Artspace

“Buenos dias, mi gente. Good morning. I speak the language of two colonizers, so I welcome you with both.” So did Elizabeth Yeampierre, environmental justice activist, open the keynote address of “Paying Homage: Soil and Site.”

The environmental justice summit, organized by the nonprofit Artspace, took place at the Yale University Art Gallery on Saturday and highlighted the intersections of environmentalism, the arts and community identity. The event included three panels, each linking the environment with an aspect of social justice — the role of politics in procuring basic necessities, the exploitation of land and consequences of displacement and the significance of monuments in framing cultural history.

Panelists explained how the ramifications of environmental deterioration, such as water pollution or food insecurity, hits marginalized communities the hardest.

Gina Luster, a grassroots organiser from Flint, Michigan, shared her experience of the city’s water crisis, describing how, each day, she fills her young daughter’s backpack up with water bottles, not books, as the contaminated pipes render the water supply undrinkable.

“We call it — excuse my French — Hennessy water, because it looks like cognac.” Luster said. “Except it smells like dead bodies.”

Luster recounted discovering that the rashes on her children’s skin were the product of fruits and vegetables watered by tainted sources in the local farmer’s market.

The activists at the summit also proposed paths toward creating systemic change and called the audience to action. Louis Burch, a former program director for the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, spoke about his work recruiting inner city youth as educators who teach others about recycling and sustainable energy. The panelists agreed on the value of community involvement in politics and empowering people to stand up to legislators and call out ineffective policies.

“They work for us,” Kimberly Hart, co-founder of Witness to Hunger: New Haven, reminded the audience.

New York City activist and James Beard Leadership Award– winner Karen Washington was passionate in her demands for the audience to leave the summit with an imperative to drive change in New Haven and beyond. She condemned the fleeting nature of the buzz surrounding summits and workshops, asking the audience to think hard about the concrete changes they would make as a result of their growing awareness.

When asked about the best ways to self-educate about issues of environmental justice, Washington said personal interaction with low-income and marginalized communities is essential.

“Social justice is not found in a textbook,” she said. “Sitting in a classroom and getting a definition is nothing. Go out to neighbourhoods of people who are affected. You will find justice when you experience the injustice.”

In her keynote speech, Yeampierre stressed the significance of respectful involvement in groups with a history of struggle. She criticized the “missionary” approach to activism and encouraged those with privilege to share resources but allow community members themselves to take the lead.

Crucial to the work of each of these advocates was the concept of changing the perception of marginalized groups, often by illuminating individual stories through artistic mediums. Hart discussed the impersonal quality of data and statistics and emphasized the value of a personal story. Photographs, ceramics and poetry are all ways the conference encouraged attendees to tell these stories.

Local activist and artist Salwa Abdussabur told the News about her experience fusing poetry and advocacy.

“You can’t separate art and activism. At least for me, having so many marginalized identities, being queer, being black, being nonbinary, … I use my art to tell my story in a way that people wouldn’t usually listen to.”

Abdussabur also identified a need in New Haven for more concerted policies supporting residents.

New Haven potter Kiara Matos mentioned the importance of environmental conscientiousness within her own practice.

“New Haven is really one of those towns where many people try to work together to protect the environment,” she said. “Common Ground is a great example of that. But we need to push for more.”

Another environmental justice–themed event, Inclusion in the Environmental Movement: A Community Discussion, will take place on September 21 at the Whitneyville Cultural Commons, from 5:30 to 7:30pm.

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu