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Environmental Justice Movement Loses Warrior-Grandmother Emelda West

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The nation has lost a fiery warrior for environmental justice. Emelda West, an 87-year-old "take no prisoner" Marine Corps-type leader, who had become a hero to thousands of environmental-justice advocates around the country, died on Saturday, March 30, 2013. She was the proud mother of seven children, nineteen grandchildren, and 24 great grandchildren.

A longtime resident of Convent, Louisiana and a gentle churchgoer, Ms. West was pressed into duty as an activist in her 70s, fighting for environmental justice for her mostly African American community and for other disenfranchised communities across the globe. Her home, community, and environment were under siege from industrial polluters who would turn the strip along the Lower Mississippi River into a toxic "sacrifice zone." From her home on the winding River Road, she witnessed her community undergo a transformation from a place of sugarcane plantations to one heavily dominated and devastated by the petrochemical industry.

Over the years, Ms. West heard about dozens of companies moving into her community that were promising jobs to local residents, though few living in Convent, Louisiana were hired. The plants were so close to residents' homes that employees could actually walk to work.

As an environmental activist, Ms. West helped found the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, a grassroots group that blocked the Shintech polyvinyl chloride plant from being located in Convent. With the assistance of Greenpeace, she traveled all the way to Tokyo and met with company officials, confronting them face-to-face and swearing they would never locate in Convent. Thanks to her hard work and persistence, Shintech never became an unwelcome neighbor in Convent.

She argued forcefully that the EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality should provide equal protection for all Americans, black or white, rich or poor, rural or urban. She had witnessed too much injustice in her long life to stay quiet.

Ms. West on many occasions would concede that she was not an environmental scientist. However, she was quick to add that she could see "real good" with her glasses, and that if common sense were followed, there would be no reason for many environmental injustices. She was fully aware that saturating poor communities of color with pollution didn't' add up in anybody's book--whether that person had a Ph.D. or no degree. Until the very end, she vowed to fight injustice and environmental racism.

Ms. West loved to talk. And people listened. She was a longtime Community Advisory Board member of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University and spoke at many national and international hearings, conferences and summits. Her story has been told in media outlets around the world, including Essence Magazine, The New York Times, and Dutch, French, German and Japanese presses.  She also found a place on the cover of the Dumping in Dixie book(2000, 3rd Edition).

In 2001, her story was featured in Taking Back Our Town, a Lifetime TV movie. In 2002, she was one of twelve women honored at the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. In 2004, she was featured at the National Civil Rights Museum in the Memphis exhibit "Exploring the Legacy."  

Funeral services were held for Ms. West on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at the Pilgrim full-gospel church at 10118 Legion St., Convent, Louisiana. She was buried at St. Michael Catholic Cemetery in Paulina, Louisiana.

Ms. West will be greatly missed. Her legacy will live forever.

Robert D. Bullard is Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers (more...)
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