Obstacles in organizing: Some people don’t want to know what’s polluting their communities and their children

Dawn Collins is a community organizer for LABB in the Baton Rouge community of Istrouma, just outside ExxonMobil Baton Rouge.

He threatened her job, and so I leave them both anonymous – Mr. Anonymous and Ms. Anonymous, who both provide services to children in Baton Rouge’s Istrouma community (outside the cluster of petrochemical facilities including ExxonMobil, the second largest refinery in the country). His stated fear to her was that she may “frighten families in the community” by partnering with activists, including LABB, in their research to determine the health impacts of the environmental pollution the children are exposed to daily.

Children bike through a nearly empty neighborhood along the edge of ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge refinery. The facility bought out many properties on its fenceline. Photo by Monique Verdin

That families are not already frightened is the more genuine concern.

Reports have already been released, and it is disturbing that a nationally acclaimed news source like USA Today has revealed the level of toxins in Istrouma are among the highest in the nation. Yet, local stakeholders are not driven to act. It is additionally alarming that the same article reported that of the almost 2,000 schools researched, the schools that ranked in the 1st percentile with the highest levels of exposure to pollutants are those right there in the same community. Such a reality should not only be frightening, it should effectively piss people off. More importantly, it should infuriate Mr. Anonymous in his professional capacity as a community servant to protect the safety of the children he is charged to serve.

But it didn’t, and I don’t know how he slept that night.

I don’t mean that in the way the cliché is commonly intended. I genuinely mean that I don’t know how Mr. Anonymous slept that night. Unlike some of the communities he serves, maybe his home is far removed from those immediately adjacent to these toxic facilities where people go to sleep each night “ready to roll” in case of an explosion, as one community member told us. Does that allow him to assume he is immune and, therefore, he personally experiences no sense of urgency? Or maybe he does. I mean maybe, just maybe, he had behaved in the manner he felt he must in that moment. Mr. Anonymous may feel he acted to protect his job, but at home in silence with his head to his pillow and his heart to God, maybe it crushed him. Maybe, it crushed him as much as it crushed Ms. Anonymous when he reminded her just how much she liked her job.

I know this is wishful thinking.

As an organizer, I reach out to community members and power brokers. I have to gauge what their reaction will be. Will they act in fear? If they react in fear, will it be the fear that provokes one to hide their head in the sand or the fear that invokes a passion for justice? After all, whether or not one lives adjacent to a facility that emits environmental waste does not mean they are not affected by the pollutants. Didn’t Baton Rouge residents recently inhale smoke fumes from a marsh fire all the way in New Orleans for several days this past week? Why would the travel of pollutants be any different?

Perhaps, the real problem is one’s ability to believe in their own immunity of such environmental injustices. Perhaps, the real problem is that in failing to understand we truly must be “our brother’s keeper,” we forget that we ARE our brother. We are one.

Ms. Anonymous likes her job. Like most people, she needs her job. She will do what she must to keep it. It is unfortunate that she recognized the inherent gift that all people possess the ability to amass power for the protection of their families and for the betterment of their neighbors, but she was still stifled. Mr. Anonymous was more concerned about worrying parents than assisting researchers who sought to improve community health. His threat to her, though he spoke with the most pleasant smile, was very effective. Ms. Anonymous wanted to keep her job, so she agreed with him and is now silent. But the fight continues.

Others will speak. Not just for Istrouma, but for us all.

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This entry was posted in Istrouma Community, Oil Refineries, Public Health. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Obstacles in organizing: Some people don’t want to know what’s polluting their communities and their children

  1. louisiana citizen says:

    which State agency was this?

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