Community Activism

“You’ve told your stories. Someone will listen.”

                                                                         Rhonda Anderson

There are great benefits to be derived from the refining of oil, the burning of coal, the manufacturing of items, and the creation of new substances for use in products.  There are also great costs to be borne from these same activities in terms of diminished quality of life, enjoyment of property, property value, and most devastatingly, physical and emotional health and well being, and ultimately life itself.  These benefits on the one hand and costs on the other are not distributed equally; rather, some communities and classes of people are far more likely to enjoy the benefits, while others are far more likely to bear the costs.  The term “environmental racism” was coined to describe this “process that leads to the disproportionate siting of hazardous waste facilities [and heavily polluting industrial plants] in communities of color” in the United States (Checker 2005: 14).  Market dynamics, social class, and property values play a role in environmental disparities, but race is the strongest indicator of where industrial plants, landfills, oil refineries, and other such facilities will be located. Current census data reveal that the residents in industrial areas are more likely to be African American than to be any other race/ethnicity.

Environmental pollution and race are thus inextricably linked in locations across the country, and Southwest Detroit is no exception. Pollution there affects real people — mainly African-American and Latino, but also Arab-American, Italian-American, and other ethnicities — every day. Residents come together for community meetings to discuss and tell stories of their personal and family health.  They come to together in an attempt to get their complaints, which for the most part are ignored, might finally be heard. Discussions of concerns and plans for action are held at community centers. Residents also show research they’ve done to pin-point health issues and potential contamination. Residents demand that the state do a proper health study on the area. Even school children throughout Southwest Detroit and surrounding areas are aware of the industrial pollution that surrounds them, and some are active in trying to get something done about it.

Photography by Marcin Szczepanski

Here is a home-made video by the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. This video portrays how youth are aware of the industrial plant pollution and the actions they need to take to make their message heard.  The Principles of Environmental Justice referred to at the end of the video were developed in 1991 by the delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.  Those principles can be found here: http://www.emeac.org/2011/02/environmental-justice.html

Sierra Club Organizer and community activist Rhonda Anderson was kind enough to take us, the group of students that developed this website, on a toxic tour of many neighborhoods in the 48217 ZIP code.  According to her program’s page on the Sierra Club website, “Our Environmental Justice Community Partnership goal is to provide organizing support to low-income communities and communities of color (when requested).”  This statement sums up much of the philosophy of


Image courtesy of Daniel Shea

environmental justice organizing- to work with people in the capacity that they desire.  This is an important philosophy to keep in mind given the history of the environmental movement and its capability to disregard, far too often, the needs and desires of the very people it claims to help.

The following are audio recordings of parts of our toxic tour.  With these you can hear Rhonda’s voice tell stories of environmental injustices in Southwest Detroit, and gain more of a sense of what is going on through another medium.  (These recordings were made on March 5, 2012.)

Rhonda Anderson’s Toxic Tour part 1: The first six minutes take place on a street in Oakwood Heights (within the 48217 ZIP code), in a neighborhood that historically had been predominantly Italian-American; more recently, people of other backgrounds — most notably Latinos — had been moving in.  These residents are being bought out by Marathon to make room for their expansion.  The last two minutes are recorded within the van as the group continued traveling through the Oakwood Heights neighborhood.

Rhonda Anderson’s Toxic Tour part 2: This picks up where Part 1 leaves off, driving through Oakwood Heights and describing the industry there and its effects on residents.

13 in the Hole Teaser Trailer (an article about the film can be found here: http://michigancitizen.com/in-the-hole-p11008-77.htm )

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