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Environmental justice advocate aids in remediation efforts following oil spill disaster in Gulf of Mexico
Story by Nick Marinello; photo by Patrick Semansky
Credits Wrote seminal paper of environmental justice movement, “Politics of Poverty”; Apples of her eye Her two daughters, Danielle, who lives in New Orleans and Brigette, who lives in Atlanta; Honors 2009 Heinz Award for her work on behalf of minority communities; Bio Born in the 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. Still remembers junior high civics class in which she learned, “Democracy requires an educated populace”; Favorite dish to serve guests at her home Barbecued shrimp
From Love Canal to the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Beverly Wright, PhD ’77 & MA ’71, has been witness to myriad environmental disasters in the course of a career committed to connecting the dots between environmental hazards, social justice, community activism and education.
“When we first started talking about environmental justice, it was a hard thing for people to grasp,” says Wright, who is director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in her hometown of New Orleans, La. “That environmental racism and policy can actually impact the air you breathe and make it more dangerous than the air where other people live is kind of hard to wrap your arms around.”
Wright, whose focus at UB was environmental sociology, first began tackling the issues of environmental justice in the late 1970s, while studying under her lead UB professor Adeline Levine, who was instrumental in making the first industrial pollution case study at Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that was built atop a toxic waste site.
It wasn’t until a decade later that she and a cadre of other African-American sociologists began seeing that such cases were not only not isolated but revealed a pattern of poor, black communities being situated in or adjacent to environmentally hazardous areas. Working at Xavier University in New Orleans, Wright began developing a system to track the demographics of a heavily industrialized area along the Mississippi.
“I was astonished to find out that the people who lived closest to the polluting facilities were African-Americans,” says Wright.
That industrialized corridor, which had been dubbed “Cancer Alley,” became the central focus of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which Wright founded in 1992. Originally, the center was constituted in three components: research and policy, community assistance and curricula development. In 1995, the center received federal funding to develop a program to train workers to deal with hazardous waste materials.
It’s a matter of some irony that her training has been put to such extensive use in New Orleans during the last five years. After Hurricane Katrina submerged 80 percent of the city in 2005, Wright, who lost her home during the storm, relocated the center to nearby Baton Rouge and for two years educated and trained New Orleanians to remediate and reclaim their homes.
With respect to the ongoing oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, Wright estimates that 75 of her trainees are involved in hands-on remediation efforts. In addition, the center is working to provide Cajun, Vietnamese and Hispanic fishermen with translated materials so they can join in the cleanup effort.
“Our credo has always been community people speaking and acting for themselves,” says Wright. “It’s always been about empowerment.”
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