New Orleans Agenda
Five Black female environmental justice activists leading the way to oppose new Fossil Fuel Projects that threaten Louisiana communities’ health and livelihoods came together for a storytelling event during ESSENCE Festival.
The event included speakers Dr. Beverly Wright, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and Member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council; Wawa Gatheru, Founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Roishetta Sibley Ozane, Founder of The Vessel Project of Louisiana; Shamyra Lavigne, Executive Assistant at Rise St. James; Jo Banner, Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Descendants Project; Dr. Joy Banner, Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Descendants Project.
Speakers shared reactions to the Environmental Justice Protection Agency’s (EPA)’s decision earlier this week to drop the Civil Rights Investigation into Louisiana pollution without providing support or relief to the community. In January 2022, Earthjustice filed a complaint on behalf of affected residents asking the EPA to investigate whether the State of Louisiana had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by permitting industrial development that exposed its Black residents to disproportionate environmental harm.
“We’d been out here fighting so hard for so long, it felt good to have someone shouldering the burden with us, and it felt good to not be gaslit,” said Dr. Joy Banner. “After all of that fighting, they just abandoned us… but this pain is not something that’s foreign to us. We’re used to them making the most vulnerable do all the work.”
Dr. Banner touched on Vice President Kamala Harris and EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s appearance at ESSENCE Festival, despite not being present at the community event discussing EPA issues. “Why is Michael Regan not here listening to us?” asked Dr. Banner. “[He] owes us this much. I don’t care if it’s uncomfortable. Chemotherapy is uncomfortable.”
“We will keep fighting,” Dr. Banner continued. “[This decision] forces us to be creative. We are sharpening our claws and learning. Our ancestors were very resourceful.”
“They [industry] have kept people in Louisiana in the dark,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, Ph.D. “Louisiana is always first in line for the worst stuff, never the renewable solutions. It is my hope that the ship is about to change direction.”
Roishetta Sibley Ozane discussed what’s needed for Black Environmental Justice Advocates to feel supported in the oftentimes traumatic work of protecting their communities.
“Until we are supported, have the resources, and unrestricted funding that we don’t have to report on all the time because we are in the community every day. Until we have general operating budgets, support, and the understanding that my community hears my sirens everyday… until you can hear those sirens, don’t tell us what our community needs,” said Ozane. “Trust us when we tell you [what our community needs].”
“Every time we’re faced with a challenge, we sharpen our claws, we learn more, we collaborate. We’re getting stronger,” continued Ozane. “The Petrochemical Industry wants to poison the soil in the earth because we are so connected to it.”
Speaking on the expectations of Black women to constantly remain resilient while on the frontlines, Jo Banner stated, “We did not create this pollution problem, but here we are being the ones who have to stop it.”
Shamyra Lavigne shared a call to action from Rise St. James to stop the deadly build-out of DG Fuels and Air Products in Cancer Alley. “Twenty years from now, St. James will be a healthy place for our children,” said Lavigne. “We’re laying the grounds for that.”
To close out the event, New Orleans-based renowned spoken word artist Sunni Patterson wrote and shared a poem that encapsulated the event, touching on resistance, community, and the essence of liberation in the face of petrochemical violence.