VOICES OF RESISTANCE: Organizing where racism and the environment intersect

Naeema Muhammad

Naeema Muhammad is a longtime activist and organizer with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. (Image is a still from this Fusion Films video.)

For many years, Naeema Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) has organized and fought alongside those who are experiencing what's known as "environmental racism" — when socially marginalized racial minority communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution or lack access to clean air and water. Operating under the belief that it's critical to talk about the role racism and capitalism play when organizing for environmental justice, Muhammad has witnessed the power of targeted groups standing up and fighting for themselves.

We recently spoke with Muhammad by phone about her work for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern change makers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org.

Tell me about your background and how you became involved with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

Let me start by saying that all my adult life I have been an activist — working in my community to organize people to stand up for their rights and speak up on their behalf, encouraging people to get out and vote, and encouraging Black people to get informed about who we are and understand our role in society and how capitalism impacts what's happening to us.

It was through this work that people in the Environmental Justice Network — mainly Dr. Steve Wing from UNC-Chapel Hill — suggested me for the organizing position. I was interviewed and got the position, and that's when I started my work with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. The Concerned Citizens of Tillery was the parent organization of the NCEJN, so I began working with them and the NCEJN at the same time. When I first began, we had a project called CHER — Community Health and Environmental Reawakening. This project had an educational component that was designed to reach out to Black communities in the state.

Dr. Wing, who was a researcher in UNC's Department of Epidemiology, had gone to the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources with some of his students and mapped out where the concentrated animal feeding operations were located. Through this mapping, they discovered most of these animals were sitting in predominately African-American, Native American, and Latino communities — but nobody was talking about it.

As the organizer, my role was to use the materials designed by the Concerned Citizens of Tillery and NCEJN and reach out to these communities. I would ride through and try to see if I could meet people living in those areas. Once I met them, I would begin talking with them to get a feel for how much awareness they had. Through that process, we discovered that people were totally unaware. They knew something was there, but they had no idea what it was. They were smelling the smells, but they didn't know where it was coming from. People were reporting how they were having difficulty breathing, how they were contracting asthma. They were angry because they just didn't know what was happening.

When I would meet with people, I would encourage them to reach out to their community members. I would always ask them, "Are you aware of your neighbor's feelings or knowledge about this? And if not, why aren't you?" I would say, "If everyone's having the same issue, you should be talking about it and trying to see what you can do about it." I would encourage them to become an organized body to try to change the conditions around them. To help them connect the dots between the role that capitalism plays in perpetuating environmental justice, I would ask, "Why do you think your community was chosen?" I would ask them their thoughts about how environmental racism shows itself.

After listening to people talk about what their concerns were, we decided to do some research. Spearheaded by Wing, we did a project called Community Health Effects of Industrial Hog Operations. My role as the organizer was to recruit and encourage people to participate in the research because it was how we were going to help them document what was happening to them so that they could try to protect themselves and create change in their communities.

"You think being quiet is going to save you, but it won't. You'd be surprised by how much difference you can make making noise."

Each participant was asked to participate for two weeks at a time. Twice a day they would sit outside on their porches for 10 minutes at a time. Using journals we designed, they would document whether there was an odor, and if so, how strong it was. When the 10 minutes was up, they would take their blood pressure, print it out, and tape it to the journal page for that day. We also tested their lung capacity and used saliva samples to test their immune system. The results proved what people were saying was happening to them. 

We used machines to measure the amount of hydrosulfide in the air and wind direction. We were capturing the flying particles in the air that you can't see, which we thought were getting trapped in people's lungs and causing asthma and respiratory problems. We were able to report back to the communities what the documentation showed. We were able to show the maps of where the pollution was located so they could understand why they were being impacted.

One of the reasons we performed the research is because when we talked to the policymakers — our legislators and local government — they told us that people were making this stuff up.  So we had to help people prove what they were saying.

How has the environmental justice movement grown since you have been organizing?

When we first started, environmental justice — or anything about the environment — was not on the radar for Black communities. People have become much more aware of what's happening around them. They are paying more attention to what's coming into their communities and what the possible effects can be. That's the growth I've seen.

We have also had several communities where we have been able to stop things from happening, particularly when we talk about landfills in the state. Between 2005 and 2007, there were a lot of landfills in the state being sited in African-American communities. We were able to raise people's consciousness as well as our legislators' consciousness about this issue and the fact that Black communities were being targeted.

North Carolina was slated to become the fourth-largest landfill state in the country, but because of the organizing we were able to get a solid waste management act put in place. This act mandated that no new landfills could be constructed in the state until further studies were done to determine impact. In four communities targeted for landfills, we were able to educate and inform the community members about the law so they could use it to protect themselves and push back against these sitings. They were all able to stop those landfills from being built in their communities.

Most of these communities formed community organizations that continue to function as an organized body, addressing issues of concern. Prior to the organizing, neighbors weren't even talking to each other. Family members, who all knew something was wrong, were not talking about it. Now people openly talk about it, ask questions, and confront their government — because they are not afraid anymore. Before, there was a lot of fear that prevented people from doing anything. But once we were able to help people move beyond that fear by getting them informed, they were able to begin speaking on their own behalf.

We always encourage people to attend their local government meetings, so they can know what's coming before a decision is made, so they can be in front of the eightball instead of behind it. I always tell people, "It's easier to stop something than it is to change it." We also encourage people to not be afraid to address their legislators. People did not know that they had a right to go to the legislative building in Raleigh and ask questions and state their positions to their representatives. And some representatives were not used to being confronted by their constituents and did not appreciate the fact that their constituents had the nerve to come talk to them.

In 2007, we held a vigil in Raleigh to protest the concentrated animal feeding operations. We brought community members by the busload and we camped out on the legislative grounds for 51 hours. We set up a mock hog farm and trucked in 40 gallons of hog waste. We had two little hog houses and two baby swimming pools that we put between the hog houses to represent the lagoons that they have out in the communities where the concentrated hogs are. They have lagoon and spray-field systems, so we set up a spray-field system on the state grounds. When we were pouring waste into the lagoons, the facilities manager asked us what we were doing. He said, "If y'all spill one drop on this lawn, we're going to fine your organization thousands of dollars for cleanup because this is toxic waste." 

We told him, "We didn't know that because when we loaded it on the truck it was organic fertilizer. We don't understand how we drove 40 miles up the road and now it's toxic waste." He left us alone after that. So we poured the waste into the baby swimming pools and built a little irrigation system in the middle of the lagoon. It was spraying the waste around, and it was stinking. Meanwhile, the policymakers were going the long way around to get to their meetings because it was stinking so bad — and that was the point exactly. They couldn't take 40 gallons, but they expected the community members to deal with 19 million tons of this crap every year. One senator said our mock demonstration was offensive, but they expected community members to live with the real thing every day. We had fun that day and the community members really enjoyed it because they had no idea you could go to the legislative building and do all that.

Because of the organizing, people have become unafraid to speak up and stand up. For instance, there is currently a nuisance lawsuit going on against the pork industry. The lawsuit, which was filed in 2015, is a class-action suit involving citizens living near these concentrated animals who are saying, "We have been damaged irreparably, and we should be compensated for this damage." With a nuisance lawsuit, they are able to sue the industry for the damages done to their health, quality of life and basic human right to clean air and water. All those things have been totally impaired, so they are seeking monetary damages. The law firm of Wallace & Graham out of Salisbury, North Carolina, is representing about 500 citizens in eastern North Carolina. There was a time when you would have never been able to get these citizens to sign up for that lawsuit — they would have been so afraid that something would happen to them because they had been totally intimidated by the pork industry.

When I first started organizing, community members would be afraid for my safety. They would be afraid for me to go home by myself after meetings. But I think that was an encouragement for people, because I kept coming back and nothing ever happened to me.

I used to tell people all the time, "You think being quiet is going to save you, but it won't. You'd be surprised by how much of a difference you can make making noise." 

What do you think is the most urgent environmental justice crisis we are facing today?

Climate change. Particularly because so many communities I work with are already so vulnerable, and climate change makes them even more vulnerable. I always tell people, "When you talk about climate change, you have to talk about environmental injustice." And unless we do something to fix climate change, we are just putting people in harm's way. 

What does environmental justice look like to you?

Environmental justice means listening when people say, "I don't want this in my neighborhood" — especially our policymakers and regulators who issue the permits for these things. Every chance I tell them that they need to get out of their offices in Raleigh and take a tour of these communities where they are issuing all these permits.

Environmental justice means that the conditions that now exist in the communities I work with change. We are not about putting people out of business — we just ask that people be better neighbors. Do your business in a way that's not killing people, harming people, and destroying their way of life. Nobody is trying to stop you from doing business — just be more considerate about what you're doing and how it's going to impact the neighbors around you. We believe that if that can happen, we can see change.