By Gino Nuzzolillo, Class of 2020

I am a link in the chain, and the link in the chain will not break here.

Standing hand-in-hand, connected physically and spiritually, dozens of community activists, leaders, and scholars from across North Carolina breathed life into this creed. They did so for each other and communities throughout the state struggling for environmental justice. Brought together by a common desire to create an environment free from pollution, exploitation, and discrimination, the Franklinton Center in rural Edgecombe County, NC, became a site for solidarity, communication, and education. I, other undergraduates, and a few graduate students and professors from the partnership between Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, the Duke Human Rights Center@FHI and the Nicholas School of the Environment, had the humbling privilege to witness this take shape at the 19th Annual North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit last weekend. This diverse group of attendees impressed upon me the immense capacity of people, especially those most acutely impacted like poor communities of color, to organize and respond to the violence of environmental neglect and deregulation.

The summit began around noon on Friday with lunch, followed by a welcome from the summit’s organizers. The three leaders noted that the Summit had over 230 attendees, the largest it had ever seen. They quickly transitioned into research presentations from scholars at Duke, UNC-CH, the EPA, and NC State, among others. The presentations covered a variety of topics, including the pollution of the Cape Fear River with a toxin called “GenX”, the effect of hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) on rural home values, and the historical exploitation of predominantly black workers by the aluminum company “Alcoa”. One community leader rightfully challenged the researchers, asking politely but firmly as to how this data could become useful in community advocacy. As she implied, I was reminded that scholarly work is rarely meaningful if detached from the communities it ought to serve and work in kinship with.

The “Community Speak-out and Government Listening Panel” was the most highly anticipated session of the evening. Representatives from the North Carolina General Assembly, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, and local politicians from the Eastern part of the state sat in a row and listened to the concerns of community leaders from various rural communities. Each activist had time to vent their frustrations, admonish their leaders, and call for more vigorous action. Speakers frequently raised their concern with the recent passage of House Bill 467 in the NCGA, which limits the compensation that property owners can receive in cases where the waste and output of agricultural operations negatively impact local residents. This includes the presence of fecal matter from local farms winding up in people’s homes and food. Indeed, waste from hog farms, pollution of drinking waters, and lack of proper coal ash disposal from companies like Duke Energy were all cited as significant threats to communities’ health and well-being, and community leaders demanded action from their government representatives. The challenges facing each of these communities, from Duplin County to Rocky Mount, seemed almost insurmountable, but each community leader who took the microphone demonstrated a deeply-rooted resolve to organize until they secured justice.

On the second day, the summit’s keynote speaker Mustafa Ali, the former head of the environmental justice program at the EPA, roused the crowd with his affirmation of their efforts to protect North Carolina’s vulnerable communities. Eloquently and deftly, he enumerated the various environmental justice issues facing the country, and the unwillingness of the federal government to address them. Once again, he reminded us that our power rested in the community we formed and the continued pressure we put on those in authority.

This conference was an experience unlike any I have had before. Upon witness of people of color, women, the formerly incarcerated—those whose voices are most often marginalized in our political and environmental discourses—unabashedly speaking truth to power, I could not help but be filled with awe and inspiration. That they continued the struggle despite numerous setbacks and challenges, all while maintaining a joyful and well-connected community, is a testament to people’s power to create a more just society. For me, I began to understand a bit better the reality behind the ideas I discuss and read about in my classes and extracurricular activities, and I came away feeling more intimately connected to the movement for environmental justice.