September 3, 2020
By Kendall Keelen JD'22 and Vanessa Romero JD/MELP'21
Welcome to EJ Clinic Conversations, a series in which Environmental Justice Clinic student teams interview clients and partners from across the country. Today's post features Naeema Muhammad, Director of Organizing at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.
For Naeema Muhammad, a partner of 54 years, mother to three children, grandmother to nine grandchildren, and great-grandmother to seven great-grandchildren, it is clear what matters most to her: family and community. Naeema beamed when she described her annual summer visits from her grandchildren living in Philadelphia. She proudly displayed her new video chat camera she uses to call her children and other family members out of state. Naeema noted how difficult isolation from her family has been, but radiates positivity and hope when she discusses her work on behalf of North Carolina environmental justice communities.
“I have more fun than anybody organizing in the community,” Naeema exclaimed as she described her work as the Organizing Director at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN). Naeema started her career in social justice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, working to organize Black communities against police brutality, employment discrimination, and Frank Rizzo, the notoriously racist mayor whose likeness was recently removed from the center of the city. Naeema explained that she, her now husband, and other activists woke up before the sun rose to educate her community about their rights and encourage them to vote in the upcoming election. “We helped people become more informed about who we were as a people, and our relationship to this country, in what we called ‘the reeducation of Black people,’” she said. In the same breath Naeema described her joy after ousting the mayor and her desire to move back home to North Carolina to empower and unionize Black workers.
“People don’t sit around and do nothing because they don’t want to. You don’t do anything when you don’t know what to do. So when you get people informed about what’s going on around them, then they can make informed decisions about how to respond.”
– Naeema Muhammad
Survivors, Not Victims
Naeema founded Black Workers for Justice in 1981 with a group of close activist friends. Black Workers for Justice rallied Black employees to self-advocate for better conditions, higher pay, and more protective laws. Eventually, conditions started to change. In 1999, however, Hurricane Floyd hit the eastern part of North Carolina, devastating coastal communities. Naeema and her colleagues rushed to help, interacting for the first time with the NCEJN, an emerging network of community-based groups fighting for environmental justice. Naeema worked with the hurricane survivors to receive aid to rebuild and recover. Naeema explained to these communities, “You are not victims, you are survivors. We want you to start saying that because, once you call yourself a victim, you are rendering yourself helpless. If you see yourself as a survivor, you can fight back and change what is happening to you.”
After her time with Hurricane Floyd survivors, Naeema transitioned to community organizing with NCEJN. Naeema now works to aid communities in close proximity to confined animal feeding operations, coal ash plants, asphalt plants, petrochemical facilities, and other hazards. Her office hears from a community with a similar story every day.
BLM and the Power of Information
How does environmental justice fits within the larger racial justice movement? Naeema simply said, “I have been saying that it does for years.” She went on to explain, “I see environmental injustice as a type of violence perpetuated mainly against people of color. It says to us that our lives don’t matter.” From Naeema’s perspective, clean water and air are basic human rights, but industry continually overburdens low-income communities and people of color. Naeema encourages her colleagues and other advocates to consider, “We are definitely a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, whether we want to be or not, because of the amount of violence that communities are suffering from as a result of environmental injustice.”
Naeema believes the best way to combat environmental injustice and support the Black Lives Matter movement is to “keep people well informed about things that will impact them, where the avenues are that could impact them, and what they can do to protect themselves in advance of these things happening.” Naeema says, “Once [people] get the right information, you see them go from, I can’t do anything, to standing up and fighting back.” According to Naeema, “that is the most encouraging thing that can happen in this work.”
Naeema’s deep connection with younger generations spreads far beyond her family. Naeema believes another way for communities to protect themselves is to educate younger generations. “Eventually we age out, and all of the work we’ve done goes with us. If we don’t share that information with young people, there’s no way for them to know the history or what has happened around them.” Naeema encourages community members to educate their children to ensure history does not repeat itself.
“We are definitely a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, whether we want to be or not, because of the amount of violence that communities are suffering from as a result of environmental injustice.”
– Naeema Muhammad
Women and Environmental Justice
Before we wrapped up our conversation, Naeema suggested that young women within the environmental justice movement should “become informed and understand we do have roles [KKC2] in the movement for justice.” Naeema referenced the discrimination and disengagement of women she witnessed when she worked with women through the Black Workers for Justice Women’s Commission. The Commission hosted meetings to educate women and develop diverse leadership within the worker’s justice movement. Naeema offered childcare, meals, and other help to get women to the meetings after she discovered many interested women would not attend because of their familial commitments.
“In the [environmental justice] movement, we have the underdevelopment of women because of how we’ve been perceived over time. So unless we get up and get out, we remain in that state of mind. Where we feel like we don’t have a place here, because we don’t have the information to make us feel strong enough.” Naeema encourages women activists to encourage other women to stand up and feel the power they need to be leaders. Organizations should offer childcare, meals, and stipends to alleviate the burdens of community engagement. Naeema hopes “we can be there for each other and we can be there to assist.”
Naeema’s strength and hope serve to empower communities across the country to self-advocate and protect others. On behalf of the Environmental Justice Clinic at Vermont Law School, we thank Naeema Muhammad for her lifelong advocacy.