When I was a child, the city of Newark, New Jersey was often the punchline of bad jokes about urban blight and decay. But to me it was home. And it shaped my understanding of what I would dedicate my life to pursuing: Environmental justice.
Growing up in a place called “Ironbound” gives one an acute sense of boundaries. The name references the rail lines flanking an industrialized landscape that is also a vibrant community of poor and working class people of color and immigrants. The neighborhood was created out of marsh that is part of the northern New Jersey Meadowlands. Although this delicate ecosystem once thrived as part of a complex estuary, it was historically seen as treacherous land, and filled in with garbage dumps and tamed to accommodate the industry along its waterways. Its steel-girded borders and the toxic Passaic River became frontiers to be respected and feared.
The underbelly infrastructure of the metropolitan area — prisons, trash incinerators, the seaport and airport, as well as sewage, chemical, and power plants – have been relegated to these marginal lands. Look closely, and you can find such “sacrifice zones” or fenceline communities all across the country. They coexist alongside concentrated pockets of poor communities of color, long segregated by decades of industrial pollution, unfair housing practices, and economic disinvestment.
But it wasn’t all smokestacks and struggle in the Ironbound. I loved my neighborhood. As much as it frustrated and angered me to see how degraded our environment was, it also was a place where families and neighbors took care of each other and mounted fierce resistance to the steady stream of toxic waste dumping in the community.
Today, when I give “Toxic Tours” of Newark for students and others, I ask them to consider that this city has one of the busiest seaports in the country, and is in the middle of one of the largest consumer markets and wealthiest metropolitan regions in the world. Yet Newark also suffers under the weight of chronic intergenerational poverty. It’s one of the most residentially racially segregated places with some of the highest toxic pollution concentrations in the nation.
How this came about were not coincidences of the marketplace. The story of Newark is the story of many inner cities throughout the country, where the confluence of deindustrialization, white flight, and racist housing, urban policy, and environmental programs created ghettos alongside wealthy outer-ring suburbs.
I’m always shocked by how few of my planning students have any knowledge of the nation’s history of explicitly racist government programs, particularly in housing. While they have images of segregated restaurants and buses from the Civil Rights Era, few know how deeply racial discrimination extended into our systems of banking, real estate, transportation, and urban development. Yet such policies shaped the physical reality, the form and function, of cities like Newark and their growing suburbs for generations. Redlining and discriminatory mortgage lending structured where people could live, work, or go to school. Many of the public housing complexes in Newark were segregated by race and were built in areas considered least desirable, including marginal pieces of swampland at the edges of the Ironbound. Even after being legally outlawed, discriminatory practices continue to pervade the housing marketplace.
In my personal journey towards environmental justice, I found my voice by trying to make sense of the ways my own community was ravaged by racism, inequality, industrialization, capitalism, and consumption. However, my Toxic Tours are not just a retelling of tales of horrors of environmental destruction, but are also a call to action for people both within and outside the community.
Residents of Newark and communities like it throughout the globe must continually work to inspire action, not apathy; empowerment, not disillusionment; and authentic voice. In the places at the margins where society has hidden its dirty little secrets about the real impacts of economic growth, white privilege, and environmental destruction there is an opportunity for real transformative change.
Even more importantly, the environmental justice movement must incorporate a sense of connectedness and responsibility that extends to those living comfortably outside the world’s sacrifice zones. Environmental justice communities must become a priority for all who claim to care for the Earth, for social justice, and for human dignity. Civil rights leader, lawyer, and scholar john powell reminds us that trying to build new, more inclusive metropolitan regions requires our hearts and minds. He writes: “To succeed in creating better regions, more participatory democratic processes, and equal access to opportunity, we must make this work a project of the imagination and a project of the spirit.”
Environmental justice must link the physical spaces that form our communities to the civic, political, and economic forces that can create more just places. The work of environmental justice includes grassroots organizing, coalition building, and political and social movement solidarity. Most importantly, we must do the hard work of making “invisible” spaces like sacrifice zones visible to all, felt by all, and tackled by all if we are to have any hope at redemption and social justice.
Ana I. Baptista is a professor of practice at the New School University’s Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management Program in the Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy. She is the former director of Environmental and Planning Programs for the Ironbound Community Corporation. This article is adapted from her chapter “Finding Hope at the Margins: A Journey of Environmental Justice,” in the book Ecological and Social Healing: Multicultural Women’s Voices, and appears with the permission of its publisher, Routledge. This article originally was published by Urban Matters.