AERA 2010 Environmental Justice Tour (reflection)


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We were asked to write a reflection after a tour of three neighborhoods in Denver.

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AERA 2010 Environmental Justice Tour (reflection)

  1. 1. Acres of White Privilege: Reflection on Environmental Justice By Joelyn Katherine Foy Mike answered my question, “What is eco-apartheid?” He said, “It used to be called environmental racism or eco-racism. Now we call it eco-apartheid.” Hmm, I thought. I was aware of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) where Whites protest the location of a landfill close to middle class neighborhoods. But the “apartheid” got my attention. I have not visited South Africa, but I did study Apartheid in South Africa through the lens of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s writings because I wanted to understand the title of Jonathan Kozol’s book, “Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.” I will watch any film suggested about Reconciliation or during Apartheid itself. I was pleased that the film, “Invictus” educated moviegoers about some of the history leading up to the election of Nelson Mandela. But I was not prepared for what I saw today in Globeville. If I understood Mike, our tour guide, correctly, there are 6 Superfund sites in the three communities of Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria that we did not see today! But we saw at least one site (the smelter site, Sarco[sp?]) and many brownfields. Again, if I understood Mike correctly, everything we saw was within two miles of the center where we started out tour, a former church where Mike works as a community organizer. Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria used to be the garden district of Denver. Everyone came from miles around to purchase fresh produce. Today many of the houses are torn down, abandoned, replaced with junkyards, parking lots, and enlarged business footprints. The Interstate cuts each of these neighborhoods in half. I-70 effectively halves the political strength of each of these neighborhoods as well. Copyright  2010  Joelyn  Katherine  Foy;  permission  to  use  must  be  expressly  granted  
  2. 2. There have been some successes. The community center in Globeville where Mike works in the former German Congregational Church offers classes for pre-kindergarten, parents, and seniors. They do not use Head Start or Title I funds. Their funding comes from grants and community fundraising. On another street in Globeville there is a free clinic where anyone who does not have healthcare can get the care they need. There is an office and center for the community coalition (of which Mike is a part and helped create) where comprehensive social services are offered in Swansea. But there are no grocery stores in any of these neighborhoods. The closest grocery stores are 8 miles, 6 miles and 5 miles away. Although there are plans for community gardens, the Parks and Recreation Center in Elyria is closing due to lack of funds. This center has been in operation since 1948. Among all of the failures and the few successes, however, lies acres and acres of parking lot for the National Western Stock Show and the abandoned school bus lot where two mallard ducks were swimming in a big pool of water. “Well, at least they have a bird sanctuary!” This comment was related to the fact that one of the brownfields is supposedly clean enough for birds, but not for humans. I grew up in Houston. My mother took me to the fat stock show every February. It is the one after the National Western in Denver. Every year many girls and boys in rural America compete with each other to work their way competitively to the National Western in Denver, the American Royal in Kansas City, or the Fat Stock Show in Houston. Did I forget to mention that these girls and boys are all White? Oops. Very few children of color are involved in FFA or 4- H; in raising livestock, showing, and competing in preparation for the livestock shows every winter all over the country. Copyright  2010  Joelyn  Katherine  Foy;  permission  to  use  must  be  expressly  granted  
  3. 3. Therefore when we got to the parking lots which stand empty all year long except January, I was reminded of my childhood riding horses, hearing my mother’s stories of growing up on a ranch in South Texas, and my grandfather the bank President, the mercantile owner, and the rancher. I’ve always been proud of the grandfather I never met. According to my aunt Irene, my grandfather was the only White man in the county invited to the Juneteenth celebrations on the river. He took my mother with him. But when I saw those parking lots where the small houses and produce farms used to be; when I saw the dry dust of dirt that has lost its fertility; when I saw acres and acres of new buildings in the midst of these urban ghettos, all I could think was, “This is the landscape of White privilege.” For the city of Denver it makes more sense to have all of the dollars that the National Western Stock Show brings in for one month of the year than to spend dollars on the communities that used to feed all of Denver in the late 19th and early 20th century. It makes sense to allow one elementary school to house many more children in the shadow of I-70 than to build adequate schools. It made more sense until recently to bus children out of their neighborhoods to junior high and high school. And today it makes more sense to have one junior/senior high school for grades 6-12 than to make sure that Hispanic children are prepared for college. Today 85% of the population in Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria is Hispanic. During the late 19th and early 20th century the primary population was Eastern European. Similar demographic shifts have occurred in Kansas City, Kansas and for similar reasons. You can tell the story through the churches. I don’t know how many acres at the confluence of I-70 and I-25 are devoted to the National Western Stock Show buildings and parking lots, but it is a lot of acres devoted to White privilege for middle class to wealthy teenagers and their parents. The perpetuation of White Copyright  2010  Joelyn  Katherine  Foy;  permission  to  use  must  be  expressly  granted  
  4. 4. dominance in rural America is assured. What isn’t assured is that Denver cares even one iota for its communities of color that were the farmers and food producers of Denver’s early history. Apparently people of color in Denver are expendable. Cancer, respiratory illnesses, thyroid diseases abound from the combined health hazards of the Sarco (smelter), the oil refinery, and the coal plant. In addition, smaller businesses such as the rendering plant, the dog food manufacturer (Purina), and some guy who melts his own aluminum add to the story of toxic fumes, toxic waste released into the air, into the groundwater, and directly into the Platte River and Sand Creek which wind through these neighborhoods. I am appalled. I am angry. And I am not ignorant of the political meanings of these realities. Is writing a reflection enough? What will I do now? How will I turn this anger into activism? Are there similar neighborhoods where I live? I live in a very strongly working class university town. The entire town supports the university in some way or another. But Manhattan, Kansas has a population less than 50,000. We don’t have public transportation. That is how small we are. The buses in the neighborhoods of color in Denver run every 30 minutes during the peak hours and every hour during off-peak. The light rail additions will not include any of these neighborhoods. I am riding the light rail from south Denver to Downtown for the AERA convention only because the light rail connects one expensive hotel at the Denver Tech Center to many others downtown. I am a privileged White female from the South who had all of her educational and environmental needs met as a child and throughout most of my lifetime. Although I was able to purchase a home, it was taken from me during the mortgage crisis. Many residents of the communities of color in Denver own their own homes. Some of them were built by their grandparents, and they have lived in them their whole lives. Who is more economically Copyright  2010  Joelyn  Katherine  Foy;  permission  to  use  must  be  expressly  granted  
  5. 5. stable? I who lost my only home? Or the 90-year-old couples who have lived in Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria all of their lives? On my way out of Denver I took I-225 through Cherry Creek. As I searched for a breakfast restaurant while I-225 was a parking lot (early morning, going-to-work, bumper-to- bumper traffic), I drove through strip malls with many abandoned shops and restaurants. Cherry Creek is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Denver. I finally found a Subway, but the manager does not serve breakfast. However, he pointed me in the direction of one that does. I asked him, “So … how come all of these shops are closed? It looks like a Ghost Town here!” His reply confirmed my suspicions. Behind the privacy fences along Parker Road, are the abandoned houses of the upper middle class. Cherry Creek is just another neighborhood through which one drives to get to the one where you work or live. Again, I ask, which neighborhoods are more stable? Which neighborhoods are most likely to help their neighbor? In which neighborhoods will your neighbor help you get your child to school? In which neighborhood will you find care and comfort if you are ill? I am betting on Globeville, Swansea, and Elyria. Copyright  2010  Joelyn  Katherine  Foy;  permission  to  use  must  be  expressly  granted