A model for solidarity: Environmentally devastated immigrant community of New Orleans
“I was still sucking my thumb the first time I sang “we shall overcome”- Alix Olson
When the devastation of [wikipop]Hurricane Katrina[/wikipop] hit the gulf coast nearly six years ago, one could scarcely distinguish an Asian face in mainstream media accounts of the mass evacuation, clean up or resettlement of the environmentally devastated communities in [wikipop]New Orleans[/wikipop]. Likewise, the “scholarly discourse on race and Katrina has emphasized black and white” tensions.1Yet in the small, eastside village of [wikipop]Versaillies, Louisiana[/wikipop], we find a group of Vietnamese war refugees, whose community consists of the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans outside of [wikipop]Vietnam[/wikipop]2 . These first and second generation war refugees, who’ve now become hurricane refugees, hastily returned to their post-Katrina, New Orleans homes and community to rebuild a second time, only to find their community was designated to receive a significant portion of the area’s post-Katrina toxic waste in the form of two nearby landfills. Recognizing environmental racism as a motivating factor in the local governments’ selection of the Vietnamese community as a dump site, they are now fighting a post-Katrina landfill and to the surprise of many, they are winning3 . Building on the solidarity of their community they have been highly successful in fighting environmental racism. This type of environmental racism exists in nearly all African American communities within [wikipop]St. Louis, Missouri[/wikipop]. The residents here, specifically North and East St. Louis, where we see the worst offences, should be taking notice of this successful model; after all it takes a village to fight racism.
After the devastating hurricane, the focus of many communities shifted from evacuation to massive clean-up, community rebuilding and ultimately the removal of debris and toxic waste lifted by the flood waters and deposited onto the various New Orleans neighborhoods. One such dumpsite location was hastily selected by Mayor Ray Nagin just two miles from the Vietnamese refugee community of Versaillies. Exercising his federal and state disaster emergency powers, he opened the Chef Menteur landfill and reopened the closed Gentilly landfill, just a short distance from the village of Versaillies with the intention to accept toxic debris from within the Katina affected areas. He executed the executive order with no opposition and without an environmental impact study, or the usual requirement of a liner system4.
No strangers to devastation, these Versaillies residents, using almost no federal aid, quickly rebuilt and returned to their mostly subsistence farming community, only to find a toxic dumpsite threatening to destroy it and their farm land again. Being a predominantly Vietnamese speaking community, the residents believed, rightfully so, that the landfill location selection was motivated by their presumed inability to command the English language and would thus be unable to protest the dumpsite and the radical injustice to their community. This assessment coupled with an empowered English-speaking second generation, sparked solidarity in the name of environmental racism. This tight-knit community, led by neighborhood priest, Father Vien Nguyen and the Vietnamese youth, built a coalition strong enough to get the attention of the media, and ultimately lawmakers. Persistent, well organized protests in both Vietnamese and English gave cause for reconsideration and eventual removal of the toxic site5 .
Like many cities around the [wikipop]United States[/wikipop], African American communities have similar systemic racism and environmental issues. Industry, highways, and toxic dump sites have given their community a triple threat of toxic exposure. Being a hub of manufacturing, selling and disposing of toxic products, used all over the state, in their back yard, this urban African American population carries a significant burden of toxins for the entire state. While many North and East St. Louis residents have been kept purposefully unaware, these toxins have been poisoning these communities and children for decades while little has been done by local officials to eradicate these physical and neurological contaminants. These toxins translate into significant social ailment which over burdened the African American population.[wikipop] Asthma[/wikipop], learning disabilities, apathy, and aggression, among many others are just a few of the ‘side effects’ of these heavy doses of neurotoxins. Local social and environmental justice groups, fighting against environmental racism, are met with governmental resistance and deception. Over the past 30 years, members outside of the community, like [wikipop search=”Paul McKee (developer)”]Paul McKee[/wikipop], are allowed to land bank thousands of properties only to let them dilapidate, compounding the environmental carcinogens in neighborhood communities of color. Here, we have a disconnection between the (mostly white) political leaders, local community leaders, the African American churches and the community being poisoned.
The fight in the Village of Versaillies, coupled with the recent teacher union solidarity in Michigan, which has extended well beyond Michigan, could be used as a model for change here in St. Louis. While many local African American churches and leaders are beating the drum of justice, many more could join in the call and rally for change. Likewise, the empowerment of solidarity could be found using the Versaillies model of community and church leaders taking a strong position on a specific environmental racism issue, then develop a plan for education and community development.
The village of Versaillies, a mostly[wikipop] Catholic[/wikipop] community, was both informed and rallied by their priest, much the same way early civil rights protests developed here in St. Louis and in the south. Like [wikipop search=”Martin Luther King, Jr.”]Dr. King[/wikipop] and others before us, the next generation of civil rights leaders could use this model generational solidarity embodied in the black churches to build on the solidarity and make significant social and environmental changes outside the church.
- Leong, Karen J. Christopher A. Airriess, Wei Li, Angela Chia-Chen Chen, and Verna M. Keith, “Resilient History and the Rebuilding of a Community: The Vietnamese American Community in New Orleans East,” 2007 Journal of American History, Dec. 94 770–779 [↩]
- Chiang, Leo S. “A Village Called Versailles.” 2010 Movie discussion guide PDF http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/village-called-versailles/resources/village_discussion.pdf [↩]
- Chiang, ibid [↩]
- Eaton, Leslie. “A New Landfill in New Orleans Sets Off a Battle.” The New York Times 8 May 2006. Lexis Nexis. Colby College Library. 7 March 2011, Chiang, ibid [↩]
- Chiang, ibid [↩]
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