NBWC: Restoring Community: Black Writers Respond to the Environmental Crisis

Moderator: Nina Mercer
Panel: Alixa and Naima (Climbing PoeTree), Omar Freilla
National Black Writers’ Conference
Saturday, March 28th, second panel session

The panel opens with a performance from Alixa and Naima, the social justice section of Hurricane Season a piece about Hurricane Katrina, and a recitation of “Ghetto Wonderland” from Omar Freilla!

Moderator: We’ve created a toxic world, and our communities are suffering for it.  What does an environmentally just community look like and how do we get there?

Naima: I’m going to start with a dream and make it reality.  We need to really look at nature to see how we survive.  At the end of the poem, we talked about “we are the oak tree held inside the shell.’  For us, the oak tree is a really grounding metaphor.  It was the one tree that didn’t fall over in abundance during Katrina.  They entwine their roots underground and it’s hard to uproot them.  Envrionmental justice involves a lot about being local but being interconnected, not just as communities, but at nature, as eco-systems.  So that when these unnatural disasters comes and try to knock us down — including brownfields and acid rain — is to share in the connection, to share out struggles and share solutions.  We could become so overwhelmed by the problems, but it’s important that we talk about the solutions so that we don’t become so despairing that we become paralyzed.  We need to cross-pollinate solutions, ways we can make a radical difference.

Omar: How many people have no idea what Environmental Justice is?  Envrionmental justice is a call or demand for respect, it is a demand that no community be forced to bear a burden of the stuff the rest of the world doesn’t want, a demand that we change our actions as a society so that no community bears the brunt of what we don’t want, changing our policies so that there is no pollution, so that we’re living in harmony with the planet.  We need to know that there is an imbalance of power.  We have global climate change and disasters and impacting people of color more than any other because of imbalances of power.  We wouldn’t have these issues if we didn’t have a system that said it’s ok for some people to die so that industry can thrive.  Communities suffering from environment injustice are like a pressure cooker (and it explained a pressure cooker “it’s like a pipe bomb in your kitchen”).  If not for those communities bearing the brunt, other communities would be feeling those problems much more acutely.  Environmental justice is a call to recognize that there is no ‘away’ when you throw things away. Things all have to go somewhere.  We live in our communities.  We have a right to live in clean, healthy, safe places.  It’s no surprise that the things other communities don’t want wind up in communities of color.

Alixa: I feel like the one most important thing is knowledge, understanding where we are right now environmentally.  People keep saying we’re on the brink of environmenta catastrophe.  The truth is that we’re already in the middle of it.  It will take years for us to feel it completely, but we’re already with one foot off the cliff.  Just because we in the US can’t see it in our faces right now, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  There will be 150 million environment refugees in the world in the next could of decades.  Where will those people go?  How do you think other countries will deal with those people?  We are within the catastrophic event and who knows where it’s going to go?  We forget about the pressure-cooker moments — cherry blossoms in November, 72 degrees in January — and we need to remember.  We need to start moving away from cities and building smaller, self-sustaining (self-governing) communities.

Naima: We also have to look at how to live sustainably in cities.  It’s not necessarily realistic to think everyone’s going to move to the country.  There’s a book, a toolkit for sustainable city living, that helps us learn how to do more with what we have right here.  Continue to ask yourself how we can learn to be more at one with nature.  We are part of this ecosystem.  How can we do our part?

Omar: There are two things that need to happen simultaneously.  One, there are problems we live with now, communities that are burdened now — pollution, lead poisoning, power plants — and there are groups that are working on these issues and these are groups that need to be supported now. (Hey, he mentioned Uprose and Make the Road New York!!) People don’t think of asthma as an environmental issue, but it is.  It’s about access to clean air.  Look at the produce in your community compared to other communities.  That’s an environmental issue.  There are organizations that are confronting that, directly challenging the way things are with the institutions that allow things to be this way, whether it’s the city, the state, or corporations.  On the other hands, we can make demands of the powers that be, but there’s also the need to build our own, to get beyond always asking for change to what’s the world that we really want to live in?  And that’s a matter of us really being creative and building community amongst ourselves.  People have been doing this for years, working to create a different kind of world.  We’re about creating a new kind of economy, a work environment of cooperatives, where workers are owners.  We see that as a way to get to environmental justice.  What kind of a structure can you have to have thriving and accountable businesses.  Our work is around collective work and collective ownership.

Moderator: I want to ask about popular education, the tool Naima and Alixa use.  One of the problems we’re facing is to recognize that there are huge corporate conglomerates who continue to infiltrate our minds to convince us to buy their products, and we continue to support them, even as they bring toxicity to our communities.  Many of us aren’t interested in working toward EJ because we’ve been brainwashed.  So, through popular education, you can come into communities and counter the entertainment that programs people to continue supporting the big corporations.

Alixa: We’re not in the “enter” tainment business, but the “inter” tainment buisness, brining art and activism into everything.  Hurricane Season looks at what happened in the gulf coast insofar as it connects to what’s happening world wide.  We performed on excerpt of it, but it’s a 2-hour multi-media performance.  It teaches in so many ways to address many different learning styles — visual, kinetic, audio — so that many people would be able to learn from it.

(I love that this panel is so incredibly young.  That are wonderfully inspiring because they totally slap down the idea that kids don’t care, that they won’t get involved in big socio-political issues.  Naima charms me because of who she is, but also because she reminds me — in her voice, her looks and her mannerisms and way of speaking — of one of the learners I connected with at the WE LEARN conference.  It’s so exciting to think of Ioki being this passionate about environmental justice, about her standing up and doing spoken word around social justice.)

Naima: We created what we called a “solution cypher” to help each community come up with idea for what to do.  In the second act of Hurricane Season we try to come up with some answers, some ways to change.  We feature grassroots organizations that are already doing the work in the communities and we bring them up to talk about the issues we’re talking about in HS, but it’s totally local, it’s about what’s actually happening right now in your neighborhood so that you can see that there’s a way to be connected, a way to get started and get involved.

They’re going to be performing April 6th at Columbia University!  And they’re working right now on turning it into a multi-media high school curriculum that will be done (and available for free) in the next year.

Q&A: Do you think “go green” is becoming a fad?

Naima: Can I answer that question?!  Yes, my God! “Go green” is becoming co-opted by another kind of green … mon-ey.  And this “go green” isn’t addressing that problem.  This “greening” is why we got into this mess in the first place, this is why we’re dying.  So instead of finding ways to put moratoriums on production and consumption, we give people the option to “buy green.”  It’s a fad, and it’s a dangerous fad.  It’s a trend that’s based on the same systems are killing us.

What about when the kids I teach tell me that eating healthy is “for white folks” and not for them?  (How familiar is that?  When I used to bring my vegetarian meals to class, one of my students told me I ate like a white person.  That was years ago.  Sad to know it’s still happening.)

Omar: The same way you introduce it to children is the same way you introduce it to adults.  We’re all pretty hard-headed.  Basically people don’t get something until they recognize how much it’s affecting them or someone they care about.  Think about the anti-smoking campaign.  It has to be a very personal approach, no matter who you’re teaching.  What’s the impact on you?

Naima: In direct response to the ‘eating vegetables is for white people’ the important thing to do is to dismantle the myths.  Help the kids see beyond what is shown.  The situation we exist in has been constructed to keep us down.  All these things we experience have been created for us, but we don’t need to model our communities based on those things.  Those things are false. We need to be open and honest with each other.  Show other pictures other than what we see all the time.

Omar: When you talk about changing behavior, in addition to teaching about the bad, encourage the good, help people see what they can do that’s different and how “not-impossible” that is.  We’re all really suckers for advertising.  There are ways to encourage behavior in ways that are fun —

Naima: and sexy and cool and hip!  There’s some real work that needs to happen there.

What about the fact that the plastic bottles are still going to be made even if I stop buying them?  What do you say about that?

Alixa: National boycott.  Every time you buy something, you’re voting.  Boycott.  That’s a power we have.  It’s a true and honest way we can break things down. Boycott.  Do you know that last year the water companies lost money because of what we’re doing, not buying those bottles.  Boycott.  That’s powerful.

(My hands are too tired to keep up with the young woman who’s talking right now.  She’s wonderful, talking about making an effort to learn about the things that are going on.  She recently learned about some of the horrors that grow out of Ghana’s gold boom, and she urges everyone to learn about and teach others about these things.  Maybe if people knew, we wouldn’t buy some of the things we buy.  Again, back to me and sugar after watching Big Sugar.)

Naima’s talking about growing up as an environmental activism, growing up in the country and trying to keep the community clean, getting recycling started at her elementary school, trying to encourage hunters to hunt like indigenous people do — to feed themselves, not for sport, not for the head mounted onyour wall.

Alixa’s talking about being a refugee from Colombia about about the US-backed “Plan Colombia” in  southern Colombia hwere they are fumigating the countryside and not telling people when they’re going to be spraying so that the people are being exposed.  It is ostensibly to be eradicated the cocaine trade but it’s really eradicating the people because they want the oil companies to be able to move in.  My activism has grown out of this.  We need to make the connections.

Omar is introducing the questioner at the mic!  Apparently he’s big in the community gardening movement here in NYC.  Sorry, didn’t catch his name.  The moderator doesn’t want him to talk, though, because she wants to get on to the people with questions.

How do we hold governments, corporations and people responsible for raping the land?

Omar: Again, there are lots of organizations on the community and national level that are involved in chanllenging those entities.  So the best thing to do is to get involved with what’s already happening.  The EJ movement is a global movement based on the idea that people living in a community have a right to determine what’s going to happen in their community, have that right of self-determination.  There are lots of organizations working to do that.

I’m sorry, this part is really interesting to me, but I’m too tired to keep it going.  I need to give my hands a rest!


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