August 19, 2020
By Rico Edwards JD'22/MARJ'19 and Blake Whitehead MARJ'20
Welcome to EJ Clinic Conversations, in which Environmental Justice Clinic student teams interview clients and partners from across the country about the connections between environmental justice, the struggle for racial justice, and the Movement for Black Lives. Today's post features Center for Whole Communities Senior Fellow and Vermont State Senate candidate Kesha Ram.
This summer, we interviewed Center for Whole Communities Senior Fellow and Vermont State Senate candidate Kesha Ram. She served in the Vermont Legislature as a State Representative from 2008 to 2016. She now works in partnership with the Environmental Justice (EJ) Clinic at Vermont Law School to create equitable environmental policies through the REJOICE project. She talked about her racial justice activism, which is rooted in her experience growing up in Los Angeles, California. She explained how people often misidentified her father as Mexican, noting that her father had “a very clear sense of what that meant for him [being mislabeled] and how he would be treated by the police, especially.”
We asked about what connection she saw between Environmental Justice (EJ) and the Black Lives Matter movement. Kesha responded, “When I think about just recent events, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging. Christian Cooper was birding. George Floyd had three people standing on his lungs. These are very visceral examples of how people of color have very little agency, very little ability to access recreation and health, and don't have freedom of movement in their communities.” Similarly, asthma plagues historically marginalized communities where industries have concentrated pollutants; and lung cancer from air pollution disproportionately affects people of color. Yet all people and communities have the right to breathe.
So, why is this happening? Kesha pointed out that EJ problems predominantly show up in areas with limited political power and representation: poor communities, urban neighborhoods, or rural farmlands. In rural areas, there is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude when it comes to deciding where to store toxins and dump waste. As she notes, “It's easier to hide pollution and undesirable land use in poor, more rural areas.”
Environmental Justice in Vermont
When asked to identify critical EJ issues in Vermont, Kesha said, “We have asbestos mines; we have old diesel contaminated sites; we have the same pollutants that other places have; but maybe not the same scale... [and we] still have low income people and people of color who are pushed into areas that are less desirable and blighted.” Instead of holding onto a vision of what Kesha identified as Vermont “exceptionalism” -- that is, that Vermont is a place where racial and economic disparities don’t exist and all is peaceable, we should hear the full story by listening to Vermonters in historically marginalized or politically excluded communities.
Highlighting the experience of indigenous communities in Vermont as an example, Kesha pointed out, “Indigenous populations (are) rendered kind of invisible in Vermont, so that erases their access to land, (and) their ability to pass on traditional knowledge…” Kesha urges Vermonters to reckon more deeply with our history. She suggests everyone in the state go on an Indigenous history tour; understand the eugenics movement; and acknowledge “what it was like to have your basic healthcare be a source of sterilization, humiliation and complete violation.”
Kesha also highlighted the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has on communities of color. The virus does not discriminate; and yet it has disproportionately ravaged historically marginalized communities. In Vermont, the virus has greatly affected New Americans, and Kesha’s concerns include the lack of access to adequate translation services. She explains, “We're seeing such a deep disparity in who is being affected by COVID-19 [in the United States]....some of those numbers are incredibly heartbreaking.” The failure to provide translation services is a form of silencing, leaving an entire group excluded from vital information, and thereby unable to access essential health and support services. Translation of emergency information into other languages is a fundamental human right.
Local Changemakers: REJOICE and the Center for Whole Communities
Kesha stressed that police brutality, Native American history, vital document translations, and EJ are deeply linked. They are coexisting realities, inherently linked to life, personal autonomy, and overall existence. Such inter-relatedness is central to Environmental Justice, as is the issue of accountability, which Kesha pursues through her work at the Center for Whole Communities in Burlington.
The Center works with “difference, dialogue, and story” as a foundation for an approach to leadership development, holistic design, and facilitation. With these core practices as guides, Kesha and her colleagues have partnered with Community Actions Works, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, the Mobile Home Program, the University of Vermont Rubenstein School, and Vermont Law School to create the REJOICE project. REJOICE seeks to build a new comprehensive EJ policy in Vermont, informed by the life experience of all community members, addressing systemic silencing by placing the voices of those most affected by historical injustice at the heart of the conversation, and breaking the toxic cycle of exclusion.