all take to equitably mitigate climate change and promote a just transition from fossil fuel.

As a Black woman who immigrated from the Global South to the US South, my time in Louisiana filled me with a strong sense of kinship for the community’s shared concerns, deep love for community, and deepest desires to achieve community unity while securing complete environmental justice for historic and on-going racially disparate harms throughout the US South. Climate change is justifiably challenging our investment in the American individualism myth. We cannot do this alone. In order to push back against the worsening costs of climate change, we must push forward in our own many ways to create a more just, kinder and more equitable community for all.

NOTE: A week after our visit, on April 10, 2024, a tornado ripped through the community, destroying the Vessel Project’s office. A GoFundMe page has been created, if you are able to donate. You can also make a donation on their website, learn more, support and share their work.

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