As an organizer who is relatively new to the issue of environmental justice, it has been very enlightening to hear the experiences of community members.
Sonyja Thomas, community activist and member of the grassroots group Community Empowerment for Change in Baton Rouge’s Istrouma neighborhood, told her story during one of our Advisory Council meetings. She’d simply been pumping gas at an Exxon gas station. The pump broke, spewing gas all over her. She consulted a local Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor the next day because she began to experience respiratory problems, as well as sores inside her nose. The physician advised that her “respiratory problems are common in Louisiana” and that “nothing was wrong” with her.
Quite naturally, she thought that was odd. How does someone get gasoline all over their body and have the misfortune of inhaling its fumes for an extended period of time (something clearly unhealthy) but not undergo any complications as a result? How could her symptoms be common, incidental, and have nothing to do with the gas spill?
This didn’t sound feasible, and it wasn’t.
She soon found out that the physician had stock in Exxon and had no interest in properly diagnosing her worsening condition. She had to rely on an out-of-state physician to determine that the gasoline had damaged the protective layer of her sinuses. In later months, she would have to take medication to avoid infection, she broke out in hives, had ongoing headaches, her toe nails turned black, her toes often went numb, and the sores in her sinuses continued. For approximately a decade she battled in belaboring legal negotiations. She endured but could not help becoming disillusioned with physicians and other service providers as they continuously decided their vested interest was not in her health and welfare but in Exxon.
It was at that moment of her testimony that I understood something which had puzzled me weeks before. We were discussing outreach to community stakeholders for the Istrouma Health Partnership. The partnership is a community based research project seeking to explore the health implications of exposure to environmental waste in the Istrouma area. It’s about public health, so the natural inclination was to suggest reaching out to physicians.
“No,” Sonyja had said, and now I get it.
I understand that her trust, as well as the trust of others near her, has been shattered by the physicians she’s encountered in her past experience. They had either been bought, frightened or pacified by big industry. Efforts to reach out again feel futile and pointless. Indeed, a few of the other community stakeholders we reached out to for the partnership proved to be a disappointment for the same reasons.
Similarly, as LABB began fundraising for the Istrouma Health Project and looking for local health professionals and public health academics in the state to join the partnership, they were turned away. Many of these schools were at the time studying the oil spill with funding from BP; many were already receiving funding from other oil companies. LABB had to go to UNC-Chapel Hill to find a school program willing to participate and offer resources.
Such disappointment can cause efforts at organizing to seem daunting and even lonesome. This is especially upsetting for a community that lies on the fenceline of the largest polluter in the state. Sonyja and her neighbors suffer every day from chemical exposure, but they are worried about reaching out for help.
A person must possess something powerful on the inside to press forward the way Sonyja and other activists do. They refuse to let their vested interest compromise what is best for members of the community, and it is a testament to their tremendous courage and determination. I am awe and am grateful to work alongside such warriors.