It is the annual Martin Luther King Celebration at South Eugene High School, and Beyond Toxics has been invited to speak. It’s 9:00 in the morning, and I’m standing in front of the first of three groups that I will reach out to today. About 20 expressionless faces gawking up at me. Blank stares. I figured these South Eugene high school students are wondering “What is she going to teach us today I love pressure. I work well under pressure. My best sides come out under pressure. So there I went.
“Environmental Justice! What is Environmental Justice?” I asked. “Mother Earth!” one student shouted. “Justice for the Environment!” another one shouted. “Great start!” I answered, excited that they were going to learn a new concept. Something to spice up their education.
So what did we do? We started off with a short and sweet video put together by Beyond Toxics staffer John Jordan-Cascade. It takes you on the environmental justice bus tour we held in West Eugene last April. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely a “must see” project, involving communities in Eugene and how they’ve been disproportionately exposed to hazardous industrial air emissions. I loved seeing the students’ reactions while playing the video. The scene where students are being dropped off by a school bus looks like an everyday scene of students coming home from school–practically anywhere in the U.S. However, as the narrator, Executive Director Lisa Arkin, describes, kids in West Eugene sometimes encounter a “wall of chemicals” as they try to live normal lives in Eugene’s most concentrated collection of polluting factories. The high school students in the room seemed to lean forward with particular interest. After the video they noted that perhaps we take our air for granted. Who wants to live like that?
I was so proud of the South Eugene high school students today. They got to learn all about. They caught on to the issue of environmental justice, and how it relates to our communities in West Eugene a lot quicker than I thought they would. Teaching them about the term “environmental justice” was so rewarding for me that I found myself imaging a career in teaching. The students went from knowing nothing about the link between environment and injustices facing our community, to becoming social justice advocates and—going further: demanding that something be done for the communities “in their backyard.” Not in our backyard! they said. That made me feel happy, like a proud parent. Particularly knowing that I had planted the seeds of change for over 60 students. I think Martin Luther King would have thought it was a really good day for justice.