After spending a week engaging in service and educational opportunities around the topic of environmental discrimination in New Orleans, I feel confident in saying that the Louisiana Bucket Brigade is doing phenomenal work. In fact, I believe LABB represents what an environmental organization should be; one that provides tools and support for communities to empower themselves and work towards change based on the strengths of the collective group.
When I first decided to contact LABB about service opportunities for our group of 11 from Warren Wilson College, I was unsure what to expect. However, after our arrival I quickly realized that not only is the Bucket Brigade a leader in environmental justice, but they are also strong leaders in educating others on such issues. Two staff that we worked closely with, Jay and EvanMarie, showed a clear understanding of what our group learning outcomes were and went above and beyond to help us see a variety of different sides to issues of pollution and social justice. Their efforts to organize a meeting with representatives from the US Coast Guard, EPA and LDEQ, as well as to introduce us to a variety of fence-line communities at different levels of chemical exposure and community activism, showed the Bucket Brigade’s dedication to educating others from an honest and holistic standpoint.
We started our service off by visiting two very different neighborhoods bordering the Sun Drilling Chemical Plant in Belle Chasse. While going door-to-door explaining the iWitness Pollution Map, we learned first hand accounts of residents who were evacuated from a dangerous benzene spill in August. I was amazed to see the differing amounts of information community members knew about the pollution from the plant and its effects on themselves and their neighbors. One woman in a more affluent neighborhood who was not evacuated by the spill told me that the accident was “not a big deal” and that everything was fine. What she didn’t realize—or failed to mention—was that her neighbor down the street was still recovering from severe burns from the chemical exposure over two months ago.
This visit was then juxtaposed with a trip to Baton Rouge where the effects of Exxon Mobil’s massive refinery were pervasive throughout almost every community. We volunteered with the Louisiana Democracy Project and Pray For Our Air to help advertise a community meeting about a disastrous chemical spill from the refinery in June. Despite the fact that so many residents I spoke to suffered from health problems and poverty from living in such close proximity to the refinery, nearly everyone was interested in attending the meeting and educating themselves on how to protect their rights. This was perhaps one of the most inspiring aspects of our visit—to hear that communities who on the surface would appear to be hopelessly beaten by an oppressive corporation were still willing and able to stand up and continue to fight for their rights and the rights of the community.
On our final day we visited Norco, and our group witnessed our first illegal flare. This felt oddly ceremonious after hearing so many accounts of unreported flares lighting up the sky. As we drove past abandoned lots of houses destroyed by explosions from the refineries, I began to feel overwhelmed by the shear force and power such companies hold over communities. It’s hard to accept that we’ve allowed our society to value profit over people—that the desires of a company overrule the needs of a community.
But despite the seemingly insurmountable problem of environmental discrimination, our group left New Orleans incredibly hopeful that the power of community voices with the support of the Bucket Brigade could prevail in providing justice for fence-line communities. As one group member stated, “Working with LABB was one of the most informal and meaningful service opportunities I’ve engaged in. Those at the Bucket Brigade did an excellent job of informing us about the issues at hand and then giving a [thorough] explanation as to the work they do. When we were out in the field we had a variety of experiences which gave us a deeper understanding of the many reasons for the continuation of environmental discrimination and the experiences that the surrounding community members have.”
Another group member agreed, explaining, “I have to say that I was very impressed with my experience at LABB. This is, by far, the most organized and effective non-profit that I have ever worked with. My time with LABB not only educated me on an important environmental and social issue, but it also taught me how to effectively engage with community members. I will be bringing the stories I heard and everything I learned back to NC, as well as a better sense of how to work with my own community on our local environmental/social issues.” Our group had such an informative and positive experience working with the Bucket Brigade and we hope to continue a relationship between them and Warren Wilson College for many years.