(Editor’s note: Due to how very full our 2014 Summer Institute turned out to be, our communications work/study, India Harville, is sharing the majority of her insights now, after the dust has settled. You can read her first two reflections, posted during the Institute here and here. Keep your eyes on the blog over the coming week to hear more of India’s post-Institute reflections as well as some thoughts from our other work/study participants. –Amanda Newman)
This year’s Summer Institute at Dance Exchange was an amazing introduction to many aspects of racial equity and racial justice work from many different angles. I want to highlight one lovely segment of the institute that was our entry into looking at environmental racism. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “environmental racism” I have included the definition as explained by Benjamin Chavis, the person who coined the term:
ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM: Racial discrimination in environmental policy-making and enforcement
of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities,
the official sanctioning of the presence of life threatening poisons and pollutants for communities
of color, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the environmental
movement. (Chavis, Benjamin F., Jr., 1994)
We were very fortunate to have Fred Tutman and Paloma McGregor lead us through a journey connecting us to our own sense of place and environment with particular focus on water. Paloma McGregor is Co-Director of the DX Dallas Faces Race Project, and presently, she is choreographing a creative work about water and memory. Mr. Tutman is the Patuxent Riverkeeper and is an advocate for keeping the water and the shoreline of this beautiful intrastate waterway in Maryland clean. He is the only African American Waterkeeper in the nation.
Fred shared his beautiful connection to the water through the gift of his story of family, water, and place. He discussed being an advocate for maintaining the cleanliness of the waters and the shoreline he tends and alluded to the challenges poor communities and communities of color face regarding environmental racism, particularly around water.
Fred and Paloma then led us on a journey of embodying water, and we were able to reflect on what had touched us in Fred’s story. When we talk about big subjects like racism, having the elements of nature in the room to teach us and to ally with us is so powerful. And indeed, people’s reflections about water revealed the skills we needed to navigate our work together around race – an ability to go with the flow, not to stagnate, to have depth.
Finally, we were asked to reflect on our relationships to water and place – it is so important to connect to our own histories when we discuss racism, the environment, and environmental racism so that we understand our own vantage point and experience of looking at the world.
Through movement experiences and dialogue, we discussed when we first understood how important water is to us as humans. There were a variety of relationships to water in the room and a wide array of experiences that led us to knowing the importance of water. Some people had warm memories of the beach and swimming, others of discovering awe and the power of water after a near drowning or remembering heat stroke or dehydration experiences. And some people talked about their love of rain, the power of storms, or the impact of draughts.
Several institute participants started to explore or deepened their explorations around the connection between racism, classism, and the environment. Cassie Meador, Artistic Director for Dance Exchange and Co-Director for DX Dallas Faces Race, had already been exploring the link in “How to Lose a Mountain,” which looks at how Cassie’s electricity in her DC home is derived from mountain top removal in West Virginia. One institute participant, commented on the Detroit water shut offs as a form of environmental racism. Several institute participants concurred as we looked at the intersections of environmental racism and institutional racism in Detroit as the state intervenes not by supporting people’s ability to access water but by putting children in foster care because of their parent’s lack of water access. Another institute participant mentioned how in Nigeria the residents’ water is intermittently turned off throughout the day but the Coca Cola plant always has water.
We only had a few hours to explore the topic of our relationship to place, water, and environmental racism, just an introduction to such a complex and multifaceted subject. Each time I turn on the water since my return home, I am reminded of Fred’s water stories, I am grateful that I have access to water which has not become privatized, and I renew my commitment to be mindful of this valuable resource. I am also reminded of my commitments to environmental justice. I am reminded of the magical qualities of water and of the dance we all shared that afternoon.
For further information, see this article by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development with more information on environmental racism: