EPA 20th Anniversary Environmental Justice Video Series: Vernice Miller-Travis


{music} {music} I think I want to go back to almost the beginning
and the beginning or organizing and forming what would become West Harlem Environmental
Action or WE ACT for Environmental Justice and that is that we spent the first two years
of our organizing, roughly from 1986 to 1988. We spent those two years yelling and screaming
and fighting and arguing and being mad and being disappointed and being overwhelmed by
what we were facing with the pollution from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. And after two years, I just reached a point
where I just couldn’t do that anymore because it wasn’t productive, it wasn’t moving us
any further, it wasn’t stemming the pollution, it wasn’t addressing our issues. And so that’s
when we began to really form and build a non-profit organization–West Harlem Environmental Action
Now, WE ACT for Environmental Justice. And in making that transition, we also decided
that tactically, maybe, we should try and sit down at the table and talk to these folks
and try and get them to understand to the best of our ability what the challenges were,
what the harms where, we were uncovering. We found out through our own research and
investigation that we had the highest premature death rate from asthma of any community, in
the United States of America, any community in the western hemisphere. And that the asthma
death rate and mortality rate in our community was so high that it drove the national US
average for asthma and asthma death in the United States. When we began to turn a corner
to really begin to address our issues in a substantive way, was when we began to sit
down and negotiate, be in dialogue with, try and strategize with those agencies that were
responsible for environmental protection and environmental control in New York City and
New York state. And so I would just say to folks that use all the talents that you have.
It’s not only to get in people’s faces right and sometimes you have to do that, but you
don’t have to do that every day. And you might find as my grandmother tried to tell me my
whole life, up until she died in 1993, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with
vinegar.” A really simple adage but really, really true if you treat people with respect
then you get that respect back. And that is what these communities have been asking for
and demanding. They want to be treated with respect they wanted to be treated equally
before the law. And in order to get that, you have to give that. And now 26 years later
we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary next year. We’ve seen all kinds of victories, all kinds
of changes. The asthma rate has gone down dramatically. The death rate from asthma has
gone down dramatically, and that is what we were trying to accomplish. But we could not
have accomplished that if we stayed in the room yelling and screaming at the regulators
for the rest of time immemorial. There is a time for that, but it is not everyday all
day.

Comments 2

  • I'm very very impressed with this video and the story that was shared. With so much foolishness on the net it is great to see a great use of this space. Great lesson on what can happen when communities are empowered to make change.

  • This is one of the best videos I have seen on how a commuinty group has been able to address the serious impacts that asthma can have on a neighborhood. Very powerful story on the journey to collaboration and positive change.

    Dr. Regan

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