To honor the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Environmental Justice movement, as well as to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, the Duke Human Rights Center held a virtual event on environmental justice in the Latinx community. The webinar occurred on September 29th, 2022 at 5:30pm EST; Ana Ramirez (Trinity ‘20) moderated a discussion between featured speakers Stephanie Elizondo Griest and Bryan Parras. (To read our interview with Ana Ramirez, click here.)
"I started to realize that this was more than a problem for myself. This was even a generational problem that existed in my family. In each phase of fossil fuel development … there are communities that are just ripped apart — land stolen, water polluted, air contaminated, and soil left with legacy contamination that can last for decades and decades."
Bryan Parras is an organizer with the ‘Beyond Dirty Fuels’ campaign and a longtime environmental justice advocate. Bryan detailed his experience with environmental injustice from growing up in Texas. He remembered not being able to drink the faucet water, having to hold his breath from poisonous fumes every time he entered his mother’s hometown, and living near countless toxic petrochemical facilities. Bryan reflected, “I started to realize that this was more than a problem for myself. This was even a generational problem that existed in my family. In each phase of fossil fuel development … there are communities that are just ripped apart — land stolen, water polluted, air contaminated, and soil left with legacy contamination that can last for decades and decades.” Today, Bryan commits himself to fight against this injustice through community organizing and videography.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest is an Associate Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Stephanie came into the field of environmental justice work through journalism. In her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, which is surrounded by 15 miles of petrochemical facilities, she began documenting incidences of cancer. She found that members of her community faced significantly higher rates of cancer than normal. And then, cancer came for her. Despite her healthy diet and lifestyle, growing up in a petrochemical community meant that she too was not immune from the effects. After battling ovarian cancer, she continues her work of documenting environmental injustice and fighting for the rights of the Latinx community.
"You don’t have to go looking far. You will find all of these issues in your community. And then, just evaluate where you are in your own life, in that moment, and what do you love to do? And then find what you love to do and turn that towards justice."
Stephanie Elizondo Griest
While environmental injustice impacts many communities, the Latinx community is impacted in some unique ways. Many of the areas that are currently the hardest hit from the climate crisis are in Latin America. This is resulting in unprecedented migration at the U.S. southern border of people who have been displaced from their homelands because of the economic collapse caused by climate change. In many cases, U.S. and Canadian companies that drill and mine in Latin America have made people’s way of life nearly impossible. It is also true that the majority of environmental activists that are being targeted and killed for their activism are in Latin America. So, while the experiences of minority communities often intersect in facing environmental racism, it is important to understand how each community experiences it differently.
After the speakers detailed their captivating personal experiences with environmental injustice and discussed the wider, systemic impacts of environmental racism against the Latinx community, Stephanie and Bryan leave us with a hopeful message: we all have our unique parts to play in promoting social justice. In the words of Professor Griest, “You don’t have to go looking far. You will find all of these issues in your community. And then, just evaluate where you are in your own life, in that moment, and what do you love to do? And then find what you love to do and turn that towards justice.”
This event was cosponsored by The Kenan Institute for Ethics, The Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South at Duke University.