Community organizers and residents gathered Monday evening in the basement of Bell Street Chapel on Federal Hill to launch a discussion on the role race and racism play in the environmental challenges that Providence faces today. While environmental justice is often thought of as an abstract, large-scale issue, it is important to also think about it in terms of personal stories and narratives said Michael Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, a Providence-based group focused on advocating for workers rights.
After taking his daughter to the doctor for a checkup, Araujo learned she had high levels of lead in her blood. He later discovered this was because of the high lead count in the soil in his backyard. “I realized that I was raising my daughter in a place where we can’t touch the soil,” he said.
The city of Providence, through its Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, is aiming to look at sustainability through a lens of racial equality, said Leah Bamburger, who works in the Office of Sustainability for the city. This meeting was an opportunity to establish a base with community members and bring their concerns back to the committee, she added.
Araujo encouraged 40-plus attendees to break up into small groups to discuss their main environmental concerns. Upon reconvening, Araujo cold-called on each member of the audience to summarize the concerns they had discussed, adding that their participation was vital to bringing the nuances of environmental injustice in Providence to light.
The list of grievances includes concerns about the low quality of Providence drinking water — it is among the worst in the country in terms of lead contamination — as well as dumping of trash in vacant lots across Providence, lack of access to green spaces and the disposal of liquefied natural gas in South Providence.
Environmental injustice in communities of color should be brought to light, said Asata Tigrai, a community organizer in Providence. In many communities of color, residents move into homes without realizing that the ground, structure or water are contaminated with lead, she said, adding that these conditions are not being adequately addressed by Providence policy-makers. Tigrai has worked to push back against the city constructing public housing projects and schools on former dumps, arguing that these are contaminated and as such threaten the safety of schoolchildren, she said.
Many attendees brought up the environmental privilege enjoyed on the East Side, which is apparent through the amount of greenery and public parks that are harder to find in other parts of the city.
Much of the discussion centered around the idea of privilege: “I can’t help but think about these things in terms of white supremacy,” Araujo said, adding that while Providence has one of the oldest black populations in the United States, 75 percent of that population has been forcibly displaced into different parts of the city since the 1960s.
Another attendee noted that the construction projects the city takes on do not always benefit the communities they directly impact: A highway construction project currently runs through the middle of Olneyville despite the fact that the community has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the city, he said, adding that this construction project “won’t benefit (Olneyville) in any way.”
Some students attended the event — one noted to the group that he feels Brown exists in a bubble of environmental privilege.
Colin Kent-Daggett ’19, another attendee, said he had attended because he wanted to be more involved in the Providence community beyond Brown. “I think we all need to be careful about how and when we go into the Providence community” because Brown students often lack the expertise on the specific issues affecting individuals those communities.
Araujo was impressed with the level of turnout at the meeting, noting he had only expected a handful of people.
Political vitality has been potent in Providence and across the nation since the election of President Trump, Tigrai said. “It’s bringing us all together … never before in the last 30 or 40 years have we come together” to this degree, she said. But in order for these conversations to effect real change, people need to challenge the systems of power that exist in the United States today, Tigrai added. “We can change our hearts and our minds, but we have to use our hearts and our minds to change the system of economics” that disproportionately affects communities of color, she said.