Na’Taki Osborne is the national leadership development coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. She is also a fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program and cofounder of the Center for Environmental Public Awareness, a consulting organization that supports community groups working to achieve environmental justice.

Monday, 21 Oct 2002

ATLANTA, Ga.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Justice.”Adaptation of an old Negro spiritual

I wake up everyday with my mind stayed on justice! Today was no different. In fact, today is the beginning of a week that I will spend focused on environmental and economic justice — learning, strategizing, networking, and telling my story and that of my community. Starting on Wednesday, I will be attending the Second People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., a historic event that will bring together people of color from across the United States and abroad to assess the progress made in the environmental justice movement during the last 11 years; to share stories of struggle and triumph; and to build on the action plan established at the first summit in 1991.

Osborne teaching students to perform water quality monitoring tests.

As I prepare for the summit, I am brought to a point of personal reflection. My work at the National Wildlife Federation and as a volunteer community activist centers on watershed protection issues, environmental justice and health, and community-leader and activist development. In other words, I help people in underserved communities gain the tools and skills to address environmental and quality-of-life issues that affect their communities; I also work to help them realize that they have a place at the table in environmental decision-making and other policy matters.

Just one week ago, I was engaged with fellow citizens of Atlanta, Ga., in a fight to get the city to fix its wastewater infrastructure, which is crumbling, failing, and more than 100 years old. This fight has been going on since the early 1990s; I have been involved for the last four and a half years. The city had the opportunity to do right by its citizens, its water and sewer ratepayers, and its rivers and streams by overhauling its combined sewer system, which currently dumps raw sewage into the yards, basements, and other areas of residents’ homes when there are heavy rainfalls. These combined sewers also greatly affect our public parks, school grounds, and other recreational areas for children and adults.

A draining problem.

The impacts of the combined sewers are devastating to a broad spectrum of Atlanta citizens, but especially to people of color and to the low-income communities that house 71 percent of the city’s combined sewer outfall points. The water from these sewers contains pathogens from untreated human, animal, and industrial waste; toxic materials such as petroleum products, heavy metals, and pesticides; and floating trash and debris. Depending on the amount and concentration of the sewage and how people are exposed to it, it can cause illnesses ranging from hepatitis and gastroenteritis to cholera, skin rashes, and giardiasis. Yet neither the human health effects nor the environmental burden was sufficient to create the political will to do the right thing. Instead of deciding to eliminate combined sewers, Atlanta plans to place a band-aid on top of a gaping wound.

Our defeat on this issue has taken a toll on my energy level. Everyday in the news, when I hear about the “War Against Terrorism,” I wish the government would put some money and effort into fighting the toxic terrorism in my community and many others across the country. Luckily, I am an eternal optimist. I know that things will get much more difficult before they get better, but I also know that the fight must continue. This work can be so frustrating sometimes. I have got to listen to the advice that I have given to many others over the years: This is not the time to give up! So although I have much to do here in my community (before I leave for DC tomorrow) and probably won’t sleep tonight, I am inspired by the thought of connecting with other activists and freedom fighters. I am hopeful that their stories will enlighten me and give me strength for the next phase of my journey.