Swati Prakash, West Harlem Environmental Action
Thursday, 4 Oct 2001
NEW YORK, N.Y.
This morning I feel like I’ve inadvertently stumbled into some bizarre Three Stooges episode. The refrain echoing in my mind all morning is more coffee, but when I get to work and open the fridge to drop off my lunch, I’m greeted with a pool of water at the bottom. Somehow, the fridge mysteriously decided to defrost itself overnight. After I clean it out with help from a co-worker, I realize there’s no water left in the cooler to make coffee. By the time I replace the empty bottle with a new one from our other office down the hall, I forgot why I needed the water in the first place. It’s 10:30 before I finally get my coffee and get settled in. Maybe this is a sign that I should try to take it easy today.
Along with getting a cup of coffee, my other challenge for this morning is figuring out my travel schedule for next month. I need to be in Los Angeles during the second week of November to help teach an air pollution curriculum developed jointly by WE ACT and the University of Southern California (I referred to this on Tuesday). But I also need to be in Detroit for three days right in the middle of that week for a U.S. EPA Air Toxics workshop. I get on the phone with a colleague at USC and we finally work out a plan that will enable me to get to L.A. by Friday of that week. We decide to spend that day on a class field trip in which the students take a “toxic tour” of point and mobile sources of air pollution in the community and conduct air monitoring with hand-held monitors. I offer to teach my portion of the curriculum during that field trip. By then our own youth program, the Earth Crew, will have completed some of the same curriculum, so I can share our experiences with the youth group in Los Angeles.
Our two communities, Harlem and East L.A., have partnered on this grant because both areas are heavily burdened with diesel exhaust, other sources of particulate air pollution, and traffic noise. Our youth group has also conducted related air monitoring projects in the past, including one in which they measured fine particulate and black carbon concentrations at four intersections in Harlem and compared the results to concurrent traffic c
ounts. The results of this study were written up in both Environmental Health Perspectives and The Uptown Eye, a community newspaper published by WE ACT.
This trip to Los Angeles will also include an opportunity to talk to a national gathering of female state legislators about promoting safe environments for children. Although I feel a little intimidated at the prospect of addressing such a group, I know it’s a great opportunity to encourage legislators from all over the country to pursue state-level policy initiatives that improve children’s environmental health and seek to eradicate the special environmental risks faced by low-income children and children of color. It’s also a good opportunity for me to get out of the niches I feel most comfortable in — air pollution and environmental health sciences, and community organizing — and become more active in WE ACT’s other major mission, to promote environmental justice through political advocacy.
Last night’s meeting with the tenants association was great. We finalized the details for the community forum we’re planning for later this month, which will address environmental health concerns related to the garbage truck depot behind residents’ apartments. At the last meeting, we’d decided to start a postcard campaign — blitzing a specific official with a pre-printed postcard demanding that the truck depot be closed down — and last night we decided to have residents who attend the community forum sign the postcards on the spot. We look through some photos of the depot and pick one to make into the postcard. Then I write as the group brainstorms what they want to say in the postcard. We debate potential slogans to print on the front of the postcard, discarding “Your trucks got us all choked up,” and “What if this was your backyard,” and finally settling on “Your trucks are destroying our children’s health.”
We then discuss when would be the best time for me to do a training on community organizing for the association. Actually, I feel a little awkward when I hear myself saying, “I can give a quick training on community organizing.” Throughout these meetings, it’s been challenging to figure out the best role for me to play. How does WE ACT strike the balance between helping this tenants association solve one particular problem, and helping build the association’s own capacity to solve local problems? I envision taking the group through a training that will enable them to develop a comprehensive organizing strategy — identifying goals, potential allies, and obstacles, and then developing several tactics and tools to accomplish their objectives. The law is one potential tool, science is another, and media is a third important tactic. And if all else fails, direct action may become the last option.
Yesterday afternoon WE ACT held a staff meeting to discuss another community forum we are organizing later this month, this one about concerns in Harlem over the World Trade Center tragedy. We identified potential speakers to address four topics: emergency responses and resources for families of victims; dealing with psychological trauma; environmental health issues; and long-term political and economic implications. For a while we get bogged down in a discussion of whether to include a speaker to address backlash against Muslims and people of Arab descent. Finally we decide to accept the fact that this forum can’t address every issue that’s come up since the disaster. Instead, we agree to provide written materials and invite relevant experts to attend and answer questions if they arise. But we decide we probably will need to find a speaker to address the threat of bio-terrorism, particularly with respect to the water supply and ambient air. Suddenly this is starting to feel like a heavy-duty undertaking.
Besides the content of the forum, there are so many logistics we need to cover in order to pull off this event: providing food, securing child care on the premises, and setting up a simultaneous English-to-Spanish translation system, to name a few. I can feel the worry gathering in my shoulders; those are a lot of difficult details to pull off in a short time, on no real budget, while we’ve got plenty of other projects going on. Furthermore, as an organization we’ve struggled over how and whether to organize this forum. Our mission, after all, is to promote environmental health and justice. Although the forum will address environmental health concerns, particularly for people who work downtown, its theme is much broader. But it feels awkward to address other environmental issues in this climate, when so many people’s minds are on the attacks and their aftermath. It’s true that we have an environmental focus, but we are also a community-based organization and feel obliged to respond to community needs arising from the recent crisis. And we all agree that it will be good to contribute to restoring some comfort and security to our still-shaken community.