Sweating it out together
April 6, 2012
By Gregg NewsomeDetroit Food Justice Taskforce Communications CoordinatorThis is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991.
This week, I'm honored to be writing from Albuquerque, New Mexico while attending the 13th annual White Privilege Conference. "The WPC is a conference that examines challenging concepts of privilege and oppression and offers solutions and team building strategies to work toward a more equitable world". This year's conference was extremely well attended by a diversity of peoples from all over North America and the world. My personal intention in attending is to continue to learn, study and reflect upon what it means to be a white male anti-racist/anti-oppression ally to the majority Black and People of Color communities, organizations and individuals that I share with in Detroit. I attended the conference with my partner, Angela Newsom, who serves as the program director for People’s Kitchen Detroit.
We haven't left Detroit very often since we began sharing here six years ago, so rather than fly we decided to drive to Albuquerque with our three year-old. As we traveled across the country I reflected upon this weeks' environmental justice principle. EJ principle #6 states that "Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production." The extreme proliferation of environmental toxins that are rampant in our city, due to the collapse of the auto industry, the dishonorable departure of business and industry that left behind hazardous wastes, and the continued operation of the Detroit Incinerator and the catastrophic effects of toxic industries in and around zip code 48217.
The week before we left, local news reported the water department and hazardous materials crew was flushing the sewer system around the Detroit Medical Center due to what was most likely massive quantities of illegally dumped paint products. As the miles pealed away on our odometer, I reflected upon my own family’s exposure to toxins since we moved to Detroit in 2006. Last year, due to a cracked-opened "manhole" in the basement of a home we were renting in North Corktown/Briggs, we were slowly poisoned by sewage gas. Unaware, over a couple of months we found ourselves slowly become more and more sick. Thanks to a knowledgeable friend, we eventually discovered the leak, sealed it and began the process of detoxification.
Due to our destination being focused on privilege and oppression, as we drove, I thought upon our own privilege when confronted with the inescapable toxins we are exposed to daily and how other families in Detroit, who have been exposed over generations to hazardous materials by eating, breathing and living in the Arsenal of Democracy’s dumping ground must be effected. I also thought about the privilege of being able to leave Detroit for close to two weeks as we began to breathe easier in the noticeably fresh air outside of the city.
We began to breathe easier, sadly, until we reach the so-called heartland of US. As we traveled through increasingly rural areas, we began to pass by large industrial farms and started to see Monsanto signs everywhere. Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of genetically modified seeds and the chemicals farmers use to grow them. Being food justice activists, I admit that we may have been looking for these signs, but what we didn’t expect to see was just how prolific Montsanto is and how daunting it was passing by large chemical storage facilities and industrial spraying machines.
Dismayed and slightly depressed by the corporate domination of the landscape even here, we pulled into our first motel for the night. Exhausted and simply looking forward to rest, we entered our room and were immediately hit by the intense chemical smell of disinfectant and an over-the-top sickly-sweet scent that I can only assume was intended to cover up the disinfectant. Being too tired to load everything back into the car and find another, less toxic room, we laid our heads on pillowcases washed in chemical-laden industrial detergent. Waking with a massive headache, Angela’s first words in the morning were “we need to get out of here as soon as possible!”
I agreed and we got back on the road immediately. Passing by more industrial agricultural spraying equipment, I began to notice how “blown-out” the small towns we passed through were. Trying to find solace in the fact that these small town ruins somehow reminded me of home, it struck me that while our country’s urban areas are vilified due to their poor populations and environmental hazards, many rural areas seem to be in the same situation.
I returned to this week’s environmental principle and mourned over the immense and seemingly impossible idea of cessation of chemical production. While our privilege affords us the opportunity to attempt to reduce our family’s exposure to toxins and hazardous wastes, it appears that communities, not only in urban but rural areas as well, are under attack by companies like Monsanto, whose website lies that they are “meeting the needs of today while preserving the planet for tomorrow.”
With the US government’s strings being pulled by corporations, the idea of their being held accountable to people brings more frustration. The idea that these companies would implement detoxification or that they would be honest with us in any way seems nearly impossible. Our entire culture, oppressed and privileged, urban and rural alike, has become dependent upon the very products that are killing us. While corporations dominate the government, media, production and distribution of goods, from food to cleaning products, we are all threatened and literally under their control.
As my family and I enjoyed Albuquerque and learned and shared at the White Privilege Conference, Detroit’s city council was negotiating a loose/loose agreement with the State, the outcome of which will most likely be known by the time this prints. While I don’t want to be a naysayer and strongly support the efforts of those who labor to block it, this agreement and the push to put more of our resources, including our water and our children’s education, on the auction block for profit, often appears unstoppable. As I tuned into the local news and social media while away, my personal frustration over the impossibility of not only the cessation, accountability and detoxification from toxic and hazardous waste, but also from the corporate domination of our lives continued to grow.
Thankfully, this frustration shifted towards the end of the conference. Two days before our departure, we were extremely honored to share in a traditional community healing ceremony. This indigenous ceremony, called a Tezmacal, shares some common ground with a Native American sweat lodge. As Angela and I sat in the extreme heat and purged many of the toxins from our bodies I finally found some resolve to my frustration and a slight release from the overwhelming oppressive systems we are all connected to and co-implicated within.
As the community that gathered in the Tezmacal released their pain and anger through songs and screams that seemingly reverberated across and through our diverse generations of both privilege and oppression, I found solace in the fact that, while at the moment these massive systems and corporations would deny accountability, each of us can reframe our relationships so that we can grow an accountability to one another. Through singing, screaming and sweating out our pain, depression, anxiety, anger and loss… through the healing many of us already know we need, we can learn more about each other and, what’s more, we can overcome. As I back out of the small door of the Tezmacal, I suddenly looked forward to returning home, even in the face of the toxic politics and environment, to learn more, share more, sweat more and heal more.