Youth on Frontlines of Green Justice Struggles

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

Youth on Frontlines of Green Justice Struggles

by
Bankole Thompson

DETROIT - The committed
determination of young people in the environmental justice movement is
emerging as a highlight of the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, which opened in
Detroit this week with some 20,000 activists meeting in 'Motor City' to
network and share their visions for social change.

On Wednesday, a group
of youth activists from San Francisco described their ongoing fight
against pollution in minority communities and efforts to resist
multinational corporations that are using communities of colour as dump
sites for toxic waste.

"Pollution
Has No Borders: Black, Chinese and Latino Youth Organising for
Environmental Justice in San Francisco" was the theme of the workshop
that spotlighted the west coast city's environmental issues as a
national concern.

"In the Bayview district where minorities
live, they are targeted the most with pollution and many of the people
who live there don't even know it," said 18-year-old Ingried Seyundo, a
youth organiser with People Organising to Demand Environmental and
Economic Rights (PODER).

"Big corporations with power plants are
polluting minority districts and little kids are getting sick, mostly
with cancer, [while other problems include] heart attack and high blood
pressure," Seyundo said.

The situation is evocative of the
notorious "cancer alley" in the U.S. South, where an 85-mile stretch of
the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is home to
some 140 companies that produce a quarter of the petrochemical products
manufactured in the United States. In 1993, a federal commission found
that the industry had a disproportionate impact on the area's minority
residents.

Now, five communities in San Francisco – Bayview
Hunter's Point, Portola, Excelsior, Visitation Valley and Mission – are
in the eye of another environmental battle, in large part because they
are heavily populated with working-class people of colour, activists
charge.

"It is important for us to educate ourselves about these
environmental issues. You don't have to be living in an unbearable
condition and not raising your voice," said 18- year-old Tiffany Ng of
the Common Roots Programme of the Chinese Progressive Association of
San Francisco (CPAS).

Ng said her group develops cross-cultural
solidarity, deepens young people's understanding of the social and
political issues facing their community and enhances their leadership
skills.

After a long fight, Ingried said the community
successfully demanded truck routes through their residential
neighbourhoods that featured hybrid buses and trucks with less
environmental impact, instead of those with diesel fuel.

"We
campaigned against trucks running in residential areas," Ng said. "We
created truck routes that now allow these trucks to drive away from
places where there are lots of children, like schools, and also where
the elderly live."

Loreen Dangerfield, 15, with People Organised
to Win Environmental Rights (POWER), said at issue right now is the
building of condominiums on a toxic site by Lennar Corporation, a
Florida-based housing redevelopment company. According to the young
activists, the site is on the Hunters Point Naval shipyard where the
atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shipped from.

"The
shipyard itself is toxic and it's a landfill," Dangerfield said. "In
Miami, Lennar built houses on top of undetonated bombs and people
started getting sick."

Lennar wants to build 8,500 homes,
including some high-rise towers. The plans feature 300 acres of open
space, 80,000 square feet of retail and 150,000 square feet of office
space.

But first the youth organisers are demanding an
independent environmental impact report – one they say is not
manipulated to suit the interests of the developers but fully addresses
the health risks associated with building on toxic sites.

"We don't want Lennar to build the condominiums. They bought the shipyard - 700 acres - for a dollar," Dangerfield said.

Lennar
has been digging into asbestos-rich serpentine rock, the young people
said, sending up plumes of carcinogenic dust near residential areas and
schools.

Ingreid said the Bay Area Quality Management District
has been under pressure to monitor Lennar. BAAQMD voted to fine the
firm for not properly monitoring toxicity levels emerging from its
massive construction of the condominiums.

California law
requires the redevelopment company to monitor toxins and inform
residents when asbestos reaches a dangerous level, but community
members were kept in the dark, according to the youth activists.

Teresa
Almaguer, youth programme coordinator for PODER, said it was important
to share the environmental justice concerns of San Francisco's poor
neighbourhoods with other activists at the U.S. Social Forum.

"What
is taking place in San Francisco is happening all over the world.
Environmental racism is institutionalised," Almaguer said. "It's
decisions being made all over by planning departments in cities across
the nation. We want to stress the importance of building because we are
all equally getting sick."

Almaguer said working class families
are being displaced by gentrification in San Francisco because they
would never be able to afford the cost of condominiums in addition to
the environmental threats arising from such developments.

"As we
are fighting to create safe and healthy neighbourhoods, we are being
displaced. This is a global issue," Almaguer said. "We also want to
bring attention to Lennar. We need to struggle and work together
because we can accomplish big things."

Even though not all
members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors are supporting their
push, Almaguer said they are holding elected officials accountable by
issuing a report card on their environmental stance.

Sandar
Sebastian from New York who is attending the weeklong forum in Detroit
told IPS she was impressed to observe the energy and knowledge the San
Francisco youth showed at the workshop to educate their fellow young
people from all around the country.

"I think it is really
powerful to find young people who are so engaged with this kind of
analysis of environmental justice and linking environmental racism to
the impact on their daily lives," Sebastian said.

She added that their struggle amplifies how "racist policies threaten the daily lives of people in low-income communities".

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