January 18, 2016 at 11:13 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

On Monday, my esteemed partner, Keith Russell and I, began teaching a course on the church and environmental justice at New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan. (Frequently, when I say I teach at NYTS, people respond, “Oh, Union. That’s a great place.” Just so you know, Union is an Ivy League, ferociously expensive, liberal Protestant seminary. NYTS is the Black/Latinx/Asian night school a few blocks away).

One of the things I love about NYTS (where I myself did an M.Div. in the 1980s) is that the students are almost all real people, coming in to their 6 PM classes from jobs as teachers, MTA workers, or pastors of storefront churches. And they are often really excited about and grateful for the things they learn.

Monday and Tuesday night I taught about environmental racism and the history of the environmental justice movement, as well as the ways in which people of color and the poor comprise the “ground zero” of climate change. During the rest of the course Keith will be working with the students on how to preach and teach about environmental justice in the congregations in which they now minister or will soon.

The students were amazed by what they learned in the first two sessions, explaining at the end of Tuesday’s class that they had always thought that racial justice and civil rights were one thing, and that environmentalism was something else entirely. Among the statistics that they were unaware of is that Black children in the United States are twice as likely as white children to have asthma, and that the single greatest threat to the health of all American children is lead poisoning.

Which brings us to the recent scandal in Flint Michigan. I suppose you know the details. In spring of 2014, the city, in order to save money, switched from the supply of Lake Huron water it had long purchased from Detroit and started drawing water from the Flint River, treating it locally. Residents immediately began complaining about the smell, taste, and appearance of the water; by the summer, three water boil advisories had been declared. City officials repeatedly claimed that the water was fine.

In February of 2015 a water advisory commission was formed to address concerns.  In September, a group of doctors at a Flint hospital called for a return to the Detroit water source after finding high levels of lead in the blood of Flint children. The state then stepped in, and in October the legislature approved $6 million dollars to help switch the water supply back to its earlier source and deal with the damaged pipes. Yesterday, President Obama declared the water contamination in Flint a Federal emergency.

The main problem, according to the New York Times, is that the water from the Flint River was corrosive, due to inadequate treatment by the city, and caused lead to leach from old pipes in homes and schools. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems, while the mental and psychical development of children under six is especially at risk.

What many news sources fail to mention in their coverage of this story (though Hillary Clinton did mention it in last night’s debate), is that Flint is a majority Black city. Fifty-seven percent of the population is Black, with another three percent plus Latinx. What we all should remember, especially on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, is that there is a very big overlap between racial injustice and the environmental crisis.


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  1. It is hard to believe this is happening, but I hope justice can be done. Thank you for your wonderful article and sharing the information with those who take your course.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Marian! It is so true, and needs to be highlighted and worked on. “Poor” people (and they are largely persons of color) are more likely to live in areas of bad air, no soil, and problems of good water. And they do smoke, because it relieves their stress, and that causes breathing troubles among the children. It’s a huge problem and is one of economic bigotry and cultural differences, in my experience. Your article says it well. Bravo! –Ellen Duell

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is very important for matters of justice and health–thank you, Marian. When I lived in Dayton, our beautiful big home was sold to settle an estate, so we were able to buy it “for a song” and enjoy raising our five children (3 girls and 2 boys) in it. The neighborhood was mostly white and Jewish when we bought the house; we were warned that it was going Negro (this was 1959) and we said “Fine!” because one thing we believed strongly in was “open housing”. We didn’t know that poor people turn to petty crime more readily because, of course, their needs are so great. Also that they smoke a lot, because it soothes their stresses. I taught children who suffered asthma because their parents smoked. Many of the first Black neighbors were just glad to be able to buy a house, but didn’t have training in keeping the trash cleaned up or were working two or three jobs and were too tired and stressed to care. We organized neighborhood groups to do education and had alley cleanups–oh, those alleys!! But because we did not live with stereotypes that whites often have about people of color, we made friends and made some difference; our schools were “desegregated” by law and “busing”. Oh, my, these memories are good to have. The Jewish neighbors moved to the north of the city and at least one new synagogue was built out there.

    But what I remember was the heavy smoking and how that affected the children’s health. This was not inner city–we all had yards around the houses, even when some of the larger houses were made into apartment buildings. As I remember, Dayton didn’t ever have a large “concrete jungle” of high-rise buildings. It also had good cultural organizations: the Philharmonic Orchestra, which had its outreach and the “Junior Phil”, the Dayton School of Ballet and also Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which was mainly young people of color and also excellence. (DCDC became renowned nationally.) So there were opportunities for the children.

    I visited the beautiful chapel at Union Seminary; my daughter was a composer who studied at Mannes College of Music, and once an outstanding pianist gave a recital of my daughter’s works at Union, in the Chapel–such a beautiful place!

    But back to the children who suffer from smoke inhalation and also from environmental degradation–it’s such a problem that I can hardly write more. Thank you. –Ellen

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As usual, dear Marian, you share your knowledge and wisdom with your heartwarming, only-you style.
    Thank-you, Marian and Keith– beloved, Spirited people– for sharing your gifts with us and those terrific students.
    How I miss you, but how happy I am for your new garden. You help us all bloom wherever you are!
    Love you.


  5. Thank you for this. It’s also worth mentioning that because the toxicity of the Flint River water the old lead pipes in the homes have themselves been damaged and may contribute to further water quality issues. But no one proposing solutions for this majority black community is talking about replacing the water pipes in Flint homes. This problem will not go away just because the water source changes.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey Aunt Marian!

    Thanks for continuing to share your work. Do you have any recommended further reading “about environmental racism and the history of the environmental justice movement, as well as the ways in which people of color and the poor comprise the “ground zero” of climate change”?



  7. Marian, What a great article, our family also grew up in a similar neighborhood, very mixed. It is always the last to be improved… but it was a great place to learn about people. The Detroit Grail House “The Gateway” was in that neighborhood also, just a block from where we had moved when we were teens. I know It made all of us much better neighbors to each other. Alexa


  8. Also a connection with just plain poverty.
    When we moved into this neighbourhood it was a rather poor white area. The community had been fighting a lead plant for years. Children in the area who played outside were not faring well in school because lead adversely affects brain development. Finally, the plant was closed and, lo and behold, men in white outfits wearing protective masks arrived to dig up the contaminated soil and replace the soil with six inches (I think) of fresh new soil.


    • So is this comment from Claire in Toronto, or another one? If it’s from the Canadian Claire, the comment is especially clarifying because it suggest that environmental justice is a problem in other advanced Western democracies and not just in the US.


      • It is the Claire in Toronto.


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