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Civil rights and environment: GR conference to tackle what racism means for health

Jacqui Patterson

People of color are dying, or sickened, for reasons that are completely preventable by addressing racism and racial disparities. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s fifth annual Women and the Environment Symposium will tackle these issues in an attempt to create more environmentally just communities.
When policymakers approach the environment, they don’t tend think of it as a civil rights issue. But, as people of color die, or are sickened, for reasons that are completely preventable by addressing racism and racial disparities, it's more than evident that it is a matter of civil rights — and it's time that everyone from political leaders to local activists take a hard look at this, Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, says.

“Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-powered plant,” says Patterson, who works around the globe to advocate for more just environmental policy and programs and who will be the key speaker at the Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s fifth annual Women and the Environment Symposium on February 24. “That leads to high rates of asthma, exposure to lead, heart disease, birth defects.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental problems, with unregulated industry and political disenfranchisement leading to individuals across the country dying or becoming chronically ill due to exposure to toxins from coal fired power plants and other facilities, breathing in toxic ash from blasting for mountaintop removal, and living in food deserts — meaning it is often far easier to find a bag of chips, or other unhealthy items, than fresh fruit and vegetables, and this is only exacerbated as drought and flooding impacts the availability and affordability of healthy food.

Here in Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute reports that, in 2015, there were numerous racial disparities when it comes to the health of Kent County residents, with more black residents suffering from asthma, diabetes and depression than white individuals in the area. Black people are also  more likely to die from heart disease, prostate cancer and stroke than those who are white in the county. (To see the full report, you can go here.)

While there are various factors to take into account when it comes to these health issues, environment certainly is one of them, with minority communities facing air pollution, lead exposure, and more. According to the most recent data from the Michigan Department of Community Health, Grand Rapids' 49503 and 49507 zip codes have the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newago, and Ottawa counties — rates that are higher than nearly twice the West Michigan average. These zip codes include neighborhoods where there are large communities of African American and Hispanic residents and are areas where air pollution, in part from traffic from the nearby highways, and exposure to lead in older homes are widespread problems. Poor air quality, as well as lead exposure, go hand in hand with high asthma rates.

During her speech at the Grand Rapids symposium, Patterson will address this systemic failure to protect minority communities, particularly when it comes to health and the environment — something she notes is especially evident in Flint, where essentially an entire city, including the area's many people of color, has been poisoned after being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their tap water.

“Flint is really a coming-together of all these different issues that we work on, whether it’s unregulated industry that’s resulted in the pollution of waterways, political disenfranchisement, and all the failures along the way,” says Patterson, who, along with other members of the NAACP, have been working on the ground in Flint to address everything from replacing the water pipes to ensuring information about health issues is reaching everyone, including residents with low literacy skills.

During the February 24 event, Patterson will be joined by numerous other women who are making instrumental environmental and social change at a local and national level, including Lee Ann Walters, a mother from Flint who has long worked to publicize the city’s water crisis. The event's focus is women in leadership, with two presentations: one on faith and environment and another on diversity inclusion efforts in the environmental movement in Michigan.

"Women 's leadership has been quintessential for the environmental movement,” says Rachel Hood, executive director of the WMEAC, a nonprofit dedicated to building sustainable communities and protecting water resources in West Michigan, with an emphasis on the Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon metropolitan areas.

“Each year the symposium peels back another layer of perspective on the intersections of justice, climate resiliency and resource protection,” Hood continues. “Our symposium cultivates leaders and their ideas and approaches to environmental justice issues in West Michigan. This year we'll inspire more leaders to find and grow their space in the environmental movement and to commit to action for a more environmentally just West Michigan."

Other panelists will include: Johannah Jelks, the marketing manager of She Rides Her Own Way, a campaign that aims to empower a diverse group of women with awareness of health and social justice issues; Cle Jackson, the Grand Rapids district NAACP President; Margarita Solis-Deal, of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids; and others. To see the entire list of panelists, you can go here.

As part of the symposium,  the WMEAC, Patterson and the other speakers are aiming to prompt real change by increasing knowledge about environmental justice and related issues, better developing connections between people who care about the environment, and providing tools to empower West Michiganders to take action to influence and change environmental policy.

What, exactly, needs to happen to see the kind of change that panelists will discuss? Well, there’s a lot — but the good news is, there’s plenty of ways for individuals to make it happen, Patterson says.

“You can join your local NAACP or other groups, and if a group is working on racial justice but hasn’t taken up environmental issues, you can offer to facilitate a committee on that,” she says.

Additionally, Patterson says more women- and minority-owned businesses need to be involved in community redevelopment, and more women and people of color need to have access to, and be supported in, leadership positions, including in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math education — fields. That way, when environmental, or environmentally-related, programs are being designed and rolled out, people of color and women will both be considered and represented.

“We know that some of these environmental problems disproportionately impact women,” she explains. “Women who are pregnant are exposed to mercury, and that’s related to birth defects; mercury comes from coal-powered plants… Women disproportionately face violence in disaster, from domestic violence to sexual violence. We know after Hurricane Katrina, women were sexually assaulted; women were sexually assaulted after the earthquake in Haiti. You find a spike in sexual violence after disasters.”

For girls and women who are interested in creating systemic change when it comes to race, gender and the environment, Patterson says to follow your heart — even if that means consistently having to stand up to a room full of men.

“I was never geared towards science or math, that was never close to what I was looking at,” Patterson says. “Originally, I was doing special education. I was in Jamaica, where I was teaching sign language to three-year-olds and their mothers. There had been an outbreak of rubella, and all these three-year-olds were deaf. That’s how I got into public health.”

“The passion you have is what’s most important,” she continues. “I went to school for social work and public health, and it was all led by a passion that got me to where I am now.”

The West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s fifth annual 
Women and the Environment Symposium will be held from 2-8pm on February 24 at Grand Valley State University Pew Campus’s Loosemore Auditorium. To find out more about the WMEAC symposium, and to purchase tickets, you can go here. To learn more about Patterson and the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, please go here.
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