Open spaces, parks, farms, wildlife, and clean air and water are just a few of the benefits we enjoy from a healthy environment — the folks who live in poor, urban neighborhoods get less than their fair share. They also get a disproportionate amount of pollution, noise, and toxic waste. Blend these social and ecological concerns and you have the agenda of the Environmental Justice League (EJL) of Rhode Island, an energetic new band of community activists based in Providence.
"Clearly, there was a need for this new organization," says Greg Gerritt, a local community activist who helped to launch the group. "It got started with the school-siting issues in Providence." In one instance, a high school for students in the Reservoir Triangle neighborhood was built on contaminated land, despite neighborhood opposition and lawsuits. "Rhode Island Legal Services worked with people in these communities, and some environmental groups got involved," recalls Gerritt. "There's a 200-year legacy of industrial toxic waste that has to be addressed."
Gerritt worked with Steven Fischbach of RILS to organize a statewide November 2007 networking conference on environmental justice. About 90 people showed up — environmental activists, socially conscious lawyers, Brown University students, health advocates, and others, and they agreed to form an alliance to work toward environmental justice in the state. This September, they won a competitive $100,000 grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency to help the new organization get established.
Last Saturday, December 6, the EJL held its first annual meeting in a drafty room at the Algonquin House community center on Broad Street, with about two-dozen supporters in attendance. "Our goal for the next one to two years is to build our base in the community," says Amelia Rose, who was recently named lead organizer for the group, the only full-time staff position. "We'll be working to meet with community groups and leaders, and through these conversations, we'll develop our specific agenda."
Rose said she aims to mobilize a strong base among communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, constituencies that are generally not well-represented in the political process. "We want to make clear that there is a connection between economics and environment, and to help people see that their concerns are environmental justice issues," she says. EJL also will partner with existing groups already working on issues such as diesel pollution, public transit, and toxic waste; and they'll carefully assess what specific local issues they can address to best leverage their assets.
If the group's name sounds vaguely familiar, that's no accident. "Did you read comic books as kid?" asks Gerritt. "Remember the Justice League of America? It was the first thing I thought of, and it had a nice ring to it, and what could be better? Superheroes for the environment! It was that simple."
On Tuesday, December 16, the group will host its first open house in its new office at 1192 Westminster Street, Providence, from 4 to 6 pm. Anyone who'd like to learn more about the EJL or support its efforts is welcome. For more information, contact Amelia Rose at 401.383.7441.