Social Activism and the Power of Connection

By Ashley Dimen ‘21 and Rhianna Lewis ‘22

It’s no secret that widespread activism is the catalyst for all types of social change, but what many don’t realize is that movements seeking justice are all interconnected. Environmentalism has been a topic of discussion for many years and has more recently gained momentum due to the younger generations' concern for the planet and future. Likewise, civil rights movements like the Black Lives Matter movement have been at the forefront of the news due to the focus on systemic racism and inequality in the United States. When advocating for one or both of these movements, you can’t help but see the parallels between the two. While climate change is a global issue, we cannot ignore the fact that the groups most affected by environmental issues are black, indigenous, and peoples of color (BIPOC). Because of the environmental disparities BIPOC face on a day to day basis, we must embrace the intersectionality of environmental activism and tune into accounts of people from all walks of life. Young activists from around the world are speaking out against the issues, both social and environmental, that people face every day and we must continue following in their footsteps. 

An example of successful environmental activism is the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline was started in 2016 to transfer crude oil around the upper midwest United States and runs directly through the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sacred lands as well as multiple poverty-stricken areas. As more coverage was given to this unsafe and unethical build, thousands of diverse supporters peacefully protested the pipeline and blocked off areas that needed to be built. Over 400 arrests were made by officers clad in heavy riot gear, a scene not unlike the recent civil rights protests. Even though the protests at the pipeline site took place over three years ago, they were proven effective on July 6, 2020 when a federal judge ruled that the pipeline must be shut down immediately pending an environmental safety review. A slow but steady process, this ruling was a huge success for environmentalists as well as Indigenous peoples everywhere and demonstrates the impact activism has on making positive change.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is one of many examples where BIPOC are disproportionately affected by pollution. Another stark example is an 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi River referred to as “Cancer Alley.”  Once farms and plantations where generations of Black families have made their homes, this area is now flooded with industrial chemical plants. While the individual chemical plants each pass inspections and construction requirements, these multiple chemical plants have negatively impacted both the environment and the people.  In the town of St. John the Baptist Parish, the air and water are polluted to the point that chemicals released into the air by the facilities look “like raindrops but yellow.”  The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has demonstrated that respiratory illness brought on by chemicals in plants exacerbates novel coronavirus symptoms making the area 1 of 20 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita death rates from the coronavirus. RISE St. James is a community organization devoted to fighting the influx of chemical plants and protecting the rights of the citizens. Together, this group has sought out support and action from local colleges and universities and participated in the Global Climate Strikes. Other organizations like the Sierra Club and Extinction Rebellion are turning their attention and support to RISE St. James.

Being an activist does not always mean being on the front lines protesting; that is just one way to help spread awareness and make changes. Another way to take charge is to look at the environment around you and think deeply about what you find. While you may find that you should participate in the reclamation of a bay’s ecosystem or plant trees at your home or in your community, these grass-roots activities are important as we think of those that are affecting the environment and those affected by the environment. Social issues are rooted together with environmental issues and require an intersectional solution. The Climate Science and Sustainability program at Wyoming Seminary will continue to highlight and promote student activism; this work is essential and is urgent. For more information or to become more involved, please contact the authors of this article, Mrs. Lewis (nlewis@wyomingseminary.org) or Mrs. Bartron (rbartron@wyomingseminary.org).

References

Fortin, J., & Friedman, L. (2020, July 6). Dakota access pipeline to shut down pending review, Federal Judge rules. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/us/dakota-access-pipeline.html

Juhasz, A. (2019, October 30). Louisiana's 'Cancer Alley' is getting even more toxic - but residents are fighting back. RollingStone. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/louisiana-cancer-alley-getting-more-toxic-905534/

Lee, T. (2020, April 23). First pollution, now coronavirus: Black parish in Louisiana deals with 'a double whammy' of death. NBC News. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/podcast/into-america/first-pollution-now-coronavirus-black-parish-louisiana-deals-double-whammy-n1189951?icid=related

Levin, S. (2016, November 3). Dakota Access pipeline: the who, what and why of the Standing Rock protests. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/03/north-dakota-access-oil-pipeline-protests-explainer

Tabuchi, H., & Plumer, B. (2020, July 8). Is this the end of new pipelines? New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/climate/dakota-access-keystone-atlantic-pipelines.html