Interviews for the Newest Addition of Common Ground

By Tyrone Chambers, LABB Community Organizer

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is pulling together data from various areas within our organization to release the next publication of Common Ground.  Common Ground IV will feature community voices from Baton Rouge and Norco.  Last week, Risha Bera and I traveled near and far to interview five people about each of their experiences living near a chemical plant or refinery.  Going through the motions of setting up, interviewing, breaking down, and reflecting with my colleague was perhaps the highlight of the collective endeavor.  Each session was so different and the experiences of each person interviewed were varied.

Our first interview was with JoAnn Gipson who lives directly across from the south gate of ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge.  A soft spoken, mild woman, she didn’t make a huge fuss about what Exxon and others are doing.  She simply wants to live in peace and safety and wishes the same for her son and grandson.  I sensed she was unaware of her own power and significance to change things and I wondered, how much of that is gradually and unnoticeably stripped away by entities bigger than she that act in a way which disregards the value of others.

Our second interview was done in downtown Baton Rouge amidst the high towering buildings, one of which was the LDEQ building.  Interviewing Tonga Nolan I knew there would be not one dull moment.  The current secretary of the Standard Heights Community Association was ready to go from the moment we sat down.  Ms. Nolan is a young woman with two daughters, a little brother her daughters’ age as well, who is committed to their happiness.  She, having grown up in earlier years in south Baton Rouge, really basked in the beauty and grandeur of downtown.  She misses it.  Ms. Nolan let us see a softer side to her strength as she pushed through her tears to continue the interview.  She conveyed to us with such clarity the mental and emotional damage living in constant pollution was doing.  She felt very hurt and upset about the way residents are ignored and disrespected while still holding fast to the knowledge that she is deserving of better and is worth more than the actions of big business may suggest.

We interviewed our last Standard Heights resident in New Orleans’ beautiful City Park Sculpture Garden.  Mr. John Barlow, a man of few words, so we thought, turned out to be full of charm, personality, and subtle wit.  Minutes into the interview we were all weak and teary-eyed from laughter.  A welcomed contrast from the two preceding interviews.  A former plant worker, Barlow has a familiarity with certain odors but not a high tolerance for excessive pollution.  He stopped working at the plant when it began to affect him physically.  Mr. Barlow lives in a formerly drug and crime ridden area of town which unfortunately has not outlived its bad name.  To put it colloquially, ‘he took us to school’ on the way his 6 by 2 block neighborhood got it name from police officers who would at anytime necessary would lock down the neighborhood.  Because of the way it is situated and mapped out as a grid, lock down was easy to achieve.  No one got in, no one got out.  Barlow made the connection between these events and lack of communication from ExxonMobil regarding accidents, safety, etc.

Saturday afternoon, I drove out to Norco, LA which is only 30 minutes away to see Mr. Aaron Brown and Mr. Calvin Smith.  Brown is the brother of LABB’s community liaison Iris Brown-Carter.  These gentlemen talked about how wonderful a neighborhood they have.  It’s peaceful, quiet, very safe, and does not flood.  Why would anyone want to move away from such a place?  Smith says that Motiva (formerly New Orleans Refining Company) must want what’s under the land and is the reason they’ve successfully schemed lots of people away.  We sat in Brown’s backyard and I couldn’t count 15 houses in view.  We sat on Diamond Road surrounded by trees the size of a Philistine, the greenest blades of grass, and beautiful, spacious sky.  Mr. Brown had to leave the interview early while Smith wrapped up with me, but before he left he too expressed his main concern which was a lack of communication.  He said that they are always last to know when something happens if they even find out.

The overarching theme of these fives voices is that they are happy with their neighborhoods.  They are happy with their lives inspite of the surroundings.  They just really would like the plants and refineries to respect them enough to be up front, open, communicative, and responsible for what they do.

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