Growing up, Shamyra Lavigne thought she lived in a paradise. Her home in St. James Parish, Louisiana was nestled between the Mississippi River and lush sugar cane fields. Her days were spent playing outdoors surrounded by tall grass, butterflies, and birds. When reflecting back on those times, Shamyra describes it as a life of privilege.
It wasn’t until she was older that she began to notice details about her surroundings that didn’t seem right. From the odd color of the river and the dust, to the faint but persistent odor that lurked in the air.
She would diligently follow her mother’s instructions to never drink from the tap, and became accustomed to drinking bottled water.
“As I grew older,” she said, “I started to realize that this place that I've had such a love for is actually polluted and the pollution here is causing us to get sick.”
As a child, Lavigne said she’d heard the moniker “Cancer Alley” and somewhat understood that it referred to the scattering of industrial facilities on the 85-mile stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana in which St. James Parish sits. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she realized the grave consequences of living in a place with some of the highest cancer rates in the country.
“People here are dying at abnormal rates. It has impacted me and my family personally, and it's a struggle,” Lavigne said before listing off those she knows both in her own family and outside of it who have had cancer, and in some cases, have died from the disease.
“I have an aunt who passed away from cancer. I have another aunt who passed away from cancer. I have an uncle who is battling and a plethora of neighbors, friends, people that are young, twenties and thirties getting diagnosed with cancer here.”
Though, the one person whose health Lavigne said she worries about the most is her mother, Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, Sharon Lavigne.
“Every day I'm wondering, my mom is still living in this pollution. What is gonna keep her safe from getting cancer?” Lavigne said.
“Like every day she's at risk of getting cancer. And that's what goes on behind the fight. You're concerned about your mom, you're concerned about people here, you're concerned about your uncles, you're concerned about people all the time.”
She added, “When is it going to be the day that you hear about the new diagnosis?”
Those staggering cancer rates and the proliferation of petrochemical plants in this predominantly Black community is what prompted Sharon Lavigne, a special education teacher turned environmental justice activist, to establish the faith-based environmental group Rise St. James. The group made international headlines when it successfully stopped a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing complex from being built in St. James back in 2018. Another victory was scored in 2022 when the group successfully convinced the Louisiana 19th Judicial District Court to cancel 14 air pollution permits for Formosa Plastics, effectively ending plans for what would have been the largest plastics plant in the world.
“Judge Trudy White in her ruling stated that our community, our land is sacred,” Lavigne said of the verdict.
“And for a moment, I felt like she heard me, she heard us. She understood. This is our home, this is our community. And I needed to hear that from a judge.”
Despite the achievements, Lavigne said residents continue to suffer from the pollution emitted by other petrochemical plants and refineries in “Cancer Alley”. She admitted she suffered from frequent migraines when she lived in St. James and that the norm is for people to suffer from one form of pollution-related illness or another.
“It's so normal for everyone around here to get cancer, have asthma, or for babies not to come full term,” she pointed out.
“I mean, miscarriages, birth defects are normal things here.”
Creating a new normal for the people of St. James and other parish communities is what Lavigne continues to fight for these days, but that fight has expanded to include another target: the financial institutions that fund petrochemical companies.
Rise St. James recently launched a petition demanding that JPMorgan Chase denounce, divest and defund Formosa Plastics, saying it supports a toxic and racist petrochemical complex.
“In order for these petrochemical industries to be built, they need some type of financial banking. And so we have been targeting the banks that are supporting these industries and allowing them to be built here,” explained Lavigne and added the list of financial institutions which Rise St. James is currently targeting includes Wells Fargo and Bank of America.
“We created a petition in order to get 100,000 signatures to tell JP Morgan Bank to Defund Formosa because the people that are your customers are part of the sacrifice zone that these industries are polluting,” she said referring to those communities that live near polluting industries.
So far, Lavigne said their petition has garnered 100-thousand signatures and that some signatories have told Rise St. James they will close their customer bank accounts with JPMorgan Chase unless it stops financing Formosa Plastics. Lavigne added that in coming weeks, Rise St. James has plans to meet with an official from the financial institution and at that meeting, the message she wants to make crystal clear is that any financial institution that claims to support human rights. the environment and sustainable investing, can't at the same time, support big polluters that harm communities like hers.
“We often find that these banks have nonprofits or they do stuff for environmental justice in the community,” explained Lavigne.
“However, at the same time, they're funding the petrochemical industries that we're fighting.”
According to a report called "Banking on Climate Chaos", 60 of the world's biggest banks poured more than $5.5 trillion dollars into the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Agreement was signed 7 years ago. The petrochemical industry - which makes the key ingredients of plastic - is an extension of the fossil fuel industry and is almost wholly dependent on fossil fuels for its material feedstocks and production.
Also topping the report’s list of 12 global banks that financed fossil fuels the most was JPMorgan Chase with a whopping $434 Billion dollars since 2016. Yet, despite its lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry, JPMorgan Chase states on the sustainability section of its website that it aims to "facilitate more than $2.5 trillion to address climate change and contribute to sustainable development, including $1 trillion for green initiatives over 10 years – from 2021 through the end of 2030." For Shamyra Lavigne, it seems like industry double-speak.
“They'll make a website saying, ‘Oh, we're committed to environmental justice and helping these communities by giving a little bit of money. But you're giving billions of dollars to the petrochemical industry.”
“You can't do both. You have to pick a side.”
Lavigne said for years, Rise St. James, along with other advocacy organizations, have attempted to appeal to the hearts and minds of big polluters and their financial backers, but those tactics didn’t work.
“When it comes to industries or companies with a lot of money, I always stand behind the thoughts that you have to hit 'em in their pockets,” she explained.
“We've tried to say, ‘Oh, look at the kids that are dying.’”
“They don't care about that. They care about where their money is,” she said, and added that communities like hers often resort to legal action when all else fails.
“We need to start slapping some lawsuits on them. That's what we need. We need to take him to court.”
For Lavigne, confronting powerful corporations and financial institutions as a small community organization, is a daunting task. Yet, it is in line with the type of racial justice work which her family has been dedicated to for decades.
A photograph of her grandfather Milton proudly hangs in her mother’s home: a testament to the tireless efforts which he and other members of Lavigne’s family have pursued in order to elevate the quality of life of their communities.
“He helped to integrate the St. James High School which was segregated at the time,” Lavigne said of her grandfather’s efforts back in the 1960s.
“[He], alone with nine mothers, because all of the dads were scared,” she pointed out.
“Last year we uplifted those students who are still alive and we honored the ones who have passed on for their bravery for fighting that.”
Lavigne pointed out the similarities between the fight against racial segregation in schools and the fight against polluters.
“The industry here is almost cultural. It's been here for decades, since the sixties,” she pointed out.
The fact the industry has been so prominent in St. James for so long adds another layer of complexity to the situation and can sometimes make it difficult to rally community support around the pollution issue according to Lavigne. She pointed out that the industry releasing pollution into the communities is the same one which sometimes provides funding to community groups like Black churches.
“It’s up and down with the Black churches because, in this community specifically. Some of the industries buy things for the churches here. So sometimes the pastor or the priest is a little hesitant to really stand up.”
“However, it's definitely a fight for the churches because if you care about the congregation and community - which you're supposed to - then you would want them to have clean air and clean water,” she explained.
“It really comes down to a problem of, do you care about the people more than profit? That's something that even pastors and priests have to deal with and are brought to that decision at some point in life.”
As Shamyra Lavigne and the rest of Rise St. James continue to battle their own Goliaths, she would like to encourage other communities of color to draw inspiration from their story and their incredible victories.
“We are instilled with a foundation of faith,” she said. “Look at what is happening right now. Formosa still hasn't built.”
“So many people felt like it was impossible. So many people tried to discourage my mom from fighting them, saying that Goliath won't fall. They've appealed the decision, but Goliath has fallen to me. So in my mind it's over with.”
And like David and Goliath, Lavigne said the story of Rise St. James is about overcoming the impossible, staring down a powerful and intimidating force, not giving up and winning.
“I think that Black communities have been chosen because it's a path of least resistance,” she explained.
“They think that they have the right to come here and build [because] we won't say anything.”
“But we are saying something and we are resisting.”
Watch the video report by Alexis Young of People over Plastic here:
This story is part of a People over Plastic investigative series that examines key environmental justice issues in America’s Gulf South. The series will feature stories about BIPOC and low-income communities living in the shadow of petrochemical production. Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn and Twitter. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.