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Online Series Tackles St. Louis Region’s Struggle With Environmental Racism

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities, and cars contributes to asthma and other health problems in the St. Louis area.
Syracuse University News Services
Air pollution from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities, and cars contributes to asthma and other health problems in the St. Louis area.

Black kids in St. Louis are 10 times more likely to go to the hospital for asthma, 2.4 times more likely to have lead in their blood, and, along with all other Black residents, twice as likely to have reduced access to healthy food.

Those are just some of the issues the Environmental Racism Solution Series tackles in online discussions designed to educate.

The five-part discussion series, all hosted on Zoom, is a follow up to Environmental Racism in St. Louis, a report published last year by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University School of Law.

“That report, a little over a year ago, was born out of community listening,” said Madison Orozco, the communities collaboration associate at ArchCity Defenders. “Really hearing what community members were saying, what they were experiencing.”

ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis, Dutchtown South Community Corporation and the Sierra Club all collaborated with the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic to create the report. Now, they want to get St. Louis residents invested in solving the problems the report highlights.

But that requires reframing the conventional picture of environmental problems—making discussions include the things that don’t always get attention outside of communities like mold, dumping, air pollution, utility bills, even healthy food access.

“In St. Louis city, like, rising sea levels is not going to put anyone out of their homes in the next five years,” said Karisa Gilman-Hernandez, the community empowerment coordinator at Dutchtown South Community Corporation. “However, a lot of people are going to die from factories being built in our poorest neighborhoods spewing toxins everywhere.”

To foster understanding of a topic as big as environmental racism, the Zoom calls start with presentations highlighting the report’s findings on a certain issue, along with any additional information. Then they break out into discussion groups.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has almost become a discussion topic on its own. The past eight months exacerbated many of the inequities already highlighted in the report and adds yet another immediate obstacle to Black St. Louisans who are disproportionately at risk for severe complications with COVID-19.

But that didn’t surprise any of the collaborators. When prompted about the pandemic’s power to reveal cracks in the region’s social and economic systems, Gilman-Hernandez said “reveal” wasn’t a verb that all residents would use.

“It doesn’t reveal it to anyone living in these communities,” she said. “We already saw and knew. It’s definitely the more privileged who are now finding out.”

While white St. Louisans may be learning about these longstanding concerns for the first time, they have also made up the largest portion of the online events’ attendance. At first, said Katherine Fenerson, the civic engagement organizer with Action St. Louis, that bothered her.

“I did struggle with the fact in the beginning that a lot of times when we were having these meetings it was majority white people.” said Fenerson. “We weren’t getting … the people of color, the most marginalized people, weren’t getting to join.”

But then, she said, she began to think about responsibility. The purpose of the discussions were to form solutions, and that should include opinions and input from communities of color but is not their exclusive burden to bear.

“It’s not necessarily Black people, and the most marginalized people's job to do the work to fix something they didn’t break,” said Fenerson.

The next discussion will take place Wednesday 6:30 p.m. A link can be found at The Environmental Racism Solution Series’ page on Facebook.

Follow Becca on Twitter: @itsreallyflick

Becca is an intern with St. Louis Public Radio.