By Alexis Young
The petrochemical and oil and gas industry continues to pollute and emit toxins in air and water ways across America’s five gulf states. As the climate crisis steadily approaches the point of no return, greenwashing solutions have found mainstream notoriety.
In a special storytelling event, People over Plastic passed its mic to Black women environmental justice leaders in the oil and gas sanctuary state of Louisiana to discuss these themes.
The storytelling salon was held at the Contemporary Arts Center in Downtown New Orleans during Essence Fest 2023. The discussion centered on the ways the petrochemical and petroleum industry has long exploited historic inequities in Louisiana and how frontline communities remain resilient in the face of these struggles.
Dr. Beverly Wright, Founder of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice kicked off the evening with a witty, thoughtful and optimistic keynote address.
Founder and Executive Director of Black Girl Environmentalist Wawa Gatheru orchestrated the conversation between the evening’s special guests who shared their experiences about both living in “Cancer Alley '' Louisiana and leading community environmental justice initiatives.
The audience heard from Roishetta Sibely Ozane of The Vessel Project, Dr. Joy Banner and Jo Banner of The Descendants Project, and Shamyra Lavigne of Rise St. James. The intimate setting allowed for a frank, deeply personal and insightful discussion that was humorous at times and reminiscent of the kind of casual conversation that happens between friends sitting around their kitchen table.
Roishetta Sibely Ozane is originally from Mississippi. After moving to Southwest Louisiana she started working at the casino and noticed her clientele were petrochemical facilities’ employees. Ozane would ask her patrons about their jobs only to find out that employees were seemingly purposefully fed just enough information to do their jobs. Understanding the magnitude of the facilities and industry in her community she embarked on a journey that’s now lasted 20 years.
“I'm from a smaller community called Sulfur. It is called Sulfur for that reason. It has more than 20 petrochemical facilities within a five-mile radius of each other and three LNG facilities that are operating – those are the ones that have been approved, there’s one that's being built and another one that hasn't they haven't started all yet, but all in this in a small community,.” remarked Ozane.
Ozane quickly understood why this was happening in her community, specifically. “All the people that look like me, because of course, coming from a small Black community in Mississippi, I was looking for a Black community in southwest Louisiana, but I did not know that when I chose to live in southwest Louisiana, in this Black community that I was in for the fight of my life. And that is what I have been doing. More than 20 years now.
Dr. Joy Banner noted that being a Black leader and a woman in the environmental spaces she assumes a role in which people are not interested in seeing her in. “Black women are not often regarded as the heroes nor the damsels in distress but resisting against environmental injustices demands both roles,” Banner explained.
“We did not start the pollution problem that we have right now. But here we are being the ones who have to, some kind of way, stop it and resist that,” Banner said. “My resistance is really owning the title of being a descendant, really honoring our enslaved African ancestors who came here and honoring them as investors and the ones who had economic development in mind where we are all here being able to live our lives along the river.”
Jo Banner made salient points using the David and Goliath analogy: Who is David in this fight? Who is Goliath? David knew the giant’s weak spots.” Banner explained that she feels like Goliath when industry cozies up to community members but those lines often blur.
“I think of David and Goliath, and sometimes I'm David, and sometimes it's like, you know what? I'm actually Goliath. We are Goliath, right? Because we are very, very strong. But this whole sustainability committee or campaign, which is really just a force to protect industry in our area, is one of those ways that I'm seeing that so much as we see happens a lot, the goalposts are moved,” Banner said.
“So because we are now fighting, because we are now having victory and because we now have supporters from all over the world who want to help us, this is now seen as a negative. Now, anybody else who has the support – that's seen as a good thing? But for us, especially with Black women at the helm of this right, this is seen as a bad thing.”
Shamyra Lavinge, who helps lead the charge to protect St. James Parish from industrial buildout, dispelled myths that environmental community leaders were against new jobs for the community.
“We understand you having to work in this dangerous job to provide for your family. But please understand the people that work in these industries and we all know someone. There are risks, too. You are in the chemicals for for a job. Even if you're leaving, you're still being exposed to those chemicals. We have met family members who have had the chemicals on their clothes and going home and put their clothes in a washing machine, and that impacted the whole family,” Lavinge said passionately.
“They're getting second-hand exposure to the chemicals. So how many people, you know, working in the industries and how many people, you know, that's working in the industries that have been diagnosed with cancer? Because every single one that's worked in the industry that I know for 30 plus years has cancer or has had cancer. So we stand with the industry workers as well.”
The storytelling segment of the evening ended with a sensational performance from Sunni Patterson. The poet poignantly captured the sentiments of the evening in a poem that was both moving and vivid. The night wrapped with a stellar performance by Jade Santrell
The event was made possible by the collective efforts of People over Plastic and our partners Earthjustice, 350.org, Patois Film Festival,and Black Girl Environmentalist.
People Over Plastic is committed to building relationships with activists and community members impacted by environmental racism. Through our storytelling salons, we give the audience a rare and close-up encounter with people who are fighting to conquer plastic pollution in their communities.
About the speakers:
Roishetta Sibely Ozane is the founder of The Vessel Project, a mutual aid project that provides families with relief after natural disasters. Ozane was also recently accepted into the Master of Environment Law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
Dr. Joy Banner and Jo Banner are twin sisters and co-founders of The Descendants Project. The Banner sisters are descendants of The Whitney Plantation and a part of the larger descendants’ community in Wallace, Louisiana. Their non-profit matches living descendants to biological family members buried in unmarked graves. Once a match is identified the petition for reparations begins.
Shamyra Lavinge of Rise St. James is Miss Sharon Lavinge’s daughter. She is a third generation activist and has childhood fantasies about the constantly lit facilities in her community. After growing up and realizing the gravity of environmental racism in St. James, Lavinge joined forces with her mother at Rise St. James.
Photo credit: Juice