Wednesday, 3 Oct 2001

NEW YORK, N.Y.

No profound thoughts this morning, just pleased that it’s warm outside, a welcome respite from the unexpected shock of cold that greeted New Yorkers earlier in the week. It may be October, but I’m still not ready to let go of the summer.

Yesterday, I finished up my day by doing something completely different from my normal work routine — attending class. I sat in on an evening lecture of an environmental health sciences course taught by a team of professors at Columbia School of Public Health’s Environmental Health Department. I attended the lecture to begin preparing for another round of WE ACT’s Environmental Health Leadership Training, which I’ll start working on this fall. This training, which WE ACT first conducted in 1998-99, is designed to teach community leaders basic environmental health and science. In the first two versions of the program, we covered topics including lead poisoning, water quality, ambient and indoor air quality, garbage and sanitation, and asthma. Fifty community activists from New York City completed those trainings, learning about sources and transportation of pollution, exposure routes, and health effects. They also learned basic monitoring methods and sources of data and, finally, how to incorporate scientific resources and information into their ongoing organizing and advocacy efforts.

1999 graduates of WE ACT’s Environmental Health Leadership Training.

Photo: WE ACT.

I’m responsible for this year’s Environmental Health Leadership Training, which will differ from the first two ro
unds in a few significant ways. First, the class will be open to environmental justice activists from all over the northeastern United States, and will be taught using a distance learning format. Second, in order to make sure the information we teach activists is in line with what environmental health professionals learn, the training will be based much more closely on the Columbia course I attended last night. We’re also adding three more sessions to the training so we can continue to address specific environmental health issues that we’ve identified as being of particular concern to potential participants.

As I sit in the large lecture hall, I feel like I’m simultaneously on both sides of the podium. I myself have addressed similar audiences on environmental health and justice issues, but part of me flashes back to two years ago, when I was a student listening to a similar lecture at the university where I got my environmental health degree. Now, though, the lecture is being filtered through a completely different lens than that of two years ago, or that of the other students in the room with me. As the professor introduces concepts like “dose-response” and “latency period” in explaining carcinogenesis, the activist in me continually asks herself “How does this apply to our community?” and “How could I understand this concept if I was your average community leader?” I take notes, not on the content of the lecture but on the efficacy of various presentation techniques. Sophisticated graphs are excellent visuals for graduate students who know how to read and interpret them, but they’d probably have to be a lot simpler for my audience. What would be the best way to present statistics? (The complex charts on the screen in front of the classroom just aren’t doing it for me.) On the rare occasion when my mind stops demanding answers to all these questions, I smile at how nice it is to just sit and passively learn something for two hours. I can hardly remember the last time I sat still and kept my mouth shut for this long.

After class I walk slowly home through Washington Heights, past the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated (now home to a biotech facility), past bodegas and flower shops, past children on bicycles, past Boricua College and the majestic cathedral of Intercession Church, past entrepreneurs who’ve spread their wares — clothing and books, jewelry and toys — on blankets on the sidewalk and are calling out to me in Spanish, “Mira, no vas a encontrar un precio mas mejor.” I decline their challenge to bargain-hunt and keep walking.

The view from the apartment of one of the residents we’re working with.

Photo: Swati Prakash.

When I get home I read through one of my favorite manuals: “Organizing for Social Change,” published by the Midwest Academy. This evening I’m attending a meeting of the tenants association in East Harlem; this is the group I mentioned yesterday that is organizing to get a Department of Sanitation garbage truck depot out of their backyard. Lest you think this is just another “Not In My Backyard” attempt to displace an unwanted land use to “anywhere but here,” take a look at what I mean by “backyard.” There are 20 garbage trucks lined up 15 feet from people’s apartments, and another 10 lined up on the street, in front of a hospital and across the street from a junior high school (which, ironically, also houses the High School for Environmental Studies). When the trucks start up at 4 a.m., nearby residents are treated to an extra early wake-up call of revving engines and clouds of toxic diesel fumes. When the trucks return in the evenings they are often not completely emptied of trash, creating a haven for rats and other pests. The residents have repeatedly asked for help from the Department of Sanitation, and questioned the legality of placing garbage trucks so close to residences. After two years of getting the runaround from the officials in charge, the people who live here are ready to step up their efforts through more concerted organizing and, if necessary, legal action.

This is the heart of environmental racism: the placement of noxious facilities in low-income communities and communities of color. One can speculate as to how such facilities end up in these communities — whether it’s subconscious racism on the part of planners and facility owners, whether it’s the explicit desire to site such facilities in areas where residents are least likely to protest, or whether it’s some complex combination of economic factors like land value. Whatever the causes may be, the way I feel about it is that there’s no way you’d ever see garbage trucks this close to an apartment building in a middle-class white neighborhood. East Harlem is one of the last communities that needs diesel facilities. It has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country, with a childhood asthma hospitalization rate of 28.8 per 1,000 children in 1997, compared to a nationwide average of 3.7 per 1,000. I’ve been amassing scientific literature on the association between exposure to diesel exhaust and asthma exacerbation, and there is no doubt in my mind that diesel exhaust is a terrible thing for people with asthma, especially children.